More Underground

My last post featured three quirky cave environments in France. You might think that would complete my postings on the French underground, but two more visits must be described: both with top ratings on the quirk-o-meter.

The tiny village of  Dénézé-sous-Doué , a village in the Loire region for which Wikipedia can find nothing to say except; “Its church and the attached cemetery have the distinction of being away from the village.” Really, the entry is just this one sentence! I have never been so disappointed by Wikipedia and Geez–are they ever missing something!  Dénézé-sous-Doué is home to one of France’s most intriguing mysteries: La Cave aux Sculptures. After poking around a bit we found the non-descript entrance leading to steps down, down, down, deep under sleepy Dénézé-sous-Doué.

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This is only sign of business I saw in Dénézé-sous-Doué. Things are not exactly hopping in Dénézé-sous-Doué, at least not above ground!

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In front of us a 24 meter long, multi- chambered cave revealed itself , carved every inch with hundreds of bas-relief figures emerging from the walls.

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Despite serious archaeological efforts, no definitive explanation or even dating of these carvings has been agreed on. There are no other examples of similarly carved caves in Europe so no clues can be found elsewhere. Clothing , hairstyles and musical instruments typical of the Renaissance era

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This lady is playing a medieval bagpipe

help date the sculptures to the 1500’s. One of the archaeologists dated the sculptures based on his observation that some of the female characters are wearing underwear (!!), the  practice of which did not take occur until the 1500’s. Oh, for close archaeological scrutiny! I did not discern any underwear but I don’t know if that tells you more about my observational skills or about the keen eye of the French archaeologist. I can tell you one thing though; given that the French word for “bra” is “soutien gorge”, which translates as  “throat supporter”, I would say there’s a cultural divide between the American and French understanding of underwear.

It is generally agreed that these three figures:

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are a blasphemous representation of King Henri II (in the middle) with his wife, Catherine de Medici (depicted scandalously with her breasts exposed–no soutien gorge for her!) on the left, holding hands with Henri’s mistress, Diane de Poitier, on the right. This is not the only scandalous bit of carving.

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I might add, besides love-making couples there is at least one depiction of self-pleasuring. I have spared you the full frontal, but here’s the fellow caught in the act:

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There are several screamers such as this breastfeeding mom:

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And several heads with no bodies and limbs strewn about and some devilish monsters that I was unable to photograph for lack of lighting. Incredibly there is even a sculpture of a Native American– the first known depiction of a Native American in Europe! Apparently there is documentation of a Native American who was brought to live in Anjou, France in the 1500’s so finding his likeness in this cave is not so far-fetched a notion.

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There’s plenty of Christian references, but they are loaded with parody. The customary figures in the sculpted Pieta– Mary, Joseph, Jesus– have been replaced by Catherine de Medici as Mary, holding her son, Francois II as Christ and the Cardinal of Guise sits in for Joseph. Mary Stuart as Ste Jeanne, looks on. It makes my head hurt to try to untangle the unseemly relationship between the French royals and the church during this period of the Religious Wars. If you’re determined to try to wind your way through this Gordian Knot, here’s a good synopsis that will help you.

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All this was enough to get the cave sealed off in 1633 by a priest who felt his flock might be led astray by  images of debauchery and blasphemy. Hmmm, the cave closure, according to another account was perhaps in 1740. Well, what’s a hundred years between archaeologists?  Whatever the case, La Cave aux Sculptures was completely forgotten until 1956 when–you guessed it–village children, playing in the fields, stumbled upon the underground passage.  The site was opened to the public in 1973. Here’s a terrific video shot with much better lighting than I had at my disposal. (Don’t worry about the French subtitles–the images are excellent.) There remain passageways blocked with debris which hold the promise of countless more figures to be discovered.  Much research still needs to be done to determine the meaning of this work.  Current theories include:  a work of political satire, a site for pagan rituals, a holy site of miracles and cures, a meeting place for initiation rites for the fraternal order of stone masons (there’s a few ram sculptures, the medieval symbol of the stone mason), a 3D illustration of Rabelais’s tales of devilry (he came from the neighboring village and made references to the demons of this region)

After dwelling in the ancient subterranean world of La Cave aux Sculptures my visit to the nearby site, l’Hélice Terrestre felt like futuristic travel to another planet. However l’Hélice Terrestre is just a few a few kilometers away in the village of Saint-Georges-des-Sept-Voies.  As one would expect in troglodyte country, l’Hélice Terrestre (translation: Earth Helix) is underground, except, well, the part that’s NOT underground! Here’s a view from the highest point of the helix.

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And like any good troglodyte helix should, this helix spirals its way down, reaching deep into the bowels of the earth.

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As I tunneled my way down the light receded til I was in pitch dark, feeling my way down by inching my feet forward and running my hands along the damp, mossy walls. I was only able to see the carved forms for the split second of the flash of my camera. ( I must admit that when we visited there was no one (except one black cat) at the site. I’m not entirely sure we were supposed to be wandering around l’Hélice Terrestre on our own. If you have the good fortune of visiting you will hopefully have your path more illuminated than I did.)

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L’Hélice Terrestre  is the work of Polish sculptor, Jacques Warminski  who had spent some of his childhood vacations in nearby  l’Orbière, one of the last remaining Troglodyte villages in France. L’Orbière was completely abandonned in 1950, but kept alive in Warminksi’s imagination. It served as the inspiration for his life’s culminating work.  Warminski created this mind boggling sculpture in four years time in the early 1990’s. It doesn’t seem possible that stone carving of this intricacy on this scale could have been accomplished just in four years, but unlike La Caves aux Sculptures, the dates for L’Hélice Terrestre are not in dispute. Jacques Warminski died in 1996 at the age of 50, just two years after completing L’Hélice Terrestre.

Currently l’Hélice Terrestre is being maintained and kept open by Warminski’s widow, Bernadette Alberti and is  used as a site for comtemporary art performances.

Troglodytes

I had no idea what to expect as I criss-crossed the small town of Doué la Fontaine in search of the remarkable home of  Bernard Roux.  Doué la Fontaine is in the Pays de la Loire region of France, in the heart of troglodyte country, and I just happen to be a fan of all things troglodyte. So before setting off for Doué la Fontaine, I spent the better part of the day in the troglodyte village of Rochemenier, just ten minutes away.

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Now a museum which preserves twenty of the dwellings, Rochemenier was an village built underground by burrowing into the soft tufa stone of this region. Like all caves these dwellings had the advantage of constant temperature–warm(ish) in the winter, and cool in the summer. It was amazing how cozy these cave dwellings felt.

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When a family was expecting a new baby, a room would be added by tunneling deeper into the stone at the back of the house. No zoning or building permits required! In fact the troglodyte family sold the stone they quarried as they dug the next room, so they actually made money as they expanded their home!

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Passageways in Rochemenier connect one building to the next, so villagers didn’t not need to venture outdoors on a nasty winter day. Several communal chambers served the whole village for their shared endeavors such as wine and cheese making and even a room where women gathered to chat as they did their textile work.

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The most remarkable structure in the village is the cave cathedral built in the 13th century and which stayed in use until the 1930’s. A little tough to photograph, but here’s an image of the vaulted ceiling–an underground spire, of sorts.

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supporting columns for Cathedral spire

My favorite postcard from Rochemenier is of this avant garde woman, one of the last generation Rochemenier troglodytes driving her locally made automobile.

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Now, onward to Bernard Roux’s. After several false turns,  we spotted a little garage that looked different from the surrounding neighbors. Could this be Monsieur Roux’s home? I didn’t really think so as nothing else seemed out of the ordinary.  Then stepping out of the car and venturing towards the garage I could see I was standing at the precipice of a cavernous space, filled with, well, filled with what? It wasn’t clear from this angle.

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We rang the doorbell at the side of the garage and waited. And waited. And waited. Sigh. No one home. We’d have to be content with this glimpse from on high. We took a few photos and started to walk back to the car when suddenly an elderly gentleman appeared at the gate. How did he get there???

“Bonjour, Monsieur. Nous cherchons Monsieur Roux. ”  “C’est moi. Bienvenu.” And we followed him down the tiled steps into his wonderland.

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Built in the hollowed out cavity of an old quarry, Bernard Roux has injected a quirky twist to the eons-old troglodyte tradition.

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This is the front door to his cave dwelling. (well, it’s probably the only door as caves homes don’t have back doors)  Monsieur Roux, with the indulgence of his wife, has transformed the quarry into a fantasy courtyard that’s part Disney

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and part, well, a window onto Monsieur Roux’s rich imagination where dinosaurs are allowed to roam in the Garden of Eden.

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Monsieur Roux pointed out his homages to great French architecture: The Chateau de Chaumont and the Cathedral de Chenille.

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This wall of tools serves as a testament to Bernard Roux’s days as a laborer, in the trades of builder, butcher, baker, and mason.

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So happy we could meet this delightful gentleman who has taken troglodyte living to new heights.

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Oh, there’s more tales to tale from the land of troglodytes. It will take another post. But, may I advise you, if you’re in this region, especially in Saumur–eat mushrooms. Here’s where most of France’s mushrooms are grown. Remember those constant cave temperatures?Perfect for champignons:

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YUM!

For the Glory of…

Just beyond the heavily touristed French town of St Malo (Brittany) lies the less frequented Sculpted Rocks of Rotheneuf . If I were in charge of compiling the Seven Wonders of Europe list, I’d secure a spot for this astonishing site!

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I had seen images of “Les Roches Sculptes” (where the heck are the accent marks on American computers?) in a wonderful book on visionary environments which I found decades ago in a second hand book store in San Francisco: Les Batisseurs du Reve.   This book has served as the cornerstone for my now extensive collection of  outsider art books. Turns out it’s a much more notable book than I have realized over all these years. Believe it or not, I just discovered yesterday, when I was taking this photo of the book below, that the lovely hand-written French inscription  inside the front cover is a note to Niki  deSt Phalle (whose work is pictured on the cover) from the book’s photographer. (“Niki, mon coeur est toujours a ta maison. Michael”) Geez–there must be a story of how this special copy of the book ended up in California. Niki, I beseech you, speak to me from the Netherworld–tell me what happened between you and Michael.

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You can imagine how excited I was when I realized my post grad school trip to France would allow me to check off two major sites in this book.  Les Rochers Sculptes on the Brittany coast and Le Palais Ideal in the Drome valley would anchor the northern and southern most points of our loop. Well, to make a long story short, I never made it to Les Rochers Sculptes that summer because, feather brained twenty-something year old that I was, I left my wallet on the bus and didn’t discover this til I was pitching my tent that evening.  Instead of hopping another bus the next morning to Rotheneuf, I spent the day tracking down my wallet. If you are old enough to picture accomplishing this feat in the days before cell phones, you will marvel over my ability to overcome the inscrutability of French payphones to converse with an operator who could find the number of the public bus service, track down the name of the actual bus-driver, call him during his dinner time (a major faux pas!) and arrange a meet up at the bus stop to retrieve my wallet. You will marvel over the miracle that reconnected my wallet to me and commend me for my stoicism about not getting to check off numero uno on my bucket list. But oh! It would be another THIRTY years til I made it back to this part of France!  Reading all this you will understand why my heart was going pitter patter when I finally arrived at the entry gate of  Les Rochers Sculptes, with wallet firmly in pocket and camera ready at hand to shoot my first encounter with one man’s inexplicable, obsessive, magnificent work.

 

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For thirteen years, from 1894 to 1907 (which does not seem like nearly enough time to accomplish this work), Adolphe Julien Fourere (later changed to Foure) chipped away, day after day to tell a tale which made no sense what-so-ever. it made so little sense that I double checked in my French/English dictionary every irksome word in the little explanatory pamphlet I got for 4 Euros at the entry gate.

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This jumble of rogues and monsters

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supposedly is an account of the notorious band of pirates and privateers who laid claim to this section of the French coast in the 16th century.  I don’t believe that for a minute, nor do I believe that the sculptor, the Abbot Foure carved this part of coast after  he could no longer carry out the duties of the priesthood due to a crippling stroke.

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Really?!? Too weak to give a sermon so what the heck, I’ll just get me a hammer and chisel and start carving granite day and night for 13 years. I don’t think so. In fact further digging on the web turns up  much more believable biographical info on the Abbot Foure than that untrustworthy little tourist pamphlet. Historian Joelle Jouneau has been doing her best to debunk the notion that Foure was a stroke-weakened, pirate-obsessed priest released from his duties by a benevolent church. More likely the pirate figures and monsters are stand-ins for local characters. Maybe these caricatures were Foure’s way to whack at the powers that be who threw him out of his parish for his social activism. Jouneau has been fantasizing creating a Foure museum for which she’s been amassing Foure memorabilia. So maybe we’ll eventually get to the bottom of his story. Meanwhile, enjoy what one determined man with time on his hands can do with a hammer and chisel:

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I cannot find one mention anywhere of the mysterious rectangular foundation-like shape that we see through the clear blue of the ocean:

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We stay long enough to see this stone rectangle emerge completely as the tide goes down. What, oh what were you thinking Abbe Foure?

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A dieu…

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Broken and Beautiful

Hooray! An invitation to create and install a site specific piece this coming summer in Normandy, France will bring me back to a region I had tromped around in several years ago on a quest to visit all the Outsider Art  environments in that area. There are many. I figure this is a good opportunity to tour them with you on “Quirk”.  And hopefully I’ll be able to revisit a few this summer.

I’ve often been asked how I find all the fantastic places I visit. Of course , it’s way, way easier now that there’s a lot of interest in Outsider Art and there’s easy access to info on the web. I no longer need to rely solely on my brimming book shelves, magazine clippings, and conversations with kindred enthusiasts,  although these are still often where my interest in a particular site is first tweaked. Now there are a number of comprehensive websites where one can locate wondrous, quirky sites. For this Normandy trip, which I am going to highlight in this and subsequent posts, I relied heavily on the magnificent Dutch blog, “Outsider  Environments Europe”  to find new sites to add to my bucket list for France.  After pinpointing the location of each site with Google Maps,  I used my tried and true strategy of sticking on bits of tape and post-its onto a good paper road map (Michelin, of course)  for every single site. With all these markers on the map it’s easy to start plotting a route, looking for the greatest concentration of sites in one drive-able area. France has so many outsider art environments, it’s best to choose one region at a time, and TAKE YOUR TIME–these quirky sites will lead you down less traveled country roads. In three weeks of back roads, my friend Abbie and I visited 17 sites–that was an ambitious trip!

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One of my favorite outsider art environments sites in Normandy is “la Maison  a Vaiselle Cassee”, the mosaic-ed home of Robert Vasseur in the town of Louviers.

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I had learned that the Vasseur home was still “en famille”, lived in and cared for by Robert Vasseur’s son, Claude.  Since I knew there was way more to the site than one could see from the sidewalk I decided to try to contact Claude Vasseur by phone the night before we planned to drive to Louviers. Amazingly, I was able to find Monsieur Vasseur’s number in the hotel phonebook. I practiced my lame French introduction,  took several deep breaths in an attempt to overcome my phone phobia, and dialed the number. Monsieur Vasseur picked up the phone after just a couple rings. He seemed to understand my French, and I understood his so I figured we were on the right track. Would it be possible I asked, gathering my courage, for us to visit tomorrow? His reply? “Non, ce n’est pas possible.” The house was in a state of  disrepair and he couldn’t allow visitors.  I responded the only way I could think of : with complete desperation.  My unrehearsed plea stated with the vocabulary of a third grader must have been truly pathetic: “Helas! We have crossed the Atlantic Ocean to see your home” . ( I am blushing just remembering that I actually said this! Who would say such a thing to a complete stranger??) But, Helas, indeed, Monsieur Vasseur appeared unmoved by my plea. I regained some modicum of maturity and remembered I should thank him before I hung up, and then made one last ditch effort: “May we park in front of your house and look from the sidewalk?” (Also a totally ridiculous thing to say).  “Of course,” he replied, and “Bonne nuit.”

Monsieur Vasseur’s “non” sounded pretty decisive, so we drove to Louviers with heavy hearts–but what the heck–we were so close!

It wasn’t hard to spot the “la Maison  a Vaiselle Cassee” from  the street.

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And –surprise! No sooner had we gotten out of the car and snapped a couple photos of the sidewalk wall

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than Monsiuer Vasseur popped out.  (Had he been posted at his window to watch for our arrival?) “Etes vous les Americaines?”  We braced ourselves for the in-person rejection. Instead he threw open the gate saying “Entrez!”

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We were greeted by Robert Vassuer’s dazzling creation.

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The mosaic covering did not stop with the Vasseur house, but continued out  into the garden which is replete with fancifully built structures and sculptures, large and small.

 

 

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How’s this for a dog house?

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By the time we had finished touring the garden, Monsieur Vasseur seemed to have completely forgotten that he had said “non” to me about four different ways just 12 hours earlier. He beckoned us inside his home.”There is more'” he said, “quite a bit more.”

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Most touching of all was the little corner of the home that Claude Vasseur had set up as a sort of shrine to his parents. Here, his mother’s knitting ( a similar palette to her husband’s , no?) spread out on the divan in front of a heavily mosaic-ed corner:

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and behind the divan, a lovely photograph of his parents:

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Robert Vasseur had been a milk delivery man. He lived from 1908 to 2002. His work began on a whim one day after he broke a crock. He liked the effect of the little mosaic he created so much that he continued to mosaic for the next 50 years. His neighbors apparently liked the effect as well and began contributing material for his work–their broken dinnerware plus shells, bottle caps and little cast off objets d’art.

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Butterfly images appear here and there, referencing Robert Vasseur’s radio code name “Butterfly 27”.

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His faithful son, Claude, is a town cartographer. I could not help but be struck by the mosaic patterened look of his drawings! Beautiful!

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Claude was clearly fond and proud of his parents, but overwhelmed, nevertheless, by the daunting task of maintaining this delicate treasure of a home. I am so grateful he opened the gates to us and welcomed us with open arms. It was in fact the truth that we had crossed the Atlantic to see his home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hubcap Ranch

This post ends with a story of how a good deed turned into an art environment. If you’re impatient to find out how this could be, skip to the end, but you’ll be missing some pretty cool art along the way.

A recent trip to California to visit family and  to tour the fabulous new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art turned into a glorious road-trip. In just three days the Bay area and surrounding countryside offered  up the most glorious array of artistic diversity.

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The undulating SFMOMA is now my favorite renovation of the myriad of museum upgrades that have swept the country in the last decade (shout out to Deputy Director Ruth Berson,  for her incredible leadership in this project).

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I really loved the little display of idea “sketches” for the museum renovation presented by the architectural firm, Snohetta:

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Across the street from the SFMOMA is the wonderful Yerba Buena Art Center which–jackpot!– was showcasing at the time of my visit one of my very favorite artists, Tom Sachs.

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Whacking together unbelievably complex and massive sculptures with little more than packing tape, cardboard and soda bottles, Sachs has constructed his visionary “Europa”, as part of his ongoing fixation with NASA’s space program. He has thought of “everything the astronauts will need to successfully complete their mission to Jupiter’s icy moon” including the all important outhouse which bears an uncanny and satisfying resemblance to a jet plane’s lavatory.

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Ruth Berson also introduced us to her beloved “Creativity Explored”, a studio workshop  and gallery for artists with intellectual disabilities.

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We loved it so much we went back for a second visit on Monday and saw the studio buzzing with productivity.img_4887

I doubt you’ll find another group of artists anywhere more intent on their work than here.

With the couple extra days I had  to tool around in California I headed up to Napa Valley. The drive through Napa Valley vineyards

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is a visual feast in and of itself. But we went to drink in a couple other sites. Our first stop: the Di Rosa Museum. A San Francisco friend had brought me there a couple years ago and I wanted to revisit with my son, who has inherited my penchant for all things quirky.

Situated on the shore of Winery Lake, the Di Rosa Museum houses the estate collection of the vineyard owning,  art collecting, bon vivants Veronica and Rene Di Rosa.img_20160923_121014687

One has the feeling as one tours the estate (and one can only see the DiRosa collection as part of a museum tour–don’t just show up there unannounced), that collecting art served as a great excuse to the Di Rosas for non-stop partying. It’s a wild ride following the twists and turns of the DiRosa’s art tastes.

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Art car master, David Best retooled this Cadillac for Veronica Di Rosa.

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And Rene jumped into the act of art making with this one creation of his own:

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Well, his hanging car may  not be great art, but just about everything else in his collection is top notch–some of my favorite  artists and so many great artists new to me, all hailing from  northern California.:

Viola Frey :

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These next two are Sandow Birk’s. Though created many years ago, they were apt viewing during our miserable campaign and election season.

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And this is Chester Arnold. Where have you been all my life, Chester?

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And Mildred Howard’s luminescent Bottle House:

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OK, finally! The real destination of this trip through Napa Valley (you will now be rewarded for slogging through this post to get to the bait tangled on the hook of the first sentence).  Litto’s Hubcap Ranch!  

img_4774 Located just one hour’s drive north of San Francisco, in Pope Valley, Hubcap Ranch was the retirement home of Emanuele “Litto” Damonte.  Litto,  came to California from Genoa, Italy in the early 1900’s. His father passed on his stone mason trade to him which provided Litto  with lucrative work, including marble carving for the William Randolf Hearst mansion.

A smooth ribbon of a road now passes by the ranch but at the time that Litto settled in Pope Valley the rough and winding dirt road was pitted with potholes which tended to pop the hubcaps off  passing automobiles. Litto thought he’d do a good turn by collecting the hubcaps and affixing them to his property fence.

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He assumed that folks who had lost them would pick them up the next time they drove by. Apparently nobody came to reclaim their hubcaps and soon the collection grew to the point where passers by thought Litto just LOVED hubcaps, so they started dropping off contributions for his “collection”. These too, he affixed to the front fence til that was full. He then extended the collection to the barbed wired that looped around the ranch.

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Before Litto knew it he had become a hubcap connoisseur. He singled out the most select examples for special placement on his out buildings and his home.

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No one’s got an exact count, but it’s said there may be as many as 5,000 hubcaps catching the rays on Hubcap Ranch.

Two years after Litto’s death, Hubcap Ranch received the official designation of  California Historic Landmark.

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Hubcap Ranch is currently the residence of Litto’s grandson, Mike Damonte, who does his best to maintain the property

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in all its quirky glory.

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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.

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Originally an itinerant tent revival preacher,

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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.

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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.

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Located in the wool-dying village of San Andres Xecul

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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.

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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:

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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.

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

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

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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.

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Hallelujah!

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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.”

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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.
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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.
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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:
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and this house, which I was partial to for its choice of  lamp in the yard, a little nod to Paris:
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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.
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Soaring 30 feet into the air:
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The bright blue stripes are veins of compacted ice, not cracks:
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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.
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Finding a small berg that was  safe enough to mosey up to Barry “harvested” a chunk of the 10,000 year old compacted ice.
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 You can nurse  a drink an entire evening with one very slow melting chunk.
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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.
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You have to look carefully to appreciate the dying art form of hand-painted signage that can still been found in Newfoundland:
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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.
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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.
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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!
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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.
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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).
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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.
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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.)
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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.
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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.
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A few of the old houses with boat-only access which typify original outport dwellings still stand in Shoe Cove.
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One can still see the community bread oven which sits in a tiny enclosure at the edge of the cove:
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From here we clamored up the beautifully maintained and historic trail which leads to dramatic views of the cove:
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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.
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 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.
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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 of potato chips and a soda–and wait for it–iceberg chips if someone’s gone harvesting!
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The fish processing plant closed a few years ago–a death knell for the island, for sure.
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Well actually, there’s still one business on the island: the  incredibly wonderful accommodations where we stayed– Aunt Edna’s Boarding House:
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Run by the indomitable, fun and very funny Sharlene Hinz
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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.
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 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 join 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 .)
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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.

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 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 that 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.
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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.
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PS If  you need 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.

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(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.)

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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.

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

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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.

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(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!)

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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).

 

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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:

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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?

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

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A couple more excellent uses for funnels:

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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.

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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:

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A simple suburban home utterly transformed.

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A detail of the cat door:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.