Portals to Paradise

A recent post on this blog , “To Hell in a Handbasket”, invited you, dear viewer, to explore  Hieronymus Bosch’s  deliciously illustrated depictions of debauchery which line the slippery  slope to  eternal damnation.   I thought it only fair to give equal time to the alternate path…to Paradise.

Churches throughout the Western world have long employed artists to get their message out to the masses. So powerful a tool was the Churches’s use of the “Poor Man’s Bible” (illustrated versions of the bible on church walls for the benefit of the illiterate masses) that since the the Middle Ages, Churches were happy to fork over the dough to hire the most credentialed artists of their time and region.

No finer examples of this kind of biblical story-telling through paint can be found anywhere in the world than in the Byzantine monasteries and churches in northeastern Romania. Hmmm, this is making me think I should really do a separate post on Romania which has a treasure trove of unheralded, untrampled, UNESCO heritage sites.To whet your appetite, here is the exuberantly fresco-ed Eastern Orthodox monastery church in the Bucovina region of Moldavia, Romania. The inside is similarly covered, walls and ceiling!

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But this post is about an even rarer phenomenon: Churches that serve as a palettes for the work of the untrained, “outsider”, or folk artist.

I had my first introduction of a modern day folk art church in Somerville, Georgia when I visited the renowned visionary artist Howard Finster‘s Paradise Garden back in 1990. Finster was still alive at the time of our visit, but alas, had taken to  sleeping during the day and working at night. So as we walked about the Garden  enthralled, Howard Finster was snoring away in some hidden corner of Paradise.


Originally an itinerant tent revival preacher,


Finster turned to painting, sculpting and building as a better way to spread the gospel. A self-described “Messenger of God” and “Man of Visions”, Finster spent roughly thirty years creating his “Paradise Garden”  with his “Folk Art Church” as a centerpiece. Though all of his small works of art that could possibly be pried off the sides of his church and other surfaces throughout the garden have now been dispersed, at the time of our visit the church was filled inside and out with works such is this one which showed Finster’s zeal and humor.




Though I could describe the folk art church in the Guatemalan highlands region near Xela as more traditional than Finster’s sanctuary, traditional would not be a descriptor usually applied to this incredibly exuberant village church.




Located in the wool-dying village of San Andres Xecul



the exuberant yellow folk art church shows off not only the Guatemalan love of colors but also a joyous mix of Catholic and Mayan iconography.

Poking out between the archangel’s legs is the Mayan jaguar.img_0725

And twin jaguars, the embodiment of Mayan dualities (life/death, day/night, sun/moon) appear at the tip  top of the church just above Jesus.




The beautiful dome in the back of the church:img_0769

And up the hill, at the top of the village, another chapel, clearly a more modest cousin to the riotous main church:



The anonymous Guatemalan artist of San Andres Xecul had a kindred spirit in the 19th century French priest, Victor Paysant, who went on a painting spree on the facade of his own church in the village of Menil-Gondouin, Normandy, France.


Paysant called his creation the “Living and Speaking Church” and hoped his artwork would beckon parishioners to the righteous path.


Covering all his bases, he put out the word in French, Latin, and Hebrew                                    img_3644


I cannot find any accounts of how his flock felt about him, but I have deduced that they weren’t so keen on the spectacle that the abbot made of their sanctuary. No sooner had he passed on (in 1921) than the church facade was whitewashed, his decorated statuary inside the church was buried and Paysant’s entire creation was sadly obliterated.  However, by the 1980’s the whitewash started chipping away, revealing the hidden treasure to a more receptive public. Thanks to the initiative of Menil-Gondouin’s mayor, Guy Bechet, restoration of the “L’Eglise  Vivante et Parlante” was begun in 2004.  Now that’s a mayor I could vote for! With the aid of postcards and the excellent memory of a 100 year old resident of Menil-Gondouin,  the talented muralist, Hugues Sineux, was able to restore Paysant’s creation.  By 2006, with  the restoration work was complete, Victor Paysant lives and speaks again.









Newfoundland Outports

The Newfoundland outports I recently visited meet the gold standard of quirky plus beautiful that I’ve set for  this blog. Or as some of my friends now say, they’re ” Quirk worthy.”


The simple definition of an outport is a small coastal community in the  province of Newfoundland and Labrador. They are some of the oldest European settlements in Canada, dating back as early as the 1600’s, and and now they are on the verge of extinction. One by one each of these isolated villages have opted for the government’s resettlement option, even if very reluctantly. Resettlement is not a new phenomenon for Newfoundland. Beginning in 1954, under the leadership of the controversial first prime minister of Newfoundland, Joey Smallwood,

IMG_4677 the  provincial government began offering the residents of the outports resettlement money (currently the offer is up to $270,000 per landowner) if 90% of the  population agreed to shut down the village and move. Poignant photos hanging in several heritage museums show fishermen towing their homes across the water to their new communities after the first resettlement deals were struck. Though most of the resettlements transpired between 1954 and 1975, the provincial government has made  new pushes for resettlement after the cod moratorium in 1992.

Today only a small number of  outports remain and I was determined to visit a few before they disappear forever.
We just had a week for Newfoundland this time and so chose two tiny communities in the  central region to serve as our home bases for exploring. I was excited to fly into Gander, the tiny international airport where my mother’s plane touched down to refuel on her first flight to North  America when she emigrated to the US after WWII. She had described her awe at seeing virgin wilderness for the first time. And awesome it was! As the plane crossed over the land mass of Central Newfoundland I did not see one house or road across the great expanse of spongy land.
A three hour drive brought us to to our first destination, the tiny community of Coffee Cove, a half  hour beyond the “big” town of Springdale (population 2,900). The three ring info binder we found in our lodging described Springdale as having  “everything we could possibly need”. We could not tell if that was said in seriousness or jest. Our first test of this statement came as we went hunting for food supplies to bring to our lodging. We had unwittingly arrived on Canada Day and the two grocery stores in Springdale were closed. So we shopped for dinner at the gas station. We had been told we could get home made pizza there, which sounded promising enough. When we discovered the one pizza on offer was bologna pizza we settled instead for the last dozen eggs in the fridge and and a box of crackers. A trip to Newfoundland can serve as a healthy reminder of the difference between “need” and “want”.
Four or five homes grace Coffee Cove. We were super lucky to have secured lodging in the beautifully renovated 150 year old “Baker House“, which we thought was the perfect size for the two of us.
We spent a lot of time pondering the Baker’s sleeping arrangements when we learned they had populated this house (without the back addition) in the 1800’s with 11 of the own children plus another adopted two.
Our next door neighbors, besides Nola and Paul, the lovely , lovely owners of  the Baker House and the Coffee Cove Retreat was a mini sheep and goat farm:
and this house, which I was partial to for its choice of  lamp in the yard, a little nod to Paris:
We arrived the first week of July, the last pretty reliable week for iceberg viewing. The annual parade of ice sculptures makes its way down to Newfoundland from Greenland along what’s called “iceberg alley” the north east coast of the province. We caught a ride in the boat of  King’s Point fire chief and back country outfitter, Barry Strickland, to get a close up look at a couple bergs that had grounded nearby.
Soaring 30 feet into the air:
The bright blue stripes are veins of compacted ice, not cracks:
Barry cut the motor as we got close so we could listen up for the warning crack or boom that signaled a “calving” which meant “SCRAM!” Barry showed Dave how to run the boat in case he was thrown overboard with the ensuing tidal wave. Hmmm. I doubted very much that we’d be the ones left on board.
Finding a small berg that was  safe enough to mosey up to Barry “harvested” a chunk of the 10,000 year old compacted ice.
 You can nurse  a drink an entire evening with one very slow melting chunk.
From the boat Barry pointed out Joshua Tom’s General Store in the settlement of Rattling Brook.  He recommended a visit there to meet Dulcie, who has a gift of the gab.
You have to look carefully to appreciate the dying art form of hand-painted signage that can still been found in Newfoundland:
Dulcie, now in her 90’s, I believe, has been stocking shelves and running Joshua Tom’s (her deceased husband) store for nearly 70 years.
Dulcie is particularly proud of her supply of fabric.IMG_4307
I was most intrigued by the prevalence of Christmas supplies that can be found throughout the store.
I could not decide if this meant that the Christmas paraphernalia was the most or least sought after of her supplies.
If Canada is looking for someone who embodies  optimism, warmth, and open-mindedness, a symbol for Newfoundland’s resilience, I nominate Dulcie!
Dulcie was very excited by the unlimited minutes on her phone plan and offered to call us once we got home to see how the trip went.
The Baie Verte Peninsula is ringed with tiny outport communities. Blustery wet weather only allowed visits to a few, and we started to question the wisdom of even those few as we bumped along long dirt roads crossing paths with no other vehicles. (Our Budget rental car will not break down, right?) Luckily we were told in advance not to even think about taking a vehicle down the treacherous descent into Round Harbor (not to be confused with  Harbor Round on the northwest side of the same peninsula).
The gravel plummets to the cove and then that’s the end of roads for Round Harbor. Homes are accessed either by paths or by water.
We saw one house in Round Harbor which appeared to still be inhabited. Probably one of the Fudges, the last family in Round Harbor.
Signs of a recent fire in Round Harbor were particularly distressing to see as it is obvious that once a fire breaks out in such a forsaken outport, there’s no one who can come to help contain it. IMG_4418
I understand that Mr. Fudge was a crab fisherman. Sadly we saw crab traps in among the fire debris.
If this is possible, an even more desolate spot is to be found a couple dirt roads over: the nearly abandoned settlement of Tilt Cove. Unlike every other settlement we visited whose history was tied to fishing, Tilt Cove was a copper mining town, which in its “boom “days, had a population of 2,000. When Tilt Cove faced its second and final mine closure in 1967, all but 50 residents moved away.
We couldn’t have picked a drearier day to visit. As we traveled the last stretch of the long mud and gravel road into town we had the impression of descending into a crater.
A few barely standing houses stood at the edge of a perfectly circular and very black pond. (We later learned that this little pond used to be a beautiful but deadly brilliant turquoise from the copper slag.)
At first we saw no signs of life. But then half way around the pond we saw a flag hanging limply at one well kept home with a little shed beside it marked, “The Way We Were Museum”. Within seconds of stopping our car Margaret Collins popped out of her home to greet us.
Turns out that Margaret, besides being the town clerk and wife of the town’s mayor, is the great, great, great granddaughter of the founder of Tilt Cove, George Winsor. Most importantly, Margaret Collins is keeper of the flame of Tilt Cove. She has saved and organized every image and scrap of information on Tilt Cove.  For years she and her husband harbored hopes that Tilt Cove would rise from its ashes. She pointed to a photograph of a crowd of RV’s surrounding the town pond for a Tilt Cove Reunion about fifteen years ago. It suggested to her and her husband that folks did really want to come back. But, in truth they never did come back and one by one the town’s population has dwindled to the current population of four.
With Margaret’s wistfulness weighing heavily upon us we drove out of the Tilt Cove crater and down another long, muddy road to the slightly less abandoned settlement of Shoe Cove.
A few of the old houses with boat-only access which typify original outport dwellings still stand in Shoe Cove.
One can still see the community bread oven which sits in a tiny enclosure at the edge of the cove:
From here we clamored up the beautifully maintained and historic trail which leads to dramatic views of the cove:
Our final destination this trip: Little Bay Islands which I had read about a couple years ago in my search for Newfoundland island communities still serviced by government ferries.
 Little Bay Islands, with a year-round population of 47, has been in the midst of a contentious resettlement vote for the past couple years. I came to understand that if I wanted to visit, it had to be NOW as the town’s future is jeopardy. The most recent vote, last November, brought the percentage in favor of resettlement to 89.47%. That’s just one vote short of what’s required–a 90% vote– to approve the shut down of the town. It’s a  contentious and painful situation to be sure. The irony is how much the residents love Little Bay Islands.  And there’s much to love, first and foremost the serenity and natural beauty.
But there’s no denying it–it’s hard to make a go of it in a community that has no commerce of any kind–no stores, no gas stations–just a tiny little self serve laundromat with a jar to tuck your dollars in for the use of the washer and dryer. Oh yeah–you can throw in a couple of Loonies or Toonies for a bag a potato chips and a soda–and wait for it–iceberg chips if someone’s gone harvesting!
The fish processing plant closed a few years ago–a death knell for the island, for sure.
Well actually, there’s still one business on the island: the  incredibly wonderful accommodations where we stayed– Aunt Edna’s Boarding House:
Run by the indomitable, fun and very funny Sharlene Hinz
who turned a sow’s ear into a silk purse  when her full house of guests got stranded on the island. Sharlene dug down deep into her freezer reserves to feed us and broke out the “Screech” to loosen the table talk. To make our meal complete one of the  island’s year-round residents donated the  very last jar of pickles that she had squirreled away in her pantry. That’s the outport way–  share what you have and make do.
What got us stranded? Well first a cable broke on the ferry’s on/off ramp, grounding the ferry for a day. No problem–we had an extra day built into our schedule before our flight home . (You never know, I had said–it’s a island after all…)  Then the next day a Nor’easter whipped up. On the ferry’s first run after the cable had been replaced  she crashed into the dock tearing a hole in her hull despite this generous lineup of tire bumpers.
 Ouch! There went our extra day in our itinerary as each scheduled run of the ferry was cancelled.
As it became apparent to the entire island that the guests at Aunt Edna’s weren’t going anywhere, the island ladies extended an invitation to us to their “Circle of Friends”, the weekly sewing and gab fest. (Sorry, husbands–ladies only). We happily trotted off to the school which gets far more use from the Circle of Friends group than it does from students. (Sadly, there is currently only one student who attends Strong Academy, the Little Bay Islands school. His teacher takes the ferry each day and  arrives at school at 10 AM .)

Gloria’s first hooked rug showing a very accurate image of her Little Bay Islands home and her boat, “Chummy T’ing”. The day before the Nor’easter swept in we hopped on board “Chummy T’ing” to circumnavigate the islands under the helmsmanship of Gloria’s husband, Maurice.

 As the Circle of friends was wrapping up, Doris (in lavender, above, who, BTW, was  the donor of the  precious dinner pickles) asked if  the “foreigners” had signed the Circle log book. I didn’t blink an eye at this, but Eileen who hailed from Vancouver, whispered to me, “Well, that’s the first time I’ve been called a foreigner in my own country!” But truly, in the outport of Little Bay Islands we were all what’s know in Newfoundland as “come from aways”, which is really the same as foreigners. And having just bathed in the warmth of this wonderful Circle of Friends, we knew this was Newfoundland humor rather than a barb.
We arrived back at Aunt Edna’s  to learn that the ferry hull had been repaired but that she (yes, all boats are female in Newfoundland) couldn’t take any passengers until the inspector could get there the next morning  to witness a “dry” (??) run. Oy!
Sharlene served us the biggest breakfast in the history of B and B’s the next morning. No doubt she had a theory that calories would quell our nerves. Our window of time to get to the Gander airport was narrowing.  If they could just complete that damn dry run before 10 AM we could conceivably get to Gander for our afternoon flight. And as long as there was even a remote possibility of this, by golly, Sharlene was going to exert all her powers to make it happen. She  turned her kitchen into ground control. She got on the phone and quickly made her way  up the chain of command with the ferry authorities. I was half expecting her to dial Prime Minister Trudeau and tell him to get on down to the dock and inspect the vessel himself.
 Meanwhile the other guests, who could see the writing on the wall as clearly as we could, that we were going to miss our flights, whipped out their laptops and tablets and started putting together intricate new travel itineraries for us.IMG_4718
Our return home was complicated by the fact that Dave had intended to fly the next day to a conference in Colorado.   (Eileen, if you’re reading this: we used the itinerary you put together for us and Dave made it to the conference in Colorado with an hour to spare–Bravo!)
By the time we boarded the ferry around noon, Dave and I were resigned not only to having missed our flights but to incurring an additional cost of $1200 to book our new flights. We arrived at the Gander airport an hour after our original flight departed–no surprise there. BUT, you can imagine our delight when the nice, nice  Air Canada representative at the ticket counter said, “no charge” as he re-booked our flights to depart the next morning. When I told him I’d been quoted $1200 by the Air Canada agent on the phone he furrowed his brow and then broke into a smile, replying, “Well, that’s not the Newfoundland way!” The hole in the ferry hull wasn’t your fault, why would you have to pay for that, he asked.
In case you need any more enticements for flying in and out of the Gander airport, besides their awesome ticket counter guy, how ’bout this rush hour image of the Gander security line.
Made me understand why both the hotel clerk and the cab driver looked quizzically at us when we said we needed to arrive at the airport two hours before our international flight. “One hour in advance should be more than enough”, they counseled. Ah…ya!  I’d say that 15 minutes would be perfectly safe.
PS If  need of a little something uplifting and inspiring in your week of dreadful news stories (and who doesn’t?), click onto this link for the wonderful story of how the entire town on Gander came to the rescue stranded air travelers on 9/11/2001.

To Hell in a Handbasket

2016:  It’s 500th anniversary of the death Hieronymus Bosch, and his little home town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch called all of his paintings and drawings to come on home.


(Travel partner, Hannah Verlin, of Ossuary trip fame, drinking in the fact that we have arrived in Bosch’s hometown!)

You’re not the only one who can’t pronounce ‘s-Hertogenbosch–and hey, is it really allowed in Dutch to spell a name starting with an apostrophe? Even the Dutch prefer not to have to say ‘s-Hertogenbosch out loud. They just call this town by its nickname: Den Bosch, which means simply, the forest. And no, it’s not a coincidence that Hieronymus Bosch’s last name is his hometown–Bosch was named after his town, and not vice versa. We’re talking the 1500’s, when they didn’t have the same convention of last names that we do–you could just tack your hometown onto your first name and that was sufficient. (That would make  Facebook searches for your old high school classmates very challenging.)


I can tell you the little town of Den Bosch has gone totally Bosch bonkers:

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It was impressive how gracefully the good citizens of Den Bosch handled ten times  the number of visitors to their normally low-keyed town, proving once again that the Dutch are just nice, nice people!  Capitalizing on the throngs of Bosch pilgrims, every nook and cranny of Den Bosch was turned into a tourist opportunity with a Bosch twist. Scaffolding was erected up the side and around the perimeter of the roof of St John’s Cathedral (vertigo!) to enable gargoyle viewing. IMG_20160504_114753304_HDR

These figures, which aren’t really gargoyles, were being sculpted as Bosch worked away in his nearby studio.  One could see remarkable similarities between these figures and Bosch’s painted characters.




I don’t understand why, but I could not convince Hannah to try on, let alone buy this outfit.



OK, enough of the merchandise–let’s go see Bosch!

The director of the local museum in Den Bosch has been fixated on this 500th anniversary for the last decade and worked like a devil, appropriately enough, to get the world’s most prestigious museums (the only museums that own Bosches) to loan their prized paintings which never , ever get loaned to anyone, let alone to a little museum like the  Noordbrabants Museum.


(shown here, the Prado’s, “Cure of Folly”. This painting is a play on the expression, in Bosch’s time, to “have stones in the head”- saying someone was crazy.)

The fact that the likes of the Prado, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum, and Washington’s National Gallery of Art agreed to loan their most treasured holdings  was described by London’s Daily Telegraph as  “a feat of stamina and silver-tongued curatorial cunning.” Though Bosch was a prolific painter, only about 25 of his paintings remain in existence today and of these, 20 were loaned to the Noordbrabants Museum along with almost his entire oeuvre of existing drawings–about 20 of the existing 25 drawings. In exchange for the privilege of borrowing these works the lending institutions benefited from  extensive new  research conducted by the Noordbrabants team . Well, benefited might be too strong a word. The poor Prado,  owner of more Bosches than any other museum had to swallow the bitter pill that two of its Bosches were pronounced [ahem] NOT  Bosches after all. Thanks, Noorbrabants!

(Pictured here: the Prado’s downgraded “St. Anthony” –still pretty nice!)


This might be a nice time to point out that this forger took note of Bosch’s  penchant for funnels in his imagery. He snuck them in everywhere. Search through the other images–you’ll find several more.

On the flip side, the Nelson Atkins Museum, humble in comparison to the Prado, learned that one of its “school of” Bosches that had been relegated to their museum storage since its acquisition was done by the great master himself–SCORE! I wouldn’t be surprised if they hold a ticker tape parade to welcome their St. Anthony home.

Well, let’s not quibble. The fact is, the homecoming of Hieronymus Bosch has been  a glorious, once-in-forever event.  And even though I’m usually allergic to block buster events I was happy to join the ga-zillions of people who descended upon Den Bosch to be able to present their own flesh to the master painter of heaven and hell (with an undeniable emphasis on hell).




Hieronymus Bosch is surely one of the most widely recognized and revered painters of all times. I first became keenly aware of him in high school, in the drug-infused 60’s when Bosch was elevated to cult status for his psychedelic interpretations of the human condition. He is one of the handful of artists that the “man of the street” will nod in recognition to when his name is pronounced. Case in point, the cab driver who took me to Logan airport on the first, and arguably most dangerous leg of my pilgrimage to Den Bosch, became suddenly very animated on the subject of Hieronymus Bosch. When I responded to the cab driver’s inquiry as to why I was going to the Netherlands,  the driver torqued his rear view mirror to a 45 degree angle to be able to have eye contact with me in the back seat rather than with the road as he expounded on Bosch, all the while telling me that he didn’t care a hoot about art. Believe me, Bosch’s popularity did not start in the 1960’s. By 1560, a mere 45 years after Bosch’s death there were ten to fifteen times as many forgeries of Bosch paintings as there were genuine Bosches. Thus the difficulty figuring out in present day which paintings were actually done by the master himself. These fakes were often done by the most accomplished artists of their era. One imitator  went on to have a  magnificent career of his own: Peter Bruegel the Elder–yup–that’s how he earned his chops in his student days!

As obsessed as Bosch was with phantasmagorical images of the underworld


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his depictions of paradise would make today’s fundamentalists throw a snit fit:



We have all heard descriptions of the tunnel of light cited in near death experiences. Bosch’s  “Assent of the Blessed” is the first known reference to this tunnel of light.Is it possible that Bosch was the inventor of this notion?


And what’s going on here, Hieronymus? This is one hell of an album cover! Heavy mental!


A couple more excellent uses for funnels:



If you have read all this and are now saying to yourself, “Why didn’t I know? Why didn’t I go?”  There may still be a tunnel of light for you to follow: The Prado in Madrid will be having its own 500th anniversary of Bosch celebration with the “most extensive exhibition of Hieronymus Bosch ever organized” from May 31 to September 11, 2016. And they may well be able to claim this as they own the most famous of all Bosches, the Garden of Earthly Delights that they did not loan to the Noordbrabants Museum. A word to the wise, if you’re thinking of going; reserve your tickets long in advance. The exhibition at Noordbrabants sold out very hastily and surely there will be great demand for the Prado’s quincentennial Bosch extravaganza.




Magic in Philadelphia

Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Garden in Philadelphia is one more fantastic example of the power of art to turn around a neighborhood’s fortune.

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Back in the late 1960’s, Philadelphia’s South Street was a derelict area, lined with vacant properties. This is when Julia and Isaiah Zagar moved into the neighborhood to live and to start a small business selling Latin American folk arts. Inspired by the work of Spanish architect Gaudi and outsider artist Clarence Schmidt and the famous French art brut builder, Ferdinand Cheval, Isaiah began his mosaic work decorating the storefront for Julia’s store, the Eyes Gallery. (Eyes Gallery is still thriving today. It has expanded its offerings to global folk arts, carefully selected by Julia Zagar–well worth a visit!)

Teaming up with other artist activists, the  Zagars helped transform South Street into an artists’ enclave  Together they successfully protested the construction of a proposed highway that would have ripped through the neighborhood. Continuing on with his mosaic work, Isaiah began his ambitious transformation of two vacant lots at 1020 South Street.

Here’s what you first see when you encounter 1020 South street from the sidewalk:

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Look up:

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Keep looking up and turn your head:

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Turn your head again:

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Now walk in:

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and drink it in for a couple of hours, winding your way through the arches, tunnels,and pathways of the Magic Garden.

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The story goes that after nearly a decade of obsessive work  at 1020 South Street

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the Boston-based property owner caught wind of what was  transpiring on the property he had assumed was vacant. He tried to force Zagar to buy the property on which he was squatting and threatened to demolish the whole thing if Zagar refused. After a two year legal battle the friends who banded together to save Zagar’s masterpiece won their fight by purchasing the property and founding the non profit, the Philadelphia Magic Garden. And so began the  “Renaissance of South Street“, now one of the hippest, most vibrant and fun neighborhoods of Philadelphia.

Time for a little more touring–there’s so much to see at the magic garden.

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Here and there is evidence of Julia and Isaiah’s time spent in Latin America:

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And everywhere you can see Isaiah’s distinctive, fluid, linear style as he draws and re-draws the human figure:

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Time for a bathroom break? Well, take your time:

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I no longer know which way is up…

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And don’t be too sad if you’re up against closing time at Magic Garden (open every day except Tuesdays), because there’s 20 more humongous Isaiah Zagar murals scattered throughout Philadelphia, starting with several other buildings just down the street:

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You’ll just keep stumbling upon Isaiah’s work as you walk about town:

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Thank you Isaiah Zagar and THANK YOU ARTISTS EVERYWHERE for making the world a visual feast.


PS If you wish YOU could mosaic like Isaiah, you can! He offers weekend workshops monthly, spring through fall, in which you’ll participate in the creation of new murals about town. Check his website for info.







Not a Witch

It was so hard to imagine that neighborhood kids used to consider Mary Nohl a scary witch. Here we were, arriving at her home unannounced. She threw open her door, greeted us with a huge smile and beckoned us in like old friends.


Mary (age 86 at the time of our visit) told us the kids had been afraid of her because she was different. Her live-in aid, Vicky, who had once been one of those neighborhood kids confirmed this and admitted she too had thought Mary and her wildly decorated house were creepy. She had kept a wide berth. Others, though, had taunted Mary and repeatedly vandalized her yard art. Mary told us this with a sense of humor, but I’m sure the neighborhood disdain for her was painful.

We didn’t know what to expect as we wound our way along the shore of Lake Michigan through her oh-so-ordinary suburban neighborhood in Fox Point, Wisconsin. Every lawn was manicured to a fare-thee-well. The whole neighborhood was so meticulous, and clean. No rusty cars, no junk on porches and not one whiff of creativity. We couldn’t imagine we’d gotten the address right. We couldn’t imagine Mary’s extravagant home environment could fit in here. Ah, well, that was just the point! Mary Nohl had never had one ounce of interest in fitting in.

We rounded the bend and here was Mary Nohl’s home:


A simple suburban home utterly transformed.

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A detail of the cat door:


Mary’s lawyer father had introduced her to cement at the age of 12. Together they constructed the driveway gateposts. After her dad’s death Mary added heads on top of the posts. “My father would roll over in his grave if he saw what I’ve done”, she said, referring not just to the augmented driveway posts but to the lawn populated with Easter Island-esque figures.

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Of course the lawn couldn’t be mowed. Shouldn’t be mowed. Wouldn’t be mowed! And as anyone knows who is familiar with American suburbs, this is grounds for serious resentment. But this was of no concern to Mary.

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I had seen pictures ahead of time of the concrete lawn figures, but the inside of Mary’s house was such a surprise. Every bit of surface had been embellished.

The blue and turquoise doors were covered with  bas relief carvings and bolted with mechanisms which Mary had conceived of and executed with characteristic Yankee ingenuity.

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The walls, the floors, and even the carpets were sponged and splattered with red paint.  IMG_3565  wisconsin060

From the ceiling of another room dangled row upon row of tractor feed paper edges which brushed against the forehead if you were as tall as Mary. . Remember how we used to feed accordion folded paper into our printers in the 1980’s? Remember how the edges of that paper were those pesky endless strips that you used to have to pluck off the edges of the page before you sent your document to its final destination, like your boss’s desk? Well everyone, EXCEPT Mary Nohl just threw those strips away. For her they were  a free raw material, not to be wasted but to be put to good use.

Mary’s sun porch was hung with ribbons. It seems she had never thrown out a ribbon in her 86 years of gift unwrapping.


Mary who stayed a single woman her whole life (and who was quite content about that) had been encouraged by her father to attend college. Though Mary Nohl’s home environment is commonly considered “Outsider Art”, she in fact received an art school education at the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1920’s. Though unusually adept (for a woman in her era) at running and repairing power tools, Mary was encouraged to pursue a more traditional employment route than the work in industrial design that she had originally envisioned for herself.  She tried a stint of teaching art in the Baltimore public schools but became discouraged by the limitations imposed on her and her students by the system. Mary decided to return home to Wisconsin, to be near family and friends where she set up a little ceramics business (again encouraged by her father).

Mary led us down to her basement which was filled floor to ceiling with the remains of her production. Though delightful to my eye, they were not big sellers, and so Mary went on to other projects.


Mary  tried her hand at  jewelry making, glass fusing,  and painting.

Around 1960, with the loss of her brother, followed by her father and soon after, the move of her mother into a nursing home, Mary was left to live alone for the first time in her childhood home. She now saw the world around her as her palette. She looked around her home and set to work making it truly her own.


Mary Nohl died shortly after our visit to her home. I feel so lucky to had met this wonderful woman who summed up her guiding principle this way: ” Being conventional is worse than all other sins.”

Happily, Mary gifted her property to Wisconsin’s Kohler Foundation which has built an internationally recognized reputation for championing and preserving outsider art environments. Mary Nohl’s home is currently being restored and will open to public at a future date.



Dr. Guislain Museum

A museum whose mission is “to  question the distinction between normal and abnormal”?  You know I’ve got to write a post about that! Just the name itself, the Dr. Guislain Museum, intrigues. Never mind the fact that the guidebooks don’t mention this museum as one of the reasons one might consider visiting picturesque Ghent, Belgium. It is this unique museum that put Belgium on my itinerary a couple years ago.

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I had noticed that several of the European outsider artists I follow had work in the collection of the Dr. Guislain Museum, and curious about the museum’s name in relationship to its collection I looked it up. Turns out, not only was Dr. Guislain a real doctor, he was an early proponent of humane care for psychiatric patients. He headed up the first insane asylum in Belgium which became known later, as the Dr. Guislain Hospital.

1-28-2013 565 Following in the enlightened footsteps of the hospital’s founder, the modern day (and current) director, Dr. Rene Stockman, pursued the provocative idea of converting a large part of the hospital into a museum. At the heart of this vision was the belief that light needed to be shed onto the dark history of psychiatry in order to normalize society’s relationship to the mentally ill. Rather than hiding away the array of objects and photographs that the hospital had in its possession, the director put them on display.

 So that’s one part of the museum: the history of psychiatry. There are two other components to the museum: temporary exhibits (mainly contemporary art) that relate in some way to the theme of mental health (There was a great show up when I visited entitled “Nervous Women”, which examined  illnesses historically and culturally  linked to women, such as hysteria and anorexia). The third section of the museum–the section that drew me to Ghent in the first place– is their major collection of art made by artists with mental illness or intellectual disability.
The Dr. Guislain Museum has the largest holdings of Netherlands’s most celebrated outsider artist (one of my all time favorites): Willem Van Genk.
Van Genk, who died fairly recently, (2005) drew, painted and sculpted the subject matter he was obsessed with: urban landscapes with a particular emphasis on transportation systems, and most with references to his other obsession–Russian communism.
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At the end of his life, Van Genk turned almost exclusively to sculpture. The Dr. Guislain Museum has  installed his work as it had been set up in Van Genk’s own home:
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The raincoats, by the way, were a major part of Van Genk’s oeuvre, as is the library of books upon which his massive train station sits.
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Another extraordinary room-sized installation of the little known outsider, Hans Langner, is testament in and of itself what an unusual institution the Dr. Guislain Museum is.
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Can you think of any other venue that has given such a difficult, idiosyncratic work this amount of space and this level of respect?
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A similarly sprawling cityscape (I neglected to take a note of the artist’s name) occupies another room. Ah! a little edit here: Dutch outsider art logger extraordinaire, Henk Van Es just emailed me to identify this artist–fellow Dutchman, Bertus Jonkers. Read Henk’s very interesting post here.
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And then there’s many, many stellar works by both well known and obscure outsider artists.
Oh, I wish I had taken note of this artist’s name. If by chance you know, tell me and I’ll  gratefully add in the info.
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 Henk Van Es to the rescue again! He helped me identify the maker of this submarine: another Dutchman, Gerard van Lankveld
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 The incredibly knitted work of: Marie-Rose Lortet:
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The dense collaged figures of Simone le Carre:
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Austrian artist, August Walla:
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This gem by Adolf Wolfli:
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Well, I could go on–I probably photographed the whole collection. Hopefully I’ve enticed you enough that should you find yourself in Brussels, you’ll hop on the train for the hour-long ride to Ghent. And drink in this treasure for yourself!
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Hat’s off (er, I mean–on!) to my fabulous travel partner, and coincidentally my husband, who was thoughtful enough to wear clothing that matched this very photogenic facade.
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Should none of this interest you, I am certain, that at the very least you will find solace in Ghent chocolate (It is Belgium, after all!) served to you by this chocolatier:
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I get the sense he was put off by the leopard skin coat of this customer. I know you will not wear a similar coat–so do not worry–he will be more friendly to you.
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Pollock’s Toy Museum

I love museums of all kinds: art, science, ethnology, history. And while I truly appreciate the big famous venues, I have a special place in my heart for small unheralded museums. Most of all I love a museum which perfectly reflects the gestalt of the collection. Rather than the traditional neutral role that most museums play in relationship to  their collections, these little anachronistic gems become works of art themselves. Their very beings are so intertwined with their holdings that collection and museum become one.

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Just such a gem is the Pollock’s Toy Museum in the heart of London. Currently under the directorship of the grandson of the museum founder, Marguerite Fawdry, Pollock’s began its life not as a museum, but as the workshop and store for Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Theaters. Mr. Pollock hand painted and constructed these popular Victorian  paper entertainments. The museum, which was founded in 1956 on the premises of the toy theater shop ( at a  different location than where the Pollock Toy Museum is today), has many of the original paper theaters in its holdings.  The collection has been augmented  with  Victorian through 1950’s era toys.

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Stepping into the museum I wanted to pinch myself to see if I had fallen asleep on the couch reading Dickens and was dreaming up my surroundings. The deeply satisfying, thickly layered paint of the red and green walls, doors and stairwell drew me into the space with a magnetic, slow motion kind of pull. After paying my 6 pounds to the ticket taker, who beckoned forward,  I found myself pleasingly alone in this twisty-turny multi-roomed museum.

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Up the steps, slowly, slowly, every inch another treasure to admire:

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And then the individual rooms! Oh! Categorized and organized, but not too organized.

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Stuffed with playthings, some just so barely brushing up against my own childhood that I wondered if my siblings would rush in and snatch the vision away and say these were their toys.

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But, no, we’d been taught to share, so all was well. I could relax and drink it in.

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And send myself backwards and forwards in time, at the same instant.

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and marvel over how certain it once had been that some toys were for BOYS ONLY. I was happy that my brother’s Meccano set, a favorite of all of us kids, had not had this definitive labeling by the time it was manufactured for my era.

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One of the things I love about the Pollock collection is how used the objects are. Chosen for being loved rather than for being in pristine condition.

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The doll room showed this most of all.

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And yes, the doll creep factor is in full swing in the doll room. This doll and the next could easily be responsible for the invention of the night light.

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Not hard to come up with a story for this pair, Constance and Geraldine, siblings trapped together for eternity, their individual personalities becoming sharper over the decades. Geraldine, always the  confident one, has become insufferable, and Constance, well, poor thing, by now she’s just a shell of her former self.

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Chastity could never go outside to play because she could not risk getting grass stains on her outfit.

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And no wonder she dressed this way. This was her mother–no fun at all!

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Here’s the look on Tildy’s face after her brother told her she most definitely could NOT play with his Meccano set.

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It was embarrassing going out with Gertrude. She didn’t seem to understand she was making a spectacle of herself. She never seemed to notice that folks were pointing at her and whispering to each other.

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Ah, that Lucinda! She’s been caught stuffing sugar cubes in her cheeks again.

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Mary Ella is the perfect child when her parents are at home. But as soon as they leave for the evening she throws wild parties that start with Spin the Bottle and then proceed to much, much worse activities.

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And these two kids, there’s a reason why they look, well, so disturbed…

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All their furniture is made with BONES!

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Time to go! Back down the stairs, past all those games there was never enough time for. (Yes, I CAN end on a preposition if I want to!)

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Seasonal Quirk

I cannot resist one wee little seasonal post. It’s that time of year when even the most ordinary of citizens reveal their inner wackiness. Folks who wouldn’t dream of building a permanent yard art environment for fear their neighbors would scoff , are suddenly liberated by the holiday season to let their creative juices flow. IMG_20151205_194626332_HDR.jpg



Several themes have emerged this season. First of all: Climate Change. I notice that the seal above is on a mighty tiny iceberg, with free flowing water on all sides.


I have never seen the lawns this green in Massachusetts in December!


This is a year that the only snowmen we’re seeing are plastic and styrofoam. I am freaked,  they are freaked.


A dispiriting display of the North Pole:


Remember, it’s climate change not climate warming. Here, we have, not “away in a manger” , but “away on an iceberg”:




That’s what’s happening in Bethlehem. Here’s what’s going on in the Antarctica where that penguin migrated from:



And then we have the very American theme of Bigger is Better: (“I told you that chair was not for you!”).


And the Disney-fication of Christmas:



And then there’s the marvelous mash-up of incongruous characters: (Snoopy has fainted–I don’t blame him.)

IMG_20151217_101411165to the point where you really can’t figure out what the relationship to the holidays is anymore.  Darth Vader???  Uh oh, spoiler alert, maybe you should scroll really fast past this next image:


And there’s plenty of really personal statements being made on all these lawns:

Who knew? Turns out your neighbor is into bondage:


“No one we really like ever uses the front door, so go ahead and lay the string of lights across the threshold, honey. ”


“Well, they may have a whole purple house, but we like purple too. I don’t care if it’s a hippopotamus posing as a reindeer! It’s the only decoration that came in purple. Have yourself a very purple Christmas!”


Who said Americans weren’t into royalty? We love royalty!


Fun (?) fact I just heard on NPR on my drive home yesterday: Americans use more electricity on holiday decorations in one day than the entire country of Ethiopia uses for all its electrical needs on the same day. Feeling bad? Just use candles for your indoor lighting the rest of the year and we’ll be fine. Sorry–that was kind of a downer to end on–I actually love all this weird, ugly-beautiful stuff. The more the merrier!




PS, you can have dots or your house AND your car without even stringing up any lights–with this  latest gizmo–projected lights! No fuss no muss. The whole thing gets stored in a 12″ x 12″ x 10″ box. Now is that fair play?




Not Garbage!

It’s safe to say that Forevertron (last post) will be around for a long, long while with its 300 tons of iron and steel–who on earth would want to dismantle that? Likewise Fred Smith’s Concrete Park, the Dickeyville Grotto and the Wegner Grotto are not only built in concrete they all both protected sites (more on that later), now iconic parts of the Wisconsin landscape.

But as is the case with many outsider art sites, two I visited were less securely bound to this earth and sadly no longer exist.

One of these was Tony’s Fan Fair,


tucked quietly away in Anton Flatoff‘s  yard in the town of Steven’s Point, Wisconsin. Tony started this project in the 70’s with one fan he rescued from the trash heap from the hotel where he worked. Gradually, over the next decade or two he added more and more discarded fans, around 80 in all. When we arrived at his home we were greeted by his lovely wife, Elaine, and middle-aged daughter, who informed us that Tony was home, but very ill, and we would sadly not be able to meet him. They encouraged us to poke around the yard, assuring us that Tony loved admirers.


Flying about  the fantastic Fan Fair, were several of Tony’s airplanes:IMG_3603


“When you’re done with the Fan Fair, do come in”, Elaine urged us, and so we did. After showing off Tony’s indoor work (a flotilla of beer can ships and more planes), Elaine asked us shyly if we had any interest in HER hobby.


YES! OF COURSE!, so she led us to the back of the house and flung open the door to a room jam-packed with dolls.



Elaine explained that they were her “children”. By calling them her children, Elaine was clearly signifying that they were more than just a collection. Elaine had been one of 15 (!) children herself, and growing up she had always dreamed of having a doll. Her family was too poor to buy one for her. One day shortly after she and Tony were married  elaine spotted a naked , dirty doll on the roadside which had been put out for the trash. She took it home, cleaned it up and sewed it an outfit. The next doll she bought at a yard sale with a spare quarter. And on it went. She showed us how she lovingly cared for them, , sewing clothing for each.  And then, impishly, Elaine asked if we wanted to see her most special dolls, her “mixed up” dolls, she called them. You know we said yes! And up came the skirts of a few of the gals to reveal little male genitalia. “They came like that from the factory”, she marveled. Well, it made our day. I wonder, wonder, wonder what happened to all of Elaine’s dolls, and Tony’s oeuvre–all I see on the web when I look up Tony’s Fan Fair is “non-extant”.  Sad!

The raucous yard art which both delighted and disgruntled Paul Hefti‘s neighbors in La Crosse has also disappeared. His property, once a beautiful example of the  very human impulse to create has been restored to a state of ordinariness. Sigh. So I will treasure these images I have  and share with you what got us to slam on our breaks as we were moseying through La Crosse on our way to visit Dobberstein Grotto (earlier post) in neighboring St Joseph.


Strewn across an expansive yard long was Mr. Hefti’s impressive collection of reclaimed and  reformatted detritus from our plastic, disposable world.

Here’s a couple screech-on-the-brakes pictures:




Paul, who lived to be a hundred, worked for 45 years at the La Cross Paper and Box Company. According to his obituary he was a “gifted musician who played piano, accordion, drums, the zither and the mouth organ, [and ]  was a leader of a one liter pop bottle band.” He rode a bicycle his whole life , which, like his yard,  he decorated. He enjoyed the attention that his decorations brought him. I could easily feel his friendliness and warmth sprinkled throughout the site:





I doubt there was any non-perishable trash that Mr. Hefti couldn’t have found a use for.


Adieu, Paul Hefti, you funny, nice man!




Back to Wisconsin! I took a little interlude from the series of postings I’m doing documenting a road trip I took several years ago to see Wisconsin’s many built environments, to write a post about my much more recent trip to Newfoundland. So if you’re coming in cold to the Wisconsin postings, you may want to read the introduction to this series here.

If the Dickeyville Grotto is the grand daddy of Wisconsin’s built environments, and Fred Smith’s Concrete park is the most famous of the Wisconsin outsider sites, then, Dr. Evermor’s Fovertron wins the contest as the most ambitious.  According to Wikipedia,  Forevertron is ” the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world, standing 50 ft. (15,2 m.) high and 120 ft. (36,5 m.) wide, and weighing 300 tons.”


All I knew before my visit to Forevertron was that its maker, the engineer, self-taught artist and back-to-the-future historian, Dr. Evermor, was building a launchpad and spaceship to launch himself into outer space. And I knew it was in North Freedom, Wisconsin, a speck on the map and in the middle of nowhere. It seemed an unlikely spot for such a creation, but by the time I arrived in North Freedom I’d gotten used to the idea that whackiness is spread pretty evenly across this agrarian state.  To find Forevertron, which has no address, we had been told to cross the street from the (defunct) Badger Ammunition plant and look for Delaney’s Surplus. Delaney’s was easy enough to find, but it was so nondescript I wondered if we had misunderstood the directions.   My traveling companion and I poked around the back of the long, dreary sheet metal building of Delaney’s and stepped lightly across what looked initially like an abandoned dump. There was no one around which always sets me to worrying about junkyard dogs. Then suddenly-POW! Fovertron loomed up in front of us with its soaring towers replete with rococo ornamentation, throbbing with complexity.



No longer thinking about dogs, now I started worrying about the enigmatic Dr. Evermor. Would he be a raving lunatic? Were we trespassing?  So when I spotted a little trailer at one end of the site, I screwed up my courage to knock on the door, hoping to procure permission to roam about. “Yes?” I heard from behind the door. “Come in.” And here was Dr. Evermor himself–I needn’t have worried. “Welcome to Forevertron!”


When Dr. Evermor learned we had come all the way from Boston he insisted on giving us a  personal tour. He gleefully pointed out the “Overlord Master Control Tower” (the similarity to the Houston control towers was duly noted) and the “Celestial Listening Ear” (for picking up sounds and signs of life in outer space) and the Graviton (for removing water from the time/space traveler’s body prior to launch–all essential components of the Forevertron that would eventually blast Dr. Evermor himself into outer space. He would be seated inside the glass orb surrounded by copper that sits at the pinnacle of the Forevertron.  Dr. Evermor, who plans to power his flight with electromagnetic energy, has garnered huge inspiration from his hero, Nikola  Tesla.


Everything on site is made from a most astounding array of salvaged material plucked from decaying industrial sites by Dr Evermor himself, from the period of his life when he was known by his given name, Tom Every. Tom Every began his very ambitious and specialized demolition and salvage career when he was a boy.  His junk pile  had already achieved the level of a “public nuisance” by the time he was 17. When Tom Every was reincarnated into Dr. Evermor in 1983 he sold his half of the salvage business to his partner, Delaney, and negotiated the use of the adjoining property for his new passion. Embedded within the structures of Forevertron, are such artifacts as the decontamination chamber from Apollo 11 (I saw it with my own eyes), lightning rods, transformers, and bipolar dynamos made by–hold it, hold it! Thomas Edison himself! (You better click on that link to see what a bipolar dynamo is). This is true, by the way, these dynamos were deaccessioned by the Henry Ford Museum, and Tom Every, ever on the look out for beautiful obsolescence, scooped them up for re-use.

You’d think fabricating Forevertron would be a full time pursuit, but apparently, Dr. Evermor, has ever more time and energy on his hands which he has used to fill the surrounding acreage with a veritable garden of Eden of scrap metal animals, made primarily with tools and musical instruments.

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Note the chair in the photo below to give you a feeling for the size of this insect.


It seemed our tour was winding down, but clearly Dr. Evermor was not ready to let us go.  “Come with me for dinner”, he  insisted,  and he hopped in our car and directed us to pick up his wife,  the most agreeable Lady Eleanor, to accompany us at the pub.  Over bratwurst (favorite Wisconsin dish, I think)  Dr. Evermor regaled us with his hopes and aspirations which included the take-over of the neighboring Badger ammunition plant to become a vast park and museum. He and  Lady Eleanor agreed the government should give it to him, especially as he would do all the demolition for free. (I see on Wikipedia that has not come to pass, alas). But of course the greatest aspiration was boarding his “soul transformation device” for the ultimate of journeys, at which point everyone will agree that the town of North Freedom was aptly named.