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, Part 2

I know, Part 2 was a long time coming, but on this dank and dreary November day, what better place to visit than Newfoundland (again!) where art  is made from a gray day.

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Walk the paths of Keels and you’ll surely discover the poetic sculpture of John Hofstetter, tucked here and there, in and of the landscape.

The little settlement of Keels (around 60 year round residents) is just down the road from Duntara where I spent two weeks last summer at Two Rooms Artist Residency.

Before this summer I had never heard of Keels, but interestingly enough I had already seen Keels on the big screen  the previous year in one of my recent  favorite movies, “Maudie”.  “Maudie” is a wonderful accounting of the true life Nova Scotia folk artist, Maude Dowley Lewis. When the first rugged scenes rolled onto the screen I turned to my husband and said, “That’s not Nova Scotia. That’s Newfoundland! ”

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Indeed, when the film makers went looking for a setting that would feel like Marshaltown, Nova Scotia of the 1930’s they turned to lovely, unspoiled Keels.  So when I pulled into Keels I saw a familiar site– the general store which had played a major role in the movie.

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The store, shuttered prior to the filming, has now been rejuvenated and re-opened by Selby Mesh who has nicely combined the movie props with everyday essentials. Hannah, my art partner, and I set about shopping for our dinner. We got right to dinner planning:

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When we brought our supplies (including that lone bag of dates on the upper right–what a find!) to the cashier, she studied us very carefully and asked, “You’re not by chance, Hannah and Jessica, are you?” How did she know???? She turned and pointed to the bulletin board where we found our mug shots hanging.  Nice!

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Turns out Keels has a lot to offer beyond the charming general store.  Folks drive a LONG way to order up Clayton’s hand cut fries at his cheerful Chip Truck. Never mind that our fingers were freezing as we sat in the 40 degree (sorry, Canada–that’s Fahrenheit) drizzle—mmm, mmm, mmm! Those fries were GOOD! smaller_IMG_6592

As we finished up, Clayton invited us to tour his lovingly restored home, one of the crown jewels in Keels.

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Clayton’s hand-sponged and stenciled ceiling.

 

Besides the renown of Clayton’s Chip truck, Keels is “famous” for its Devil’s Footprints.

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Long, long ago Satan emerged from the sea and walked through Keels. His cloven hoof prints can be followed along the shore.

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We took Satan’s path  and found astonishing geology along the coast. Underfoot and forming walls to our sides were richly textured surfaces of slate.

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Our slate trail grew narrower and narrower til it ended at a “V” at the edge of the sea.

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I think we found the crevice from which Satan emerged!

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And who knew? Slate comes in gray AND RED!

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Lured by Keel’s craggy landscape I came back the next day to try my first  “Float”. I had been assembling a big Tyvek map in my studio shed in Duntara.  I had just lifted the Newfoundland section of the map  and levitated it over the rest of its watery surroundings.Maker:L,Date:2017-9-15,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:Y

Now I wanted to let it be carried by the real tides–its fate up to the whims of the ocean, as Newfoundland’s fate has always been.

My tentative first attempt with a test section was encouragingly successful.

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The Tyvek floated perfectly! The ink didn’t run! It didn’t need to be a attached by strings!

So back to the shed I went to fetch a larger section. I had fretted over this work and here it was floating in this beautiful austerity–visual poetry! The map undulated in the gently lapping water like a jellyfish.

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How would it take to the surf?

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Well… like Newfoundland itself:  Fragile but scrappy and RESILIENT!

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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…

 

 

 

 

 

Memory Forest

For my third visit to Bread and Puppet in Glover Vermont last summer, I was lucky enough to have my son along. We had just finished poking around the “Cheap Art” bus

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and were headed back to our car ready to call it a day, when we saw Bread and Puppet founder, Peter Schumann crossing the street. Our chance to say hello and tell him in person how much we love his work!

 

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He graciously set down his wheelbarrow and asked us whether we’d been to the Memory Forest.  “Come along,” he said. “It’s a special place.”  We persuaded him to let young, strapping Isaiah take up the wheelbarrow laden with little cement figures and down the path and into the woods we went.

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I kept pace with Peter and his grandson so I could benefit from the most wondrous telling of Jack and the Beanstalk that Peter was concocting for his grandson. It is not hard to understand why hundreds of puppeteers over the last 4 decades have spent their summers laboring for free on Bread and Puppet productions. I can see that a chance to hang out with Peter Schumann would make for a magical summer. (Here’s the link to apply for a summer apprenticeship. )

We made our way through the impeccably straight pines and suddenly we saw what appeared to be a little village.BreadAndPuppet-shrunk332

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This is the Memory Forest, where each puppeteer who has passed on from this world is honored. “Every Wednesday”, Peter explained, “we gather to tell stories of one of these puppeteers. We will never forget them. Look around. Each one has a place here.”

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This memorial tells the poignant story of puppeteer Andy Trompetter, who, as a baby, was left in the care of a Dutch resistance group in 1942. Both his parents died in concentration camps.  Andy was kept in hiding until 1945. After the liberation he was found by his aunt and uncle who raised him as their son.

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Peter got to work unloading the wheelbarrow and added the little figures to one of memorials. When he was done he bid us farewell, saying, “Make sure you visit the Paper Maché Cathedral before you go!” A cathedral? How did we miss that? “It’s back behind the Museum, ” Peter explained. So off we went, stopping on the way to admire the amphitheater (a former gravel pit)  where the outdoor performances of Bread and Puppet are held each weekend in the summer. We vowed to come back next summer!

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If you’re a Vermont school bus and you’ve been very, very good, you might just come back for a second life at Bread and Puppet!

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We made a pit stop on the way over to the Paper Maché Cathedral, appreciative of the excellent illustrated instructions on the side of the loo.

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The exterior of the Paper Maché Cathedral is magnificent enough–but wait til you step inside…

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As we cracked open the door the shaft of light illuminated the hundreds of figures dancing on the walls and ceiling:

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We’d be in good company  if a rainy day forced the performance inside.

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This panoramic image does justice to the concept of this space as a cathedral.

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Hallelujah to Peter Schumann!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Northeast Kingdom Part 2

As promised, there’s more, much more, to see in Glover, Vermont. I’m continuing down the road from the Museum of Everyday Life to my day’s destination: a visit to the Bread and Puppet Museum. But first: sustenance! A beacon in the form of a of an inner tire dressed as a doughnut beckons.

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I have found The Red Sky Trading Company where there is oh so much more than donuts and coffee for sale!

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Decidedly NOT on Rte 66, but if you drive through Glover Vermont you can’t miss the Red Sky Trading Company.

Here’s my caffeine.  I help myself as it’s made very clear–there are no clerks at Red Sky.

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I am, however,  offered a hand at the door:

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and am drawn forward to the room with the polka dot floor.

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where there’s so much on offer and so much to READ:

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Any more questions?

This knife display would feel right at home in the Museum of Everyday Life:

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Oh–I do have a question: can I buy just the rack?

In the middle of everything I find this lost boy:

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I snag a very nice pail for the garden.

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OK, time to pay up.

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Next stop, I promise: Bread and Puppet Museum!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everyday Life in the Northeast Kingdom

In need of a salve for your soul in these depressing times?  Zip, zip, take a trip to the Northeast Kingdom. Fellow New Englanders know this means heading up to the tip top of Vermont to hug the Canadian border (which will feel good in and of itself). You’ll feel FAR, FAR away from urban madness and start to wonder just why it is that you MUST live in a city.

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My son and I pondered the reason why  eggs would be cheaper on Wednesday. We spent the better part of an hour discussing the possibilities.

 

OK, I said zip, zip, but if you’re reading this soon after I’ve posted it, in November, Vermont’s “bleak season” wait til summer or fall, which is when these trips were made.

I had the good fortune of being called up to the Northeast Kingdom this summer to mount an exhibition at Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury. I packed my car and drove up there on the most auspicious of dates: the solar eclipse. After  a seamless day of installation (interrupted by a dash up the hill to the Fairbanks Museum for the eclipse viewing party), Catamount gallery director extraordinaire, Katherine French said, “Come let’s have dinner and then I’m going to take you to a little museum I  think you’ll like.” Given that we were finishing up as the sun was setting, I was a little doubtful that she could make good on her enticing promise. What museum would be open after 7PM? “You’ll see”, she said.  I was still worried as our lovely, leisurely dinner pushed past the hour that ANY museum would still be open. “Ok, let’s go!” And off into the starry night we drove further north and west to Glover. We pulled off the road onto a pitch black driveway. Ha! We had arrived at The Museum of Everyday Life.

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I knew right then and there I was going to have to return the next day to photograph in daylight. Here’s what I hadn’t been able to see as we approached at night:

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Katherine fumbled for the lights just inside the entrance

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and we found ourselves in the Raymond Roussel Vestibule

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where there was a nice little introductory assemblage of quotidian objects which set the stage for what lay ahead.

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Even though I have made a career of celebrating the cast away  stuff of our over stuffed world I was unprepared for the depths that are plumbed in the six or so exhibits in the Museum of Everyday Life. The museum is the brainchild of Intensive Care RN and Crankie enthusiast, Clare Dolan, who I had the pleasure of meeting the next morning when I came back for my daylight photos. She was racing around her yard mowing at a faster pace than I’ve ever witnessed.

“Let me go ahead'” Katherine French said as she opened the (beautifully adorned) door that lead from the vestibule to the museum and found the next set of lights.

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We were greeted by a curious and pleasing little tinkle of bells which continued tinkling  for our entire visit,  a sonic version of the starry night outside.

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You can’t be a reader of this blog and not know that I was utterly enthralled.

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Pencils to toothbrushes

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If you’re going to feature toothbrushes, you gotta throw in Toothpaste.

Toothbrushes to safety pins

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Safety pins to matches

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Violin, made by a musical prisoner,  entirely out of wooden matchsticks

Matchsticks to—wait for it—DUST! By far my favorite exhibit! I thought I had intimate knowledge of dust. (I can practically name the individual dust bunnies that live under my bed). But, no, apparently until now I had only the barest sprinkling of knowledge. Here is a bit of the  stupendous Dust display with accompanying label information:

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“Hanging for 10 years directly above the kitchen stove in the Chicken Hut in Brooklyn, This ornament is crusted in layers of grease-adhered dusts of all kinds. On loan courtesy of Gregory Henderson”

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“Cosmic dust from NASA’s ultra clean Cosmic Dust Laboratory, established in 1981 to handle particles one tenth the diameter of a human hair. The Laboratory curates thousands of cosmic dust particles… Cosmic dust grains…contain material in the same condition as when the solar system began to form…” And being NASA, the explanatory label went on for another three paragraphs.

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I was clever enough to photograph the label, so you can read it yourself.

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same ilk as the Chicken Hut grease/dust encrusted kitchen ornament above, this is a single paddle from a fan blade.

After seeing this exhibit your response will either be to vacuum the minute you get home, or never vacuum again! I just checked under the bed. The bunnies have multiplied, well, like rabbits. I am feeding them and they are happy.

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I reached the back of the museum and finally discovered the source of the tinkling bells. This were the very last display in the Bells and Whistles exhibit:

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I was too enchanted to remember the video function on my cell phone, and I really think it would be a spoiler to explain how this tinkling at the back of the museum was precipitated by turning on the lights at the front. I am sure by now you are clicking on your calendars and mapping out your visit. You’ll see for yourself.

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Stay here if you go: Rodgers Family Farm, Glover

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And get up just before sunrise to walk to  the beaver pond just a quarter mile down the road. I don’t like getting up that early either, but it was worth it!

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PS I foolishly thought I would cover every magical thing I saw during my three visits this summer and fall to Glover and environs, but I’ve barely scratched the surface. Stay tuned for Bread and Puppet, Red Sky, and other marvels in the Northeast Kingdom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

More Underground

My last post featured three quirky cave environments in France. You might think that would complete my postings on the French underground, but two more visits must be described: both with top ratings on the quirk-o-meter.

The tiny village of  Dénézé-sous-Doué , a village in the Loire region for which Wikipedia can find nothing to say except; “Its church and the attached cemetery have the distinction of being away from the village.” Really, the entry is just this one sentence! I have never been so disappointed by Wikipedia and Geez–are they ever missing something!  Dénézé-sous-Doué is home to one of France’s most intriguing mysteries: La Cave aux Sculptures. After poking around a bit we found the non-descript entrance leading to steps down, down, down, deep under sleepy Dénézé-sous-Doué.

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This is only sign of business I saw in Dénézé-sous-Doué. Things are not exactly hopping in Dénézé-sous-Doué, at least not above ground!

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In front of us a 24 meter long, multi- chambered cave revealed itself , carved every inch with hundreds of bas-relief figures emerging from the walls.

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Despite serious archaeological efforts, no definitive explanation or even dating of these carvings has been agreed on. There are no other examples of similarly carved caves in Europe so no clues can be found elsewhere. Clothing , hairstyles and musical instruments typical of the Renaissance era

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This lady is playing a medieval bagpipe

help date the sculptures to the 1500’s. One of the archaeologists dated the sculptures based on his observation that some of the female characters are wearing underwear (!!), the  practice of which did not take occur until the 1500’s. Oh, for close archaeological scrutiny! I did not discern any underwear but I don’t know if that tells you more about my observational skills or about the keen eye of the French archaeologist. I can tell you one thing though; given that the French word for “bra” is “soutien gorge”, which translates as  “throat supporter”, I would say there’s a cultural divide between the American and French understanding of underwear.

It is generally agreed that these three figures:

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are a blasphemous representation of King Henri II (in the middle) with his wife, Catherine de Medici (depicted scandalously with her breasts exposed–no soutien gorge for her!) on the left, holding hands with Henri’s mistress, Diane de Poitier, on the right. This is not the only scandalous bit of carving.

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I might add, besides love-making couples there is at least one depiction of self-pleasuring. I have spared you the full frontal, but here’s the fellow caught in the act:

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There are several screamers such as this breastfeeding mom:

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And several heads with no bodies and limbs strewn about and some devilish monsters that I was unable to photograph for lack of lighting. Incredibly there is even a sculpture of a Native American– the first known depiction of a Native American in Europe! Apparently there is documentation of a Native American who was brought to live in Anjou, France in the 1500’s so finding his likeness in this cave is not so far-fetched a notion.

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There’s plenty of Christian references, but they are loaded with parody. The customary figures in the sculpted Pieta– Mary, Joseph, Jesus– have been replaced by Catherine de Medici as Mary, holding her son, Francois II as Christ and the Cardinal of Guise sits in for Joseph. Mary Stuart as Ste Jeanne, looks on. It makes my head hurt to try to untangle the unseemly relationship between the French royals and the church during this period of the Religious Wars. If you’re determined to try to wind your way through this Gordian Knot, here’s a good synopsis that will help you.

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All this was enough to get the cave sealed off in 1633 by a priest who felt his flock might be led astray by  images of debauchery and blasphemy. Hmmm, the cave closure, according to another account was perhaps in 1740. Well, what’s a hundred years between archaeologists?  Whatever the case, La Cave aux Sculptures was completely forgotten until 1956 when–you guessed it–village children, playing in the fields, stumbled upon the underground passage.  The site was opened to the public in 1973. Here’s a terrific video shot with much better lighting than I had at my disposal. (Don’t worry about the French subtitles–the images are excellent.) There remain passageways blocked with debris which hold the promise of countless more figures to be discovered.  Much research still needs to be done to determine the meaning of this work.  Current theories include:  a work of political satire, a site for pagan rituals, a holy site of miracles and cures, a meeting place for initiation rites for the fraternal order of stone masons (there’s a few ram sculptures, the medieval symbol of the stone mason), a 3D illustration of Rabelais’s tales of devilry (he came from the neighboring village and made references to the demons of this region)

After dwelling in the ancient subterranean world of La Cave aux Sculptures my visit to the nearby site, l’Hélice Terrestre felt like futuristic travel to another planet. However l’Hélice Terrestre is just a few a few kilometers away in the village of Saint-Georges-des-Sept-Voies.  As one would expect in troglodyte country, l’Hélice Terrestre (translation: Earth Helix) is underground, except, well, the part that’s NOT underground! Here’s a view from the highest point of the helix.

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And like any good troglodyte helix should, this helix spirals its way down, reaching deep into the bowels of the earth.

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As I tunneled my way down the light receded til I was in pitch dark, feeling my way down by inching my feet forward and running my hands along the damp, mossy walls. I was only able to see the carved forms for the split second of the flash of my camera. ( I must admit that when we visited there was no one (except one black cat) at the site. I’m not entirely sure we were supposed to be wandering around l’Hélice Terrestre on our own. If you have the good fortune of visiting you will hopefully have your path more illuminated than I did.)

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L’Hélice Terrestre  is the work of Polish sculptor, Jacques Warminski  who had spent some of his childhood vacations in nearby  l’Orbière, one of the last remaining Troglodyte villages in France. L’Orbière was completely abandonned in 1950, but kept alive in Warminksi’s imagination. It served as the inspiration for his life’s culminating work.  Warminski created this mind boggling sculpture in four years time in the early 1990’s. It doesn’t seem possible that stone carving of this intricacy on this scale could have been accomplished just in four years, but unlike La Caves aux Sculptures, the dates for L’Hélice Terrestre are not in dispute. Jacques Warminski died in 1996 at the age of 50, just two years after completing L’Hélice Terrestre.

Currently l’Hélice Terrestre is being maintained and kept open by Warminski’s widow, Bernadette Alberti and is  used as a site for comtemporary art performances.

Troglodytes

I had no idea what to expect as I criss-crossed the small town of Doué la Fontaine in search of the remarkable home of  Bernard Roux.  Doué la Fontaine is in the Pays de la Loire region of France, in the heart of troglodyte country, and I just happen to be a fan of all things troglodyte. So before setting off for Doué la Fontaine, I spent the better part of the day in the troglodyte village of Rochemenier, just ten minutes away.

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Now a museum which preserves twenty of the dwellings, Rochemenier was an village built underground by burrowing into the soft tufa stone of this region. Like all caves these dwellings had the advantage of constant temperature–warm(ish) in the winter, and cool in the summer. It was amazing how cozy these cave dwellings felt.

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When a family was expecting a new baby, a room would be added by tunneling deeper into the stone at the back of the house. No zoning or building permits required! In fact the troglodyte family sold the stone they quarried as they dug the next room, so they actually made money as they expanded their home!

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Passageways in Rochemenier connect one building to the next, so villagers didn’t 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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