Bryant Stove and Doll Circus

I don’t have to tell my fellow New Englanders that this spring has been one of the wettest  on record. What to do on these dreary days?  Just read the title of this post and you’ll know we found the perfect outing.   From our starting point in Appleton Maine, we drove through Liberty and then Freedom to get to tiny Thorndike. As we pulled into Stove Pipe Alley (yup, that’s the listed address) and parked the car, it was pretty obvious we had arrived at our destination, The Bryant Stove Works and Doll Circus:IMG_20190514_094454This forlorn assemblage of stoves and dolls which flanked our parking space did nothing to prepare me for glories of what lay inside the Stove Works and Museum. We opened an unassuming door with a plastic-covered welcome sign, and entered a darkened structure that we could see, at the very least, was packed to the gills with dolls. Impressive!

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But wait! My friend, intrepid fellow traveler, and on this occasion, my guide, Abbie, asked “Are you ready?” She flipped on the light (and sound) switch and here’s what presented itself:

We entered the wondrous world of Joe and Bea Bryant’s Doll Circus.

In every nook and cranny there’s more spinning and clatter:

Dancing and merriment:

And dolls coming oh-so-creepily to life:

 

Somehow I garnered great satisfaction in seeing that Ken is the wallflower here–despite his well-developed pecs: (Hello, Ken–that’s not the only thing the gals are interested in… could you please button up your jacket–geez!)

In a rare departure from dancing dolls is this lovely ode to the Slinky:

All of this was assembled, designed and engineered by Joe (who sadly passed away in 2018) and Bea Bryant, owners of the Bryant Stove Works (Don’t worry, I’ll get to the Stove Works).

The Bryants very sensibly fled to Florida every winter to escape the harsher climes of northern New England. (I am not kidding, they lived in the town of Zephyrhills. What I really want to know is whether they chose the town for its name or whether the town chose them. By the way, if you click on the link for Zephyrhills, THE Official town website,  you will note that one of the three things “happening” in Zephyrhills this year is a traffic light relocation.)  Anyway, the Bryants settled in nicely to winters in Zephyrhills and they just needed a little project to while away their hours. (I mean, really what’s there to do when there’s no snow shoveling?) Then they met Henry Stark…

Joe Bryant found a kindred spirit and fellow engineering wizard in Zephyrhills resident, Henry  Stark, who became a good friend. I can picture Hank and Joe brainstorming the mechanisms for the Doll Circus in their Florida basements.

Stark’s mini mechanical marvels are now housed in Room Two of the Bryant Museum:

Here is Joe Bryant’s lovely write up and portrait of his friend, Hank:

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As we were  taking in the whirls and twirls of the Doll Museum and testing every one of Stark’s little engines, in walked Bea Bryant!

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Bea said, there’s more! Oh so much more! And she led the way through the next door into a humongous Quonset hut which housed the stove (!), antique car (!!), and music machine (!!!) museum.

First of all, I was so overwhelmed by the stoves I hardly took any pictures of them, but here’s enough to clue you in to what I had not known before: Back in the day, stoves were gorgeous pieces of sculptures:

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Bea was very rightly proud of the fact that one of their stoves was borrowed and used as a stage prop in the 2012 Spielberg film, “Lincoln“.

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And yes, antique cars are tucked in here and there, comfortably cohabitating with whatever creatures roam about.

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We could see that Bea’s pride and joy were the music machines which she both demonstrated:

and invited us to try our hand with the cranking.

 

The Bryants bought this magnificent Wurlitzer from a 98 year old gentleman in Connecticut. They towed it themselves back to Maine, completely restored it to working order, added a bubble machine and entered it in many a parade.

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The Wurlitzer in action:

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with rolls and rolls of tunes. Multiply this image by ten and know that you are not going to have to repeat a tune no matter how dark and dreary your winter is.

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And adorable toy pianos. (really, you MUST click on this toy piano link–it’s a YouTube video of a VIRTUOSO toy pianist!)  Plink, plank, plunk:

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Not enough stuff for ya? Luckily for us, Bea had too much time on her hands while Joe and Hank were working out the complicated mechanics of carousels. So she took up button carding. (how did you and I not know that was a thing?)

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If you’re wondering where Bea got her work and fun ethic read the fine print above her father’s portrait:

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I don’t want to make you worry and fret, but Bea made it clear she is worrying and fretting about the fate of the Bryant Stove Works and Doll Circus now that Joe is gone. I just know some of you are heading up to Maine this summer, you might want to turn up Stove Pipe Alley and have a look around.

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Pourquoi pas?

Since the theme of these last couple of years has been TransAtlantic, I’m going to zip from this side of the pond where I’ve located the last few posts over to the other side, to the lovely and lightly trodden Sarthe department of the Pays de la Loire, France.  A few years ago I had mapped out a route through Pays de la Loire (the region where my mother was born) and Normandy visiting the myriad of outsider art sites along the way.  YES, there are many. And yes, I too have wondered why. Of all cultures, the French are known  the world over for being proper. And yet, AND YET, France has the highest concentration of wacky built environments. Sitting alongside their deep sense propriety is a simultaneous undercurrent of “pourquoi pas?”, maybe more commonly thought of as Joie de Vivre! I can hardly think of two more apt phrases to describe “Le Jardin Humoristique” that I visited in the Alençon suburb, Fyé.  This roadside environment had been on my bucket list since I found this book , “Bonjour aux Promeneurs”, in 1996. If ever there was a character beckoning to me from a book cover, this was my man!

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By the time I made it to Le Jardin Humoristique this jolly fellow felt like an old friend AND I saw, as I stepped  out of the car, he had gotten a face lift and had sprouted hair!

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Fernand Chartelain, a one time baker and subsequent farmer, built this roadside attraction in his retirement for his own and passerby’s amusement.  He sculpted a welcome sign, “Bonjours aux Promeneurs” and affixed it front and center to the modest fence that bordered his property on Route 138.

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Knowing that drivers would be jamming on their brakes he added admonitions such as “Be careful not to have an accident” and later more whimsical advice, “Only roll downhill”.

Chatelain drew his first inspiration from a dictionary illustration of a centaur.

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And the Mobile gas station logo of Pegassus:

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And the familiar children’s story, Babar.

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But as he grew more confident he let his imagination go wild, and wild was his imagination!

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Though most reports suggest Chatelain’s creations were enjoyed by the public, his work also suffered from periodic vandalism. But despair and discouragement were not in Chatelain’s wheelhouse. With the assistance of his wife, Marie Louise, he  repaired and re-painted, his work constantly evolving. Finally after 23 years creating his Jardin Humoristique, Chatelain was forced by age to abandon his work in 1988. For 20 years forces of nature took their toll on this whimsical roadside attraction until at nearly the last minute a group of art brut admirers formed “The Friends of Fernand Chatelain”  in 2005 and got to work to restore the sculptures. Though there have been detractors to the shockingly vibrant new paint applied to the reconstructed concrete surfaces, I really don’t think Monsieur Chatelain would have minded at all. In fact I’m quite certain he is broadly smiling from above or below.

 

 

 

 

 

Siren Call of Newfoundland

Before I bid farewell to summer I am crawling back onto my blogging wagon (oh it is easy to slip off the back side of that wagon!)  to recount how this summer unfolded its beautiful self for me.

I first visited Newfoundland in 2014 and vowed to return every year .  So far I’ve been doing pretty well keeping that vow.

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I knew I wanted to find a way to spend more significant time in Newfoundland beyond what the usual scope of a tourist trip affords so I started digging into the possibility of an artist residency. I stumbled upon the Kickstarter video for the Two Rooms Residency on  the Bonavista Penninsula the year after their campaign successfully wrapped up and they were beginning their first season. I checked in periodically on Two Rooms via FB and started formulating a Newfoundland project that I hoped to propose for my own residency there.  This past fall I sent my application in, held my breath through the winter and Hurray, Hurrah! I got an email from Director Catherine Beaudette inviting me to be an Artist in Residence at Two Rooms!

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Each time I have visited I have been struck by Newfoundlanders’ sardonic take on the world, a very particular blend of pragmatism, irony, and humor. They have had a long history of bearing up under the crushing weight of their circumstances. This residency would afford me the opportunity to plumb the questions closest to my heart. How do we proceed in this confusing mess of our beautiful world? How do we as global citizens face adversarial shifts without communities losing cultural integrity and individuals losing their souls?

At Two Rooms I began a new body of work which I refer to as “Float”. It’s an ongoing project with twists and turns. I aim to reflect the coupled traits of fragility and resilience that I feel so strongly in Newfoundland.

But, oh! A trip to Newfoundland is not all seriousness. So I hummed my way through the spring in anticipation of the fun to be had. I threw myself into readying my vegetable garden for my June absence. Newfoundland icebergs here I come!

Here’s what awaited us (I shared my residency with fellow Quirk traveler, Hannah Verlin, who had the good sense, unlike me, to pack Long Johns) on the Bonavista Penninsula:

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We wound our way up the west coast of the  Bonavista Peninsula to the village of Duntara and soon spotted the lovely tri-colored heritage home I recognized from the two Rooms Facebook page.

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Locked with a padlock! Hmmm, time to dig out the printed out directions. Ah! this was the Two Rooms gallery. We needed to head over to Bog Lane, and there we’d find the mustard colored house with the names of the Kickstarter backers calligraphied on the side–our home for the next two weeks.

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Even more exciting for me was the perfect red fisherman’s shed across the street that would serve as my studio.

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Over the next fourteen days I assembled and draped this sometimes cozy, sometimes drafty space with a segmented map that stretched from the North Pole to Boston.

 

And then I started to play around with the map which you will see in subsequent posts.

When the weather was good we set aside half the day for exploring. If you are a regular follower of this blog you know that besides seeking out natural beauty (there is no shortage of that is Newfoundland!) I am always on the look out for offbeat surprises. Turns out our closest neighboring communities were all we needed for deep satisfaction in both departments.  Choosing our first day’s destination solely on its appealing name we headed out to Tickle Cove vowing to take in the sites of Open Hall and Red Cliff on our way back. We parked our car beside the beckoning boardwalk at the top of this post but chose the equally alluring path in the opposite direction

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through an otherworldly landscape

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that led to a tiny soulful cemetery.

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But the best surprise of the day lay at the base of the path, not far from our parked car. Whoa–what are all those colors?!

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As we were gingerly walked around this marvel out rolled the artist, Molly Turbin, coming from her house to fetch firewood. We needn’t have worried about trespassing. Molly immediately lit up at the prospect of visitors and we were soon posing with her on Quilt Rock

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and following her powerful wheelchair up the steep path to her home.

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And Oh! Molly’s home! Stuffed to the gills with family photos and her painted treasures:

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We were treated to steaming cups of sweet tea and muffins while Molly told us the origin story of Quilt Rock. Like most Newfoundlanders of her generation, Molly’s life had revolved around the fishing industry. When she lost her leg as a result of an  industrial accident at the fish plant, Molly could feel herself slipping into a dark place. She set herself a goal to remain positive and  conceived of an ambitious project that would give her days purpose and brightness. Pulling herself in and out of her wheelchair to scramble over the thinly covered ledge in her back yard, Molly began scraping away the sod to reveal her “canvas”.  Her painting project is never done, Molly explained to us. Every year she repaints the Quilt which an ever-changing palette. She also repaints all the figures that line the walks to her home. Her playful juxtapositions and wacky color choices left Hannah and me in a good mood for the rest of the day.

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We took Molly’s advice and followed her gnomes back to the road

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and scampered up these lovely steps

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to see Tickle Cove’s most famous site, the Sea Arch, where we met this Mennonite missionary and his family.

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Well, even with the long daylight hours of June we ran out of time for the boardwalk around the town lake and  for the intriguing sites we passed along the way  in Red Hall and Open Cliff.  Next outing, next blog post. Stay tuned…

 

 

 

 

 

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 need to venture outdoors on a nasty winter day. Several communal chambers served the whole village for their shared endeavors such as wine and cheese making and even a room where women gathered to chat as they did their textile work.

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

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supporting columns for Cathedral spire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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YUM!

For the Glory of…

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

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

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

 

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

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This jumble of rogues and monsters

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

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

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

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

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A dieu…

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Broken and Beautiful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We were greeted by Robert Vassuer’s dazzling creation.

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

 

 

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How’s this for a dog house?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hubcap Ranch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viola Frey :

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

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

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And Mildred Howard’s luminescent Bottle House:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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in all its quirky glory.

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Portals to Paradise

A recent post on this blog , “To Hell in a Handbasket”, invited you, dear viewer, to explore  Hieronymus Bosch’s  deliciously illustrated depictions of debauchery which line the slippery  slope to  eternal damnation.   I thought it only fair to give equal time to the alternate path…to Paradise.

Churches throughout the Western world have long employed artists to get their message out to the masses. So powerful a tool was the Churches’s use of the “Poor Man’s Bible” (illustrated versions of the bible on church walls for the benefit of the illiterate masses) that since the the Middle Ages, Churches were happy to fork over the dough to hire the most credentialed artists of their time and region.

No finer examples of this kind of biblical story-telling through paint can be found anywhere in the world than in the Byzantine monasteries and churches in northeastern Romania. Hmmm, this is making me think I should really do a separate post on Romania which has a treasure trove of unheralded, untrampled, UNESCO heritage sites.To whet your appetite, here is the exuberantly fresco-ed Eastern Orthodox monastery church in the Bucovina region of Moldavia, Romania. The inside is similarly covered, walls and ceiling!

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But this post is about an even rarer phenomenon: Churches that serve as a palettes for the work of the untrained, “outsider”, or folk artist.

I had my first introduction of a modern day folk art church in Somerville, Georgia when I visited the renowned visionary artist Howard Finster‘s Paradise Garden back in 1990. Finster was still alive at the time of our visit, but alas, had taken to  sleeping during the day and working at night. So as we walked about the Garden  enthralled, Howard Finster was snoring away in some hidden corner of Paradise.

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Originally an itinerant tent revival preacher,

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Finster turned to painting, sculpting and building as a better way to spread the gospel. A self-described “Messenger of God” and “Man of Visions”, Finster spent roughly thirty years creating his “Paradise Garden”  with his “Folk Art Church” as a centerpiece. Though all of his small works of art that could possibly be pried off the sides of his church and other surfaces throughout the garden have now been dispersed, at the time of our visit the church was filled inside and out with works such is this one which showed Finster’s zeal and humor.

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Though I could describe the folk art church in the Guatemalan highlands region near Xela as more traditional than Finster’s sanctuary, traditional would not be a descriptor usually applied to this incredibly exuberant village church.

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Located in the wool-dying village of San Andres Xecul

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the exuberant yellow folk art church shows off not only the Guatemalan love of colors but also a joyous mix of Catholic and Mayan iconography.

Poking out between the archangel’s legs is the Mayan jaguar.img_0725

And twin jaguars, the embodiment of Mayan dualities (life/death, day/night, sun/moon) appear at the tip  top of the church just above Jesus.

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The beautiful dome in the back of the church:img_0769

And up the hill, at the top of the village, another chapel, clearly a more modest cousin to the riotous main church:

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The anonymous Guatemalan artist of San Andres Xecul had a kindred spirit in the 19th century French priest, Victor Paysant, who went on a painting spree on the facade of his own church in the village of Menil-Gondouin, Normandy, France.

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

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

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I cannot find any accounts of how his flock felt about him, but I have deduced that they weren’t so keen on the spectacle that the abbot made of their sanctuary. No sooner had he passed on (in 1921) than the church facade was whitewashed, his decorated statuary inside the church was buried and Paysant’s entire creation was sadly obliterated.  However, by the 1980’s the whitewash started chipping away, revealing the hidden treasure to a more receptive public. Thanks to the initiative of Menil-Gondouin’s mayor, Guy Bechet, restoration of the “L’Eglise  Vivante et Parlante” was begun in 2004.  Now that’s a mayor I could vote for! With the aid of postcards and the excellent memory of a 100 year old resident of Menil-Gondouin,  the talented muralist, Hugues Sineux, was able to restore Paysant’s creation.  By 2006, with  the restoration work was complete, Victor Paysant lives and speaks again.

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Hallelujah!

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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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