Saturday, April 21, 2012
I was in the middle of two days of family life high jinx associated with my granddaughter Tess’ seventh birthday. Six kids; three grandchildren and three of their friends, ages six and a half to twelve, and four adults; one set of parents and one set of grandparents, were on an overnight trip to The Great Wolf Lodge in Grand Mound, Washington. My grandfatherly duty on this outing consisted of supervising the kids while they tried to drown themselves at the huge indoor water park attached to the lodge and trying to maintain some vague sense of where they all were as they ran amuck in the arcades, cafeterias, shops, lobbies and corridors of the “family friendly” resort. After five hours of this, my son-in-law Dave proposed a small respite from the action at The Great Wolf Lodge. He wanted to take his twelve-year-old son Sammy and me to dinner at a Mexican restaurant he knew in the nearby town of Centralia. Dave had been to this place on a previous trip and thought I’d like it. The restaurant, La Tarasca, turned out to be wonderful; small, pretty and unpretentious. The food was authentic and delicious.
While driving into and out of Centralia, we had twice passed a house on a large lot that was nearly buried in artwork. As we went by it, I spotted a fifteen foot high construction of wood, chicken wire, hub caps and bicycle wheels, a starburst of metal rods with balls dancing on their ends, a mobile of amber reflectors, falling in a twinkling cascade from a tall tree, and many other junk assemblages. The yard seemed to consist of a labyrinth of pillars, gateways, arches, and towers. It looked like a couple of small travel trailers had been built into the maze. Much of it seemed to be made of carved Styrofoam. It all looked a little shabby.
The crazy obsessiveness that it must have taken to collect, comb through, consider, and arrange enough cast off materials to fill perhaps 50,000 square feet with sculpture was fully evident. Also present, I thought to myself, was a certain modesty. Everything looked friendly in a tacky, rundown way. The guy who made this – it has to have been a guy – may be a nut, but he is a nice nut.
I began to hatch a plan to go back and knock on the artist’s door.
The next morning I negotiated with my wife, Deb, to be excused from the lunacy of another session in the water park. This meant passing on the plans for our group to ride every slide in the water park in ascending order of scariness starting with the red plastic one in the kiddy area that is usually the territory of toddlers wearing inflated water wings and ending with “The Howler” which one descends on multi person rafts, through total darkness, and over a six foot drop. I felt a twinge of regret for giving up this family time, but I chose to go off on my own to try and meet the artist.
Driving back into Centralia, I think, “This could be my life.” By which I meant I could be more on my own, less embedded in the obligations of family and a life lived in relationship. Then I realized this is my life. I was alone, driving around somewhere I had never been, free to do whatever I wanted for the next three or four hours. When I was done, I could go back and have the other life, too. I could tell Deb all about it, act goofy with my grand kids, and drink a grande, skinny latte from the Starbucks in the lobby of The Great Wolf Lodge. A guy as lucky as me would have to be nuts to ever think about swapping lives.
I made my way from the curb, through various groups of sculpture, and knocked on the door of 203 M Street. An attractive older woman opened the door.
“I hope I’m not bothering you,” I said. “I was passing by and saw all this and wanted to know more about it.”
She said, “Oh, he’s around here somewhere. Go on out back and look around. He’ll come and find you.”
“Is it alright to take pictures.”
“That’s just fine. He likes visitors.”
I wandered around for a while clicking off photos that I couldn’t really frame properly because the sun was too bright to see the image on the screen. Some of the individual pieces were very engaging. For example, there was a coven of Styrofoam manikin heads on high poles wearing crowns made of plastic champagne glasses, and a banquette table with place settings of hubcaps filled with marbles, and flowerpots sprouting bouquets of rubber tubing with reflector blossoms. However, it was the obsessive totality of it that impressed me most, made me shake my head in wonder and giggle out loud with delight.
A sturdy looking older man wearing a knit cap stepped through a gate and into the garden and said, “Well, hello! How are you today?”
“I’m doing great. This is quite a project you got going.”
He agreed, “Yeah. It is quite a project.” Then he told me that after working on it for twenty-seven years, for the last year he has been disassembling it.
“I’m 78 years old,” he said. “I figured it was time to take it down myself rather than leave that job to someone else.”
Little by little he was hauling three decades of artistic output to the landfill.
We introduced ourselves.
“My name’s Rich Art. R-I-C-H-A-R-T. I use to be Richard Tracy. You know, “Dick Tracy.” I hated being named “Dick Tracy. I said to my mother, ‘Why’d you ever name me that? I’m changing it.’ She just looked at me.”
When I came across Rich Art’s sculpture garden, I had never heard of him, but his project has received a lot of attention over the years. There was a well-received, short documentary film bearing his name, several videos have been posted on You Tube, and local journalists and bloggers have interviewed him often. There are tons of photos of Rich Art and his sculpture garden to be viewed on line.
Apparently, Rich Art repeated many of his stories when talking to people visiting his project. The one about changing his name showed up in a number of different interviews. Another that I didn’t hear from him, but read several versions of was that he started building his garden after being hospitalized for psychiatric problems.
The photos posted online confirm that I am seeing the project past its prime. Earlier, it had an even more chaotic, explosive energy. I think to myself, the garden like its creator is moving into old, old age, winding down.
Then Rich Art said to me, “How about you? You an artist?”
I said, “Yes I am.”
“You got any of your art to show me?”
“I have my I-Pad with me and there are some drawings I could show you on there.”
“Oh, I’d like to see that!” Rich Art said.
I showed him a series of portraits of science fiction writers I was working on. They are mainly from the fifties and sixties. I read them when I was an avid sci-fi fan as a teenager.
“This is an I-Pad! I heard of these, but I never held one. Did you draw these portraits on here?”
“Partially,” I said. “I go back and forth between drawing on paper then working on them in an ap called Sketchbook Pro. I opened the ap and made a couple of random marks across a portrait of Philip K. Dick.
“Can you fix that?” Rich Art asked.
I showed him that I could undo the marks.
“That’s good. That’s a good drawing and I didn’t like you messing it up.”
Rich Art continued, “I’m so glad you came by today! I been wondering what I was going to do next. I can’t do this anymore.” His gesture indicated he was talking about the sculpture garden.
“But I got to do something. I stopped making art once for ten years and it drove me crazy. I could do this!” He points to the I-Pad. “I could get one of these and take a course at the senior center to learn about it.” Rich Art seemed very excited about the possibility of making digital art.
When I finished talking with Rich Art, I was hungry. I headed back to La Tarasa for more of the posole. It was just as good as it had been the night before. The waitress remembered me and brought me a pork enchilada on the house for coming back two days in a row. It was very spicy, salty and greasy. I licked all the juice off my fingers, never got my napkin dirty. I imagined, in another life, I would flirt with the waitress; ask her if she wants to go ride “The Howler” at The Great Wolf Lodge. She is thirty years younger than me.
I think, there is all kinds of weirdness in this world. You gotta love it.