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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Grandview and Prairie Moon

Just a few years after the Wegner couple  (last post) began their mosaic-ed home environment, Nick Englebert began to transform his farmhouse and property in Hollandale, Wisconsin into a roadside environment. Like the Wegners he had made the trip to visit the nearby Dickeyville Grotto and it clearly lit the fire in his belly. He went home, stirred up some concrete and began coating his clapboard house.  Into this soupy surface he pushed bits of glass, shells and stones. The effect is surprisingly light and lacy.

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For anyone else this would have been a life-long project, but not for Nick Engelbert, a man of many talents and boundless energy. Prior to teaching himself to sculpt, Engelbert had been a machinist, a sailor, and engineer, a prospector and like any good Wisconsinite of the day, a farmer and cheese-maker . His house transformation was just the beginning of an astoundingly ambitious environment including figurative sculptures which cavort about his extensive property which Engelbert proudly called “Grandview“.

Unlike the Wegners, Mr. Englebert did not adopt any of the religious bent of Father Wernerus’s Grotto. Instead, he paid homage to his European immigrant neighbors, which surely must have endeared his neighbors to him.

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And for his own “portrait” he sculpted first an Austro-Hungarian eagle and then an American eagle.

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Sprinkled about the environment are tell tale signs of Englebert’s love for his adopted homeland.wisconsin112

The oddly random subject matter of his sculptures and evident sense of humor made me wish that Nick Engelbert were still puttering about his yard when I made my visit. Sadly, Engelbert completed his last sculpture in 1950.

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Born just five years after Nick Engelbert in 1885, Herman Rusch, too, was inspired by his visit to Father Wernerus’s Dickeyville grotto. (I assure you, if you make the trek to Dickeyville, on your plane flight home you will start formulating a plan for a yard art project of your own.) Besides the Dickeyville Grotto, Rusch had also visited  and loved the roadside attraction in neighboring Iowa known as “Little Bit of Heaven” created by B.J. Palmer which is sadly no longer in existence. Both Palmer’s and Wernerus’s environments provided  technical and aesthetic models for the do-it-yourself-er obsessive builder.     Like most good Wisconsinites at the turn of the century, Herman Rusch had been a farmer, and though he worked diligently at that endeavor for 40 years, farming just did not satisfy his hungry soul. By the time he retired from farming in the 1950’s he was hankering for something new to sink his teeth into. He found the perfect project already waiting in the wings. His whole adult life, Rusch had been quietly and obsessively amassing a huge collection of Americana–tools, antiques, and oddities from the natural world. He was determined to create a museum of curios and found a dance hall near Cochrane, Wisconsin (I notice the village of Cochrane’s website does not make even one mention of Prairie Moon–hmmm) to transform into an exhibition space.

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For three years he worked on his museum which he dubbed “Prairie Moon”. When the museum (the blue building above) was complete Rusch set to work building structures to grace the grounds of the museum which he hoped would tempt passersby to stop in. Today, all that remains of Prairie Moon are these outside attractions as the museum has long since closed. Most iconic and attractive of Rusch’s structures is the gracefully arcing, mosaic-ed fence that serves as a border to his property:

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In all, Rusch made 45 sculptures to surround his museum, an odd assortment including a miniature Hindu temple:  wisconsin054

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One cannot help but be charmed by Rusch’s sculpted self portrait onto which he wrote the following rather awkward inscription on the back: “Born in a log cabin in 1885…A lover and student of nature. Farms 40 years then sells farm to son. Always helping him in busy times and at the same time started this venture when 71 years old. And did all the work himself…A good way to kill old age boredom.”

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When is a Grotto Not a Grotto?

As promised in my last post I am going to show you a few of the many wonderfully odd and audacious built environments in Wisconsin. Last post introduced Grotto builders Fathers Dobberstein and Wernerus who I think can be credited with launching Wisconsin’s curious proliferation of yard art.  There are at least five religious grottos in Wisconsin and many more in neighboring Iowa. Nearly all were masterminded and built (with lots of parishioner help) by Father Dobberstein, but it’s safe to say that Father Wernerus’s grandiose shrine in Dickeyville served as a huge inspiration for many of the subsequent Wisconsin environment builders. One of the first of the non-religious environments was built by the lovely Wegner couple. Like many other Wisconsinites (Wisconsonians?) the Wegners made a pilgrimage in the late 1920’s to the grotto shrine in Dickeyville.  By the time they left Dickeyville they were on fire with inspiration and set to work when they got home building a concrete and mosaic wall around their farm property:

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By the 1940’s they had built up such an impressive environment that their property too became a tourist destination. As if proof that their yard art was germinated from their visit to Dickeyville it is called the “The Paul and Matilda Wegner Grotto” even though there is no grotto anywhere in site. The closest the Wegners came to anything remotely grotto-esque would be their little chapel building so at least you know there’s a healthy dose of religiosity mixed into their artistry.

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And it seems you couldn’t built a yard art environment in this era without including the requisite stars and stripes.

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One of my favorite sculptures in the Wegner’s yard is their rendition of the Steamship Bremen that brought the Wegners to America in the late 1800’s. Paul Wegner apparently rigged up a little performance for the tourists, creating the illusion that the ship was sailing using mirrors (but no smoke) held and moved just so by his granddaughter.

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But surely the piece de resistance at the Wegner Grotto is their final collaborative work:  a huge mosaic-ed wedding cake celebrating their 50st anniversary. Paul and Matilda Wegner lived to celebrate two more anniversaries.wisconsin025

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Why, Oh, Why Wisconsin?

For years I’ve been keeping files, clipping articles, surfing the net and tramping around the world to visit quirky environments. The appendixes of all my outsider art books have circled addresses. My global maps have post-its stuck here and there. I see patterns and odd concentrations of sites. I think I’m right about this: the highest concentration of outsider art environments in the world are to be found in France and–wait for it–Wisconsin! France and Wisconsin?? Sometimes when I can’t go to sleep at night I ponder this and come up with theories.  It just so happens that my mother was French and I feel very connected to France. I’ve traveled many times to France and visited many fantastic oddities there. It has not helped me figure out the French penchant (or maybe it’s tolerance?) for the house project gotten out of hand. But the Wisconsin question–this really had me stumped, so several years ago I used my sabbatical to crisscross the Wisconsin map to visit almost every known odd property in this lovely, bucolic state.

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Coming from New England, where there’s an unspoken but expected level of acceptable comportment and yards must be just so, I was stunned to see so much quirky creativity sprouting up here and there in a region that otherwise looks so traditional.

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It was a revelation, and I do have a wee theory on the question, why Wisconsin?  Here’s what I learned: It all started with Catholic priest, Father Dobberstein who emigrated to Wisconsin from Germany in the late 1800’s. He was one wicked smart (poor choice of qualifiers for someone in the priesthood–sorry–I’m from Massachusetts, I have to use the word “wicked” whenever possible). He was fluent in six languages and was a passionate rock-hound. Now, how to pursue mineralogy and  answer the higher calling all in one fell swoop? God does work in mysterious ways; he smote Dobberstein with pneumonia which nearly killed him. Dobberstein vowed that should he recover he would build a shrine to the Virgin Mary in gratitude. He had seen grotto shrines in his homeland  and took it from there. Dobberstein threw himself into a decades long building project on the grounds of his newly assigned parish in West Bend,  Iowa. Now I have not yet seen the glorious and gigantic Grotto of Redemption in Iowa (yes, on my bucket list) , but I got a taste for Dobberstein’s obsessive workmanship and idiosyncratic aesthetic in one of his subsequent creations, the Grotto of the Holy Family in St Joseph (just outside of LaCrosse), Wisconsin where one can clearly see his geologist’s juices freely mixing with his religious (and patriotic) zeal.

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The interior of the grotto is a mosaic wonder of golden sheets of mica, pink quartz and stalactites Dobberstein whacked from the ceiling of the Carlsbad Cavern for the glory of God.

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Meanwhile, in the midst of Dobberstein’s building frenzy, another priest with a remarkably similar background, German born Mathias Wernerus (who trained for the priesthood in the same seminary as Dobberstein) was assigned a parish in Dickeyville, where he too saw fit to build a grotto (gotta love the impulse to build a grotto on the open rolling land of Wisconsin) which was eventually to become Wisconsin’s most popular tourist attraction in the 1930’s.

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Like Dobberstein, Wernerus had a penchant for precious minerals; the trunk above is made with petrified wood. Add to this Wernerus’s brilliant idea of incorporating Native American artifacts…oh boy…

And forget about the separation of church and state. Praise the Lord and praise America! Here’s Christopher Columbus happily residing amid the Holy Family:

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The Columbus theme carries over nicely to the anchor-adorned garden wall:

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Parishioners were asked (and apparently agreed) to contribute their labor (Wernerus used to round up the kids as Sunday school was winding down) as well as their material goods to the effort. One can spot personal items such as brooches, teacups and pots and sundry bric a brac integrated into the mosaic-ed surface.

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In the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s as many as 10,000 visitors flooded the tiny town (population 250 at the time of the grotto building.) of Dickeyville on any given Sunday to ooh and ah over this marvel.  It is thus not surprising that shortly after the completion of the Dickeyville Grotto various mosaic creations began to spring up in yards across Wisconsin.

I will take you to see some of the other Wisconsin creations in subsequent posts.

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I cannot end this post without mentioning the royal treatment we received everywhere as tourists to Wisconsin. This state truly lives up to its Midwest NICE reputation. The lady who ran the gift shop at the Dickeyville Grotto was so bowled over that we were visiting from Massachusetts ( I believe she said, “My Lord! MASSACHUSETTS?!?”) that she insisted that we pick out souvenirs and not pay for them! She would not take no for an answer so I came home with Dickeyville Grotto playing cards,

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a Grotto refrigerator magnet and a wee little teaspoon with a microscopic grotto engraved in the bowl end. Would anyone be that nice in a New England tourist gift shop? I don’t think so. If anyone is reading this who runs a tourist gift shop here on the chilly East Coast–I’m telling you, it’s worth it–a free refrigerator magnet does wonders for a state’s reputation.

Garden Guardians

Hope I haven’t kept you awake at night wondering what could possibly have been an even better discovery at Green Animals Topiary Gardens than the privet elephant, lion, and giraffe (I did know, after all,  to expect that menagerie). Lured by the impressive array of vegetables (artichokes in New England!!) I followed the garden path that wended its way through bean trellises and melon mounds when I spied–was it the gardener at work?

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and his lovely family?

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These splendiforous scarecrows were carved by that lovely son-in-law, George Mendonca, whom I mentioned in my last post. Now, this is a man for me! Were it not for the fact that I already have an excellent man for a husband and for the fact that Mr. Mendonca is deceased, I would definitely consider marrying him. I realize those two caveats are not trivial, but really–a skilled gardener AND scarecrow carving man is hard to find!

Alice Brayton, daughter of the original estate owner, Thomas Brayton, bequeathed the whole property, scarecrows and all, to the Preservation Society of Newport Country who is doing a darned good job keeping these garden folk in fresh clothing.

Well, purple and gray are not the most complimentary colors for her complexion but she is not one to complain.

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A church going woman, if ever there was one. Do not use swear words around her or you’ll get your mouth washed out with soap.

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The toupee is not fooling anyone, but still, hair loss at this young age is hard to accept.

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This child is not popular at school, but he’s got a pure heart and adults love him.

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OK, the real reason that I had to do a separate post for these scarecrows is that I have a couple images from random scarecrow sightings that I wanted to stick in a post.

This Shaker woman is in the lovely garden at the Enfield, NH Shaker Museum. Her arms are getting oh, so tired. I could not bear to show you her face–it was not a pretty sight.

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And lastly, at the Campbell Folk School in the foothills of the Smokies, a mountain man who’s lost his trousers (another great approach for scaring the birds away)

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If you have beautiful scarecrow images, send them to me. (You’ll find my email address on the contact page)

Happy August!

Garden Quirk

What took me so long?!? I’ve been meaning to visit Green Animals Topiary Garden in Portsmouth, Rhode Island for years. But sometimes the attractions that are closest to home, the ones that don’t require any research, planning, or preparations are the ones you skip,  putting them off til later. Finally, a few weeks ago, on a picture perfect July day, I made the trip (just an hour and a half south of Boston) down to Rhode Island.

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The “small” country estate of Fall River cotton mill owner, Thomas Brayton is really only small in comparison to the famous neighboring Newport mansions, but unlike those monster homes (sorry Newport mansion fans) Mr. Brayton’s Narragansett bayside dwelling is a warm, homey, clapboarded affair.

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What makes this summer residence stand out is the work of Mr Brayton’s hired gardener, Azorean, Joseph Carreiro, who worked on the garden from 1905 to 1945. He was given free reign to execute his own vision of a garden. In keeping with the  times (and the apparently healthy budget of his employer) , Mr. Carreiro planted formal arrangements,

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  vegetable and herb beds (which are now used to provide produce for a local food pantry) and orchards.

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But Mr. Carreiro’s real wizardry is revealed in his amazing array of topiary art:

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The topiary work was expanded upon by Mr. Brayton’s son-in-law (best son-in-law ever!), George Mendonca, who took over after the death, first of his father-in-law, then Mr. Carreiro. These Teddy Bears were made as recently as the 1970’s.

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There was one more great surprise to be found in the gardens, but they deserve their own post. Stay tuned…

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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