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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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