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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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.

 

 

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,

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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.

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

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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

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Adieu, Paul Hefti, you funny, nice man!

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Forevertron

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.”

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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.

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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!”

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Isolation breeds, well, QUIRKINESS

Just got back from my second visit to Newfoundland, affectionately known as “The Rock”. Get out your maps. This glacially scoured island lies halfway between Boston and Greenland. It’s got a tough-luck history that would leave most people bitter or at least depressed. But Newfoundlanders are survivors. (Just a quick note to say I’m using the word Newfoundlanders in this post, because there’s chatter online that the term “Newfies“, which the people of Newfoundland call themselves is thought of by some to be a derogatory term if used by outsiders. Outsiders, by the way, are called “CFA’s” or “Come from Away” ) There’s an amazing can-do, pull yourselves up by the boot straps mentality here that’s inspiring.

The reputation that Newfoundlanders have as the friendliest people in Canada (and that’s saying something, as I think Canadians in general are pretty darn friendly) and the funniest, is well deserved. There’s beauty abounding in the great expanses of space in Newfoundland which I’ll leave to the travel writers. Instead, I’ll focus on, what else,  the quirkiness, of which there is plenty.

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It’s a hard scrabble place that makes up in makes up in humor and friendliness what it has lacked in luck. And the humor shows up in all kinds of places, starting literally with geographical names.

There’s at least 5 different terms for coves and harbors, and they’re tacked onto place names in a way that make reading a map of the province sound like snippets of song lyrics: Witless Bay, Trinity Bight, Chance Cove, Conception Harbor, Random Sound. And that’s just a smidgen of the long list of curious and evocative place names. You just want to visit towns named Paradise, Blow Me Down, Joe Batt’s Arm, Spread Eagle, Come-By-Chance, Happy Adventure, and Little Heart’s Ease.

I doubt that any tourist has driven the Baccalieu Trail in eastern Newfoundland without stopping to taking their picture in front of the sign for the town of Dildo or their informative museum,the Dildo Interpretation Center.

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There are deniers among the town folk that the name has any sexual connotations, but really…

Dildo is just south of the towns of Heart’s Desire, Heart’s Content, and Heart’s Delight. It’s a happy peninsula.

This lovely gal is just up the road from the Interpretation Center, and I would say she does look content:

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Up the coast a stretch, on over to Fogo Island I encountered this more anxious looking duo:

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And there’s plenty to be anxious about in Newfoundland. First and foremost the disastrous collapse of the Cod fisheries in the 1990’s devastated the province’s economy and threatened the heart and soul of the Newfoundland culture.  The material signs of the collapse are everywhere–a terrible, poignant beauty:

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The Church above and collapsed fisherman’s shed below are side by side in the speck of a town of Clarke’s Head.     IMG_20140818_105311537_HDR

Looks like the prevailing wind blows the opposite direction in the town of Cupids:

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Abandoned boarding houses in the once thriving town of Port Union, the only union -built town in North America, birthplace of the  Fisherman’s Protective Union, the first labor organization for fisherman.          IMG_20140812_092742693

There was a Pompeii feeling to this deserted home in the village of Baraneed. Wide open at every orifice:IMG_3174   The collapsed roof filling the space of the stairwell,

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The tableware staying obediently on a shelf that is one rotten floorboard away from landing in the basement:                 

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Skeletons of beautifully handcrafted punts like beached whale remains:

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And fishing vessels dotting the landscape yearning to be ocean-bound:

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Yet amongst the collapse are beautiful signs of re-building:

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This may be a small thing, but I really love all  the hand painted signs one sees along the road.

You’ve got a board, you’ve got some left over house paint, you’ve got a brush, go for it:

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Elliston’s claim to fame, by the way, is as the “Root Cellar Capital of the World“. Do not even try to dispute this.

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This lovely sign for Mr. Bully’s Meat Room in Petty Harbor:

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topped off with this window above: (Could this be Mr. Bully?”)

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The next level up in signage: carve something that’s going to outlast anyone’s memory of what was not to be denied on “No Denial Path”:

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Or give the most talented guy in town a chance to flex his or her creative muscle:

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And hey, you don’t always need words to get your point across:

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Here and there I encountered folks making their mark on the landscape. Az in Hibbs Cove (shown here with his wife Lorraine) who made excellent use of the tree that died in their yard:

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And up the same peninsula, in Port-de-Grave we stopped to chat with Matt who was adding a fresh coat of paint to his impressive built environment.

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I did not sense one whiff of irony in this man so I don’t believe there’s a hidden message in the positioning of his cannon in relationship to the sign he made for his hometown:IMG_3302

An incredibly handy man, Matt fabricated all his own crab traps, which stacked up and stored away for the winter were a beautiful site to see:

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We were so pleased when Matt invited us to tour his fishing vessel: IMG_3313         IMG_3314

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Matt hired a Twillingate artist (sorry not to have caught his name) to paint this beautiful portrait of his father and himself on the bow of his vessel:

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Port-de-Grave was one of the only fully active fishing towns we saw–and it’s crabbing that’s keeping these fishermen in business.

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Speaking of crab, when Antoinette and I went to the Independent Fish Harvesters to buy crab for dinner, we discovered that the minimum order was 20 lbs, a bit much for two for dinner! When we expressed disappointment, Graham said, “Wait a minute ladies” ducked into the freezer and emerged with one of the twenty pound boxes which he promptly sliced open. Turns out he was breaking into his own box that he had set aside for his family for Christmas. Our protests fell on deaf ears.

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When we took out our wallets, Graham said “You don’t owe me anything”. “What do you mean?” we asked. His reply, “This is Newfoundland. All you want is some fish for dinner. Anyone in Newfoundland would give you that. You’re not asking for twenty pounds–just a little fish for dinner, You don’t have to pay for that.”

Ok, so, didn’t I tell you at the beginning of this post, Newfoundlanders have got to be the nicest, friendliest people on earth?

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And even their digitally printed signs are pretty great:

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