WRITER | LISA BECKER CAMPBELL
PHOTO | HATCH ART
Reconstructing a monumental project is a monumental project.
An enormous effort is underway to preserve for future generations the renowned “Hamtramck Disneyland,” an enormous folk art installation in Southeast Michigan.
“This is a slow-going process, but it will be worth it,” according to the artists at Hatch Art Center, which is spearheading the renaissance. “We plan to be around and improving for many years to come.”
A lengthy renovation comes as no surprise since the original piece of folk art was under construction for decades. The colorful, motion-filled sculpture was lovingly conceived and painstakingly built by hand by a retired autoworker, Dmytro Szylak. A political refugee from Ukraine, Szylak began the artwork in the mid-1980s, when he retired from GM after 30 years.
Eventually, the imaginative installation towered above two adjacent properties. Oddball novelties on display amid the elevated artwork included such curiosities as a photo of Elvis, lawn ornaments, ceiling fans, horses rising and dipping as they travel around a mini-carousel, and so much more. A stuffed dolphin was joined by a hand-built, purportedly one-ton helicopter with Santa Claus in the cockpit and “Ukraine USA” adorning its tail. Whirligigs moved and emitted noises, Ukrainian music blared intermittently, and Christmas lights illuminated the collection year-round.
Szylak assembled and maintained the sprawling, colorful installation over several decades before passing away at 92 in 2015. Szylak’s estate included no plan to preserve the work, so a grassroots effort to do so was undertaken by a small group of community advocates. A year later, Hatch Art Center took ownership. Hatch Art is a collective of artists from Hamtramck and greater Detroit whose mission is to support, grow, and promote local art and artists.
A successful crowdfunding campaign raised $55,000 in 2016. Along with financial contributions from governmental agencies, the fundraiser was instrumental in renovating the buildings that make up Hamtramck Disneyland.
Hatch made extensive repairs to the detached garages that support the outdoor structure, completely replacing the rotting roofs and siding of both buildings. To permit this, much of the assemblage had to be dismantled. It is slowly being restored, repainted, and reconstructed. They have been consulting with engineers and hosting volunteer workdays (as weather permits) to return Hamtramck Disneyland to its original vibrant self while also addressing safety and maintenance concerns. The entire electrical system needed to be updated to meet current outdoor safety standards and continue to power the components that enable lights, motion, and sound.
Currently, three on-site apartments are occupied by local artists, and a fourth is reserved for an artist-in-residence program established in 2017, which will use the garage as a workshop, an open studio with visiting hours, and a public exhibition space. Events hosted on the grounds have included performances, suppers, installations, and more.
A recent artist-in-residence described her experience at Hamtramck Disneyland as “wonderful and bizarre,” according to the website. Already, a community has developed among the residents.
Hatch Art’s plan for Hamtramck Disneyland also includes maintaining the installation in accordance to the original artist’s vision and preserving its “liveliness.”
Mere words cannot describe this “liveliness,” but Hatch Art’s website offers this description: “The assemblage sculpture is built atop the two garages on the properties that Szylak owned, filling the air with whimsical kinetic structures that light up and play music. The garages are painted in bright stripes, and the space in between is filled with found photographs, posters, and classic Americana images mixed with those of the Europe of Szylak’s past.”
Hamtramck Disneyland has been viewed by thousands of visitors and has been named among Michigan’s most significant works of folk art.
This site is a key component contributing to the Old World charm of Hamtramck, a culturally diverse enclave that proudly celebrates its ethnic identity. Despite being surrounded by Detroit, Hamtramck remains one of just a few suburbs to maintain its own identity instead of being consumed by the Motor City’s burgeoning automobile manufacturing in the early 1900s.
Hamtramck Disneyland is located at 12087 Klinger Street. The collection is viewable from the alleyway between Sobieski and Klinger, north of Commor and south of Carpenter.
Hamtramck community members are invited to volunteer with rebuilding and restoration and routine maintenance of the installation.
Hatch Art Center
3456 Evaline Street, Hamtramck MI 48212
12087 Klinger Street, Hamtramck MI 48212