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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Collector/ Creator

As long as I’ve got you focused on midcoast Maine (see my last post on Davistown Museum and Liberty Tool Company), I wanted to give you a tour of the studio one of my most inspiring artist colleagues, Abbie Read, who lives in the little town of Appleton, Maine–just inland from Belfast.

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She also happens to be the person who first introduced me to Liberty Tool Company and Skip Brack. Like myself, Abbie always has her eye out for quirky beauty. She is a gardener, a collector, and above all else an artist. You will see from these images of her home and studio that these three pursuits are all rolled together into one seamless existence. Rather than using too many words I’ll let you stroll with me through Abbie’s gardens and studio and you’ll see what I mean.

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Roadside view of Abbie’s studio, surrounded by her remarkable garden.

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I was paddling with Abbie in the great northern woods of Maine when she spotted this fish-shaped driftwood on the shore. It could not be left behind!

I’ll get back to her gardens before this post wraps up–but time to poke around inside Abbie’s studio:

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Here and there I recognize some great finds from Liberty Tool Company.

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What I love about visiting Abbie’s studio is that you can’t quite  tell where the collections leave off and the artwork begins.

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The arrangements are shape shifters, social gatherings, little galaxies of starlets.

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The found objects become installations become artworks, but even so, at any moment a comfortably bedded down little object might be plucked up, manipulated,  and given a whole new context:

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So much more to see, but I promised to get back to the gardens:

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Trellises                          (no problem for Abbie who can whip out willow chairs)

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And the gardens are great homes for her collection of whirlygigs:

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The real show stoppers are the flower beds, raised bed vegetable gardens and containers spilling blooms everywhere…

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Ah!

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Oh Ursula!

Last post from the infamous Ossuary trip!

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I’ve been back home for a week now but couldn’t keep up with the flood of post-worthy material while traveling–and I just cannot leave the ossuary trip behind without due recording of our last encounter with beautiful bones. The big oval-shaped route we took from Frankfurt , across Bavaria, over to the Czech Republic, with a day to dip our toes into Poland, looped back through northern-ish Germany and ended in culturally rich Cologne (Koln, as you’d say in Deutsch). We had the good fortune of meeting up with fellow artist and Cologne resident  Ulli Böhmelmann who stood patiently waiting for us outside the Basilica of St. Ursula as Hannah Verlin and I once again showed our muddlement with the map. (Cologne, like Boston, favors nonparallel streets which challenge any logic one tries to apply to the cause of getting from here to there)

These few pictures cannot do justice to what one encounters as one enters the side chapel (the Golden Kammer) of St. Ursula’s. The blue-gray night sky walls framed with arches which reach to a vaulted ceiling are completely covered with an impossible number of bones arranged in beautiful patterns and words.

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And just below the bones the room is ringed with wooden and silver reliquary busts.

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Between these, cloth-wrapped skulls peek out from windows in ornately carved and painted wood columns or gold reliquary boxes.

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To take in the full measure of this incredibly beautiful, incredibly poignant site one must digest the story of St Ursula and her eleven loyal virgin friends whose very bones adorn the walls and fill the reliquaries. (pay no attention to those pesky anthropologists who after careful analysis declared the bones to belong to a whole array of beings from newborns, toddlers  and–WHAAAT! Matiffs?!?!! Save yourself the trouble of verifying the martyrdom of Ursula story by looking it up on Wikipedia or elsewhere–there are so many confusing and conflicting accounts of Ursula that she was removed from the official “General Roman Calendar” of saints in 1969–Harrumph! And oh, let’s not quibble about the number of virgins which started as 11 in the 5th century telling and grew to 11,000 by the 9th century. Well, all this  has not hurt Ursula’s status in Cologne where she is still considered their patron saint.)

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–and here is why:

As you can see from the above sculpture, Ursula was incredibly beautiful and was pursued by innumerable suitors (it probably didn’t hurt that she was also a princess). Ursula turned them down, one after the other, ’til one day a particularly aggressive, and oh dear, pagan prince declared that if Ursula would not agree to marry him he would see to it that Cologne was destroyed. Talk about pressure! Her father the king, who until this point had indulged Ursula, begged her to reconsider. She could see his point but still, being a pious Christian princess, felt a trip to consult with the pope was in order. She gathered her 11 best friends and off they sailed to Rome, a bold, bold move– a pilgrimage of WOMEN–unheard of!  While sailing down (or was it up?) the Rhine, their ship was attacked by Huns, whose leader, Attila, was also smitten by Ursula and asked her to marry him. She did not need further consultation on this one–the answer was NO and Attila’s response was swift and not surprising, given his bad reputation. Ursula and the eleven virgins (who also refused to couple with the Huns) were all beheaded. Attila declared that Cologne would be stormed and destroyed. But this is not the end of the story. That night every single Hun soldier had the SAME dream about Ursula. I cannot tell you what exactly she did in this dream, but it was enough to scare every soldier into disobeying Attila’s orders to torch Cologne. Cologne was saved!!! What I can’t understand is the papal problem with recognizing Ursula as a saint. 1969, the whole western world is pretty much going to pot and the Vatican decides now’s a good time to tighten up on sainthood requirements? Geez!

As I mentioned earlier, our visit to Cologne was greatly sweetened by the two days we spent with Ulli Böhmelmann who shepherded us here and there throughout her interesting and vibrant city, poking around the contemporary art galleries, design center,

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and, most lovely of all, a visit to her studio. Ulli will be coming to Boston to present at the Transcultural Exchange in February 2016 if you want to hear her speak about the sculpture project she did in Russia last year.

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Melnik Bouquet

I’m back home. Happy to see that our piles of snow melted in my absence. However, I’m not quite ready to put the bones behind me, and hopefully you’re not either since I have a couple more ossuaries to tell you about (what a relief to post from a desktop computer rather than pecking away on the phone.)

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One of our last outings in the Czech Republic brought us to the small town of Melnik (spelled with various tick marks and accents over the vowels and pronounced as if you had a mouthful of honey),

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Hannah and I paid the modest entry fee and stepped into this dirt floored, cob-webbed crypt    IMG_1948                                           accompanied by piped in funereal music. We were on our own and Hannah got right to work documenting all the teeth with photos and sketches. This can take some time, but hey, this is what we were here for.  IMG_1944

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Suddenly the music stopped and the ticket taker, who was well out of view, called out several sentences to us in Czech and then we heard her feet ascend the stairs, leaving us undisturbed and wondering what on earth she had just told us. Once Hannah finished her teeth documentation we headed up and found that the ticket taker had apparently closed up “shop”, but luckily just with a rope which could easily be untied–no wonder we had had the crypt to ourselves!

From the crypt we headed next door to the  Lobkowicz castle. Replenished by our coffee break in the castle parlor for which we were the only guests and woefully under-dressed,

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we poked around (no other visitors during the whole visit and no guards in sight–I think we could have taken up residence and no one would have noticed) to see what sorts of things the Lobkowiczes collected. I think this qualifies as quirky and at the very least fit in rather nicely with the ossuary theme of the day:

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We were not

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