TransAtlantic

I don’t usually write about my own work on this blog, but a recent opportunity to install a large scale installation of my sculpture in a church in Normandy, France

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was sufficiently quirky for me to make an exception.

First and foremost this is a tale of collegiality and why artists can be , should be and ARE each others’ best allies. And so I start this post with a big THANK YOU to German artist Ulli Boehmelmann

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who reached across the Atlantic to make a connection and offer a recommendation to an American artist she barely knew.

I was lucky enough to meet Ulli through Boston Sculptors Gallery when she came to Boston from her home in Cologne to install her work as part of a collaborative exhibition that several members of Boston Sculptors participated in with German artists. Her Boston hosts invited her to tour their studios and were nice enough to include me on the tour.  Ulli was a super great visitor–interested in my work, interested in well, EVERYTHING. It was a short little visit, but we really hit it off–then I had the good fortune of being able to visit with Ulli in Germany a few months later on an adventure with fellow Boston Sculptors artist, Hannah Verlin, to visit medieval crypts. (and now you get to go back to my very first post–this is the trip that launched this blog “Quirk”. If you’re spending three weeks underground in Europe with skeletons the very least you owe the folks back home is some kind of accounting of yourself.)

As Hannah and I mapped out our route we discovered that one of our prize destinations, the Crypt at St. Ursula’s, was in Cologne, the hometown of Ulli Boehmelmann.  Any chance we might visit, Ulli? Yes! Ulli not only met us at the crypt, she did a fine job of translating the unbelievably intricate, (and I hope it’s not too judgmental to say)–bizarre story of St. Ursula and why this poor martyr is now surrounded by hundreds of artistically arranged bones. Two days with Ulli in Cologne and I think it’s fair to say we moved beyond artist colleagues to become friends.

The following year, one more artistic opportunity brought Ulli to Boston to give a talk at the TransCultural conference. Once again Ulli came to visit my studio where I was in the final stages of preparing for my upcoming exhibition, “Uh Oh!”  at Boston Sculptors Gallery.

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Ulli noticed the freshly minted pile of catalogs of my work that I had swung for (it’s a lot of $$ to put one of those glossy things together, and one always wonders if it’s worth the financial outlay) and asked if she could take one back with her to show the curator in France where she was going to be exhibiting her work that coming summer. There’s only one possible answer to that question: “Sure!” But, truly I thought it was just a nicety. Nothing ever comes of  unsolicited hand-outs of catalogs to curators. And so I promptly forgot about it.  Then one day, about eight months later, I’m jolted out of my doldrums by a  splendid email from France, from one Benoit Delomez, Director of “Vaertigo”,

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inviting me to spend a month in Normandy creating  a site specific installation for the 7th iteration of ArTerritoire  in the summer of 2017. Yow! I come up with a million reasons to say yes and a million reasons to say no. Basically I go down the freak out path of  indecision.

Reasons to say “no” :

  1. the WHOLE month of June?!? I’m a fanatical vegetable gardener and June is the most important month in the garden!IMG_2507_smaller
  2. I’m a control freak when it comes to my sculpture. I like to know that I’ve dotted all my i’s and crossed all my t’s before I show–There will be so many unknowns–how can I feel confident that I can really pull a large scale installation together over yonder?
  3. This is a tricky, tricky space that is being offered to me–a church with uneven, multi-leveled  floors, a high vaulted ceiling and a stone wall behind the plaster–what do I know about attaching things to those surfaces?
  4. Sure, I’ll get to make the most critical pieces ahead of time and ship them but what if they don’t arrive–and yikes the expense of overseas shipping!

Reasons to say yes:

1: Hmmm, maybe June is NOT the most important month in the garden. Maybe May is, and I could work like crazy to get everything planted before I go. And, Oh! I won’t exactly be suffering from garden withdrawal if I go as the directors of “Vaertigo” also happen to be gardeners extraordinaire and proprietors of “Le Jardin Interieur de Ciel Ouvert” one of the most beautiful and creative gardens in Normandy!

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2. How can I say no to an opportunity to spend a month in France: a chance to be an “internationally exhibiting artist” in my mother’s homeland–a country I adore! A chance to speak French! Yay! I mean–Uh Oh! I mean–yay?

3. And read the fine print, you nay-sayer:  a stone cottage to stay in,IMG_5447

a car to toodle around in, and a charming village with everything I will NEED like croissants and Camembert–yes–this is Camembert country–OK, OK, so the answer is OUI! J’accepte!

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But before I accept the invitation– I must clinch the idea for a new body of work. Usually I need to ponder and pace for weeks, but this time the idea comes to me like lightning. Here’s what I’m struck by: It’s election season and though I feel absolutely secure that He Who Will Not BE Named won’t be elected (ya, I know, I’ll revisit that thought a little later) , it’s been a down right depressing election season, filled with xenophobic, nationalistic rhetoric. If I’m about to traverse the ocean to one of America’s oldest, strongest allies I want to go forth with my own declaration of allegiance. I will present a piece about the long history of friendship between France and the USA. I know immediately that I want to cover the floor with a coast to coast map : east coast USA to west coast of Europe, separated by the great expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.  I can see in my mind’s eye the iconic monuments I’ll sculpt for critical moments of allied support each nation gifted to the other: General Lafayette tipping the scales in America’s favor in our struggle for independence, France’s love affair with Ben Franklin, the first American diplomat, whose democratic ideals helped paved the way for the French Revolution, the magnificent gift France made to America of the Statue of Liberty–what better symbol do we have of the America I want to live in?

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— the reinforcements that the US sent to France during World War One that helped turn the tide of the first “Great War”, and ultimately the enormous involvement of Americans in France in World War II which began with the debarkment in Normandy in which my father took part, his march into Paris with Eisenhower, and his serendipitous meeting of a French student–my mother .

OK, so I’ve got my idea–and then OH NO!  The Elections! The unthinkable happens: He Who Shall Not Be Named (fondly referred to by the French as “Agent Orange”) wins. He will be the American President as I set out to be an art ambassador. I am ashamed!  I resolve to strip away any images from my artwork that smack of his “America first”  and “military might” rhetoric. So no battleships landing in Normandy, no military anything.  I pare down my idea to the most personal part of my story:  My mother and grandmother reaching across the ocean to keep themselves tied together. Their allegiance will be the stand-in for the allegiance of nations that brought my parents together, that helped keep France French, that helped birth the democracy that is America.

As I get down to work, my first concern is my  quest for the perfect map. I want to find a map with the graphics of the 1940’s. It must show both coasts. It must be available online, open source, so I can print it out myself. And most importantly it must be of a super, super high resolution so I don’t end up with a pixelated mess. I search for days. There are zillions of maps–none of which fit all my criteria. I complain to my son, Isaiah, who gallantly takes on this needle-in-a-haystack challenge with supreme confidence in his superior googling ability.

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And Bingo–in one hour he comes up with a map made collaboratively in 1938 by the American and British armies for their joint efforts in WWII. The map is currently owned and digitized at a crazy high resolution  by the University of Texas, Austin and open all to reprint. (The resolution is so high that the tiny village where I install the work–Athis de L’Orne, popoulation 2,000, is clearly written on the map. That’s exciting!) Well, it turns out practically the whole world is available to print out except for two copyrighted countries: Spain and Canada, a mystery which I never solved and which took days more of sleuthing to find good alternate maps of these countries. Pictured above with my son is my husband, David (also gallant), who offered up his Photoshop wizardry to retro fit the Spain and Canada sections to fit the rest of the map.

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But that’s not all that needs to be accomplished in this daunting task. All the Mercator lines (the pesky curves that the longitude and latitude lines take as they wrap around around a sphere) need to be straightened as my Atlantic Ocean will be FLAT.

This is the look on your face you get when your ship reaches the edge of the flat Earth and you know you’re going to fall off with the next puff of wind:IMG_20170619_144212522

Besides flattening the globe I need a system for organizing the hundreds of map quadrants I’m going to be printing out . For this I have my faithful “tech guy”, Rick:  Rick lighting Scrap

I turn three rooms of our home over to the map project: Isaiah’s room becomes Canada, Nora’s is the USA, the study is Europe, and the ocean, well, no room for the ocean–it’s relegated to a stack which gets higher, and higher, and higher. I work on the map every evening and weekend, all winter.  I go through a zillion cartridges of ink. I get friendly with the Epson help center in India. I dream in 13″ x 13″ grids. And when I need a break from all that blue, I scan and print the envelopes my grandmother and mother saved from their life time correspondence:transatlantic_life_boats

During the week I’m in my studio in Somerville, MA constructing and carving the iconic symbols of our two countries, the Statue of Liberty and the Tour Eiffel.

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I’m also making airplanes to fly overhead but, not military planes. They will be passenger planes, each one carrying a letter my mother wrote to her mother describing her new life in America.

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And instead of battleships I will put in the Queen Elizabeth Ocean liner (which played an important role in the WWII efforts when it was commandeered by the British Navy) that my grandmother took the one summer she came to visit. It will trail life boats carrying her letters to us.

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All these components, the ocean liner, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the hundreds of maps squares I will ship ahead of time. I decide to go with an international art shipping company rather than risking Fed Ex–I’ve heard stories that make me decide I better spend the money and really be sure my work arrives at its destination.   So what still keeps me tossing and turning at night is the puzzle of how to hang the planes from the high,  vaulted, stone ceiling and what to do about the uneven, multi-leveled stone floor. I know one way or another I’ll have to build out a new wood floor to apply the map to–that notion alone is enough to drive me to sign up for weekly French tutoring sessions where I spend the weeks translating my various neurotic emails as well as trying to get a handle on lumberyard terminology. I mean, really you can’t go in a French lumberyard and say I’d like ten 2×4’s please. First of all–everything is in centimeters and who the heck knows what the standards are there. Furthermore, if you look up the word for stud in the English-French dictionary you come up with either a horse or a sexy man, and that is not what I want to be asking for in the lumberyard. I spend every Wednesday morning with my tutor, Christine, laughing. I never do re-master the subjunctive, but, hey, when I have dinner with my French cousins in Paris they say they cannot believe how much my French has improved!

I need (note the word need instead of want) one more thing: my reliable partner in crime, my artist friend and colleague, Abbie Read, to accompany me.

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She agrees to eat the aforementioned croissants and camembert with me every day AND help me install the work! Besides being a gluer extraordinaire, Abbie painted beautiful cloud friezes for my planes to fly in front of.

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You can tell by these images that despite my worries the piece worked out.

I arrived in Athis de lOrne:

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at the beautiful home of Dominique and Benoit Delomez:IMG_20170605_132441497_HDR

Met my church, Le Temple Protestant:

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Discovered their politics were exactly in sync with my own:

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Got the floor built:

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gave the parishioners an ocean to walk on:IMG_20170619_182732223

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Got the planes hung (giant c-clamps around the gothic arches):

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Posed in front of the roadside publicity which made me even more nervous about the opening:

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Took deep breaths and  tried NOT to over anticipate my artist’s talk In French:

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These are the other  two artists in ArTerritoire 2017–Vincent  Bredif and Anne-Lise Dehee, both from Paris, who shared our stone cottage and a lot of laughs as they struggled to get me up to speed with more correct and current French. On the right is the wonderful Domique Delomez, co-director of Vaertigo who spoke so eloquently and poetically about the endeavor of bringing contemporary art to rural Normandy.

The last thing I did before the opening of my installation, “TransAtlantic”, was to hang  this amazing photo of my mother:

Clo_merge_smallerIt’s a photo my sister’s family discovered after my parents died. It appeared in Yank Magazine, published by the military for the benefit of the soldiers to keep them updated on the war effort. It’s the Victory Day issue. My father had sent it to his father back in Erie telling him that the girl looking at the camera was a girl he had fallen in love with. And that is both the beginning and end of my story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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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Forevertron

Back to Wisconsin! I took a little interlude from the series of postings I’m doing documenting a road trip I took several years ago to see Wisconsin’s many built environments, to write a post about my much more recent trip to Newfoundland. So if you’re coming in cold to the Wisconsin postings, you may want to read the introduction to this series here.

If the Dickeyville Grotto is the grand daddy of Wisconsin’s built environments, and Fred Smith’s Concrete park is the most famous of the Wisconsin outsider sites, then, Dr. Evermor’s Fovertron wins the contest as the most ambitious.  According to Wikipedia,  Forevertron is ” the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world, standing 50 ft. (15,2 m.) high and 120 ft. (36,5 m.) wide, and weighing 300 tons.”

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All I knew before my visit to Forevertron was that its maker, the engineer, self-taught artist and back-to-the-future historian, Dr. Evermor, was building a launchpad and spaceship to launch himself into outer space. And I knew it was in North Freedom, Wisconsin, a speck on the map and in the middle of nowhere. It seemed an unlikely spot for such a creation, but by the time I arrived in North Freedom I’d gotten used to the idea that whackiness is spread pretty evenly across this agrarian state.  To find Forevertron, which has no address, we had been told to cross the street from the (defunct) Badger Ammunition plant and look for Delaney’s Surplus. Delaney’s was easy enough to find, but it was so nondescript I wondered if we had misunderstood the directions.   My traveling companion and I poked around the back of the long, dreary sheet metal building of Delaney’s and stepped lightly across what looked initially like an abandoned dump. There was no one around which always sets me to worrying about junkyard dogs. Then suddenly-POW! Fovertron loomed up in front of us with its soaring towers replete with rococo ornamentation, throbbing with complexity.

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No longer thinking about dogs, now I started worrying about the enigmatic Dr. Evermor. Would he be a raving lunatic? Were we trespassing?  So when I spotted a little trailer at one end of the site, I screwed up my courage to knock on the door, hoping to procure permission to roam about. “Yes?” I heard from behind the door. “Come in.” And here was Dr. Evermor himself–I needn’t have worried. “Welcome to Forevertron!”

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When Dr. Evermor learned we had come all the way from Boston he insisted on giving us a  personal tour. He gleefully pointed out the “Overlord Master Control Tower” (the similarity to the Houston control towers was duly noted) and the “Celestial Listening Ear” (for picking up sounds and signs of life in outer space) and the Graviton (for removing water from the time/space traveler’s body prior to launch–all essential components of the Forevertron that would eventually blast Dr. Evermor himself into outer space. He would be seated inside the glass orb surrounded by copper that sits at the pinnacle of the Forevertron.  Dr. Evermor, who plans to power his flight with electromagnetic energy, has garnered huge inspiration from his hero, Nikola  Tesla.

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Everything on site is made from a most astounding array of salvaged material plucked from decaying industrial sites by Dr Evermor himself, from the period of his life when he was known by his given name, Tom Every. Tom Every began his very ambitious and specialized demolition and salvage career when he was a boy.  His junk pile  had already achieved the level of a “public nuisance” by the time he was 17. When Tom Every was reincarnated into Dr. Evermor in 1983 he sold his half of the salvage business to his partner, Delaney, and negotiated the use of the adjoining property for his new passion. Embedded within the structures of Forevertron, are such artifacts as the decontamination chamber from Apollo 11 (I saw it with my own eyes), lightning rods, transformers, and bipolar dynamos made by–hold it, hold it! Thomas Edison himself! (You better click on that link to see what a bipolar dynamo is). This is true, by the way, these dynamos were deaccessioned by the Henry Ford Museum, and Tom Every, ever on the look out for beautiful obsolescence, scooped them up for re-use.

You’d think fabricating Forevertron would be a full time pursuit, but apparently, Dr. Evermor, has ever more time and energy on his hands which he has used to fill the surrounding acreage with a veritable garden of Eden of scrap metal animals, made primarily with tools and musical instruments.

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Note the chair in the photo below to give you a feeling for the size of this insect.

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It seemed our tour was winding down, but clearly Dr. Evermor was not ready to let us go.  “Come with me for dinner”, he  insisted,  and he hopped in our car and directed us to pick up his wife,  the most agreeable Lady Eleanor, to accompany us at the pub.  Over bratwurst (favorite Wisconsin dish, I think)  Dr. Evermor regaled us with his hopes and aspirations which included the take-over of the neighboring Badger ammunition plant to become a vast park and museum. He and  Lady Eleanor agreed the government should give it to him, especially as he would do all the demolition for free. (I see on Wikipedia that has not come to pass, alas). But of course the greatest aspiration was boarding his “soul transformation device” for the ultimate of journeys, at which point everyone will agree that the town of North Freedom was aptly named.

 

 

Isolation breeds, well, QUIRKINESS

Just got back from my second visit to Newfoundland, affectionately known as “The Rock”. Get out your maps. This glacially scoured island lies halfway between Boston and Greenland. It’s got a tough-luck history that would leave most people bitter or at least depressed. But Newfoundlanders are survivors. (Just a quick note to say I’m using the word Newfoundlanders in this post, because there’s chatter online that the term “Newfies“, which the people of Newfoundland call themselves is thought of by some to be a derogatory term if used by outsiders. Outsiders, by the way, are called “CFA’s” or “Come from Away” ) There’s an amazing can-do, pull yourselves up by the boot straps mentality here that’s inspiring.

The reputation that Newfoundlanders have as the friendliest people in Canada (and that’s saying something, as I think Canadians in general are pretty darn friendly) and the funniest, is well deserved. There’s beauty abounding in the great expanses of space in Newfoundland which I’ll leave to the travel writers. Instead, I’ll focus on, what else,  the quirkiness, of which there is plenty.

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It’s a hard scrabble place that makes up in makes up in humor and friendliness what it has lacked in luck. And the humor shows up in all kinds of places, starting literally with geographical names.

There’s at least 5 different terms for coves and harbors, and they’re tacked onto place names in a way that make reading a map of the province sound like snippets of song lyrics: Witless Bay, Trinity Bight, Chance Cove, Conception Harbor, Random Sound. And that’s just a smidgen of the long list of curious and evocative place names. You just want to visit towns named Paradise, Blow Me Down, Joe Batt’s Arm, Spread Eagle, Come-By-Chance, Happy Adventure, and Little Heart’s Ease.

I doubt that any tourist has driven the Baccalieu Trail in eastern Newfoundland without stopping to taking their picture in front of the sign for the town of Dildo or their informative museum,the Dildo Interpretation Center.

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There are deniers among the town folk that the name has any sexual connotations, but really…

Dildo is just south of the towns of Heart’s Desire, Heart’s Content, and Heart’s Delight. It’s a happy peninsula.

This lovely gal is just up the road from the Interpretation Center, and I would say she does look content:

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Up the coast a stretch, on over to Fogo Island I encountered this more anxious looking duo:

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And there’s plenty to be anxious about in Newfoundland. First and foremost the disastrous collapse of the Cod fisheries in the 1990’s devastated the province’s economy and threatened the heart and soul of the Newfoundland culture.  The material signs of the collapse are everywhere–a terrible, poignant beauty:

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The Church above and collapsed fisherman’s shed below are side by side in the speck of a town of Clarke’s Head.     IMG_20140818_105311537_HDR

Looks like the prevailing wind blows the opposite direction in the town of Cupids:

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Abandoned boarding houses in the once thriving town of Port Union, the only union -built town in North America, birthplace of the  Fisherman’s Protective Union, the first labor organization for fisherman.          IMG_20140812_092742693

There was a Pompeii feeling to this deserted home in the village of Baraneed. Wide open at every orifice:IMG_3174   The collapsed roof filling the space of the stairwell,

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The tableware staying obediently on a shelf that is one rotten floorboard away from landing in the basement:                 

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Skeletons of beautifully handcrafted punts like beached whale remains:

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And fishing vessels dotting the landscape yearning to be ocean-bound:

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Yet amongst the collapse are beautiful signs of re-building:

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This may be a small thing, but I really love all  the hand painted signs one sees along the road.

You’ve got a board, you’ve got some left over house paint, you’ve got a brush, go for it:

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Elliston’s claim to fame, by the way, is as the “Root Cellar Capital of the World“. Do not even try to dispute this.

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This lovely sign for Mr. Bully’s Meat Room in Petty Harbor:

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topped off with this window above: (Could this be Mr. Bully?”)

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The next level up in signage: carve something that’s going to outlast anyone’s memory of what was not to be denied on “No Denial Path”:

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Or give the most talented guy in town a chance to flex his or her creative muscle:

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And hey, you don’t always need words to get your point across:

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Here and there I encountered folks making their mark on the landscape. Az in Hibbs Cove (shown here with his wife Lorraine) who made excellent use of the tree that died in their yard:

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And up the same peninsula, in Port-de-Grave we stopped to chat with Matt who was adding a fresh coat of paint to his impressive built environment.

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I did not sense one whiff of irony in this man so I don’t believe there’s a hidden message in the positioning of his cannon in relationship to the sign he made for his hometown:IMG_3302

An incredibly handy man, Matt fabricated all his own crab traps, which stacked up and stored away for the winter were a beautiful site to see:

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We were so pleased when Matt invited us to tour his fishing vessel: IMG_3313         IMG_3314

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Matt hired a Twillingate artist (sorry not to have caught his name) to paint this beautiful portrait of his father and himself on the bow of his vessel:

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Port-de-Grave was one of the only fully active fishing towns we saw–and it’s crabbing that’s keeping these fishermen in business.

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Speaking of crab, when Antoinette and I went to the Independent Fish Harvesters to buy crab for dinner, we discovered that the minimum order was 20 lbs, a bit much for two for dinner! When we expressed disappointment, Graham said, “Wait a minute ladies” ducked into the freezer and emerged with one of the twenty pound boxes which he promptly sliced open. Turns out he was breaking into his own box that he had set aside for his family for Christmas. Our protests fell on deaf ears.

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When we took out our wallets, Graham said “You don’t owe me anything”. “What do you mean?” we asked. His reply, “This is Newfoundland. All you want is some fish for dinner. Anyone in Newfoundland would give you that. You’re not asking for twenty pounds–just a little fish for dinner, You don’t have to pay for that.”

Ok, so, didn’t I tell you at the beginning of this post, Newfoundlanders have got to be the nicest, friendliest people on earth?

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And even their digitally printed signs are pretty great:

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Concrete–it’s a beautiful thing!

Arguably, the most renowned of all Wisconsin outsider art built environments is Fred Smith’s Concrete Park. I first learned about this site when I was in grad school at Cranbrook Academy of Art where I studied under the early champion of outsider art, Michael Hall. When I saw the images of the Concrete park I knew right away I need to make a pilgrimage and so Wisconsin went on my bucket list. And there it stayed for about 15 years until I was lucky enough to be granted a sabbatical with travel funds by my employer, Concord Academy. Armed with the invaluable resource of Lisa Stone and Jim Zani’s book, “Sacred Spaces and Other Places” I mapped out a route that criss-crossed Wisconsin. I was determined to visit every outsider art environment in the state.  I assumed that October would be a lovely time to visit Wisconsin. After all, that’s the best time to visit New England and Wisconsin is at about the same latitude, right?  Well, it turned out to be a miserable time, at least that year, weather-wise, to visit Wisconsin. It was cold, dark, and drizzly just about every day. It was so dark I had to stop at a drugstore to restock my film supply (yup–this was a pre-digital trip. You will excuse the images that you’ll see in this post which are scanned from slides and so not as sharp as the originals) to buy low light ektachrome. Nothing could dampen my spirits, though,  as I drove up to Phillips in the north woods of the state to finally get to see the Concrete Park in person.

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Fred Smith, born in 1886 of German immigrant parents began his working life as a teen lumberjack. Later,to supplement his lumberjack income, Smith grew ginseng (surprising thing for the early 1900’s, no?) and Christmas trees for sale. He also built and operated a popular roadside watering hole, The Rock Garden Tavern. The Tavern provided the first real outlet for Smith’s creative impulses.  Providing the nightly entertainment at the tavern, Smith fiddled on his homemade fiddle, sang,  and danced with sleigh bells strapped onto his legs.

In 1949, at the age of 62 Smith quit lumberjacking, ostensibly due to arthritis. Arthritis or not, he threw himself into the making of his Wisconsin Concrete Park (his title). Though disdainful of the modern era of car travel (too much rushing around, thought Smith) , Smith realized the benefit of siting his roadside attraction alongside the highway. Smith clearly loved the attention that his ambitious creation brought to him.

IMG_3423Portrait of Fred Smith. Photo credit: Robert Amft. (Amft was an early admirer of Fred Smith’s work. He visited Smith often in the 1950’s and 60’s and photographed the artist and the site extensively. He even introduced Smith to the work of other self-taught artists.)

Smith worked obsessively on his sculptures, ultimately jeopardizing his marriage and sacrificing his family life.  He filled his 120 acre property with an astonishing number of figures–over 200 pieces, which he embellished with colored bottles embedded into the wet concrete. Smith liked using the bottles both for their reflective quality and like the other recycled material he incorporated, the fact that he “could get them for nothing”.

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When Fred Smith first started his work on the Concrete park, he thought of his sculptures as commemorative pieces. He set to work sculpting historical and mythical figures he admired  including Sacajawea (just one of several Native American figures he sculpted), the Chinese statesman, Sun Yat-sen (a little random, eh?) , Abraham Lincoln,  Kit Carson, and a Paul Bunyan who bears a great resemblance to Teddy Roosevelt.

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Besides these commemorative works Smith paid homage to his fellow lumberjacks, farmers, and plain old common folk.

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For good measure Fred Smith scattered several deer and moose, native to the Wisconsin north woods,  throughout the property.

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Sadly, after Fred Smith finished sculpting the last of his Clydesdale horses for his ambitious  Budweiser beer tableau he suffered a stroke which ended his creative output.

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Fred Smith described his Concrete Park, “a gift for all American people everywhere. They need something like this. ”  Couldn’t agree more!

Grandview and Prairie Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

an obelisk:  wisconsin051     and a dinosaur (why not?).

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

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