Backyard Folk Art Thrives In Michigan

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From anywhere in Michigan, you're only a day trip away from a Styrofoam, 13-foot scale model of Stonehenge. There's also a menagerie of farm and circus animals constructed from car parts. We visit some of these artists and innovators.


Back now with Day to Day. I was recently in downtown Detroit, and I nearly drove off the road when I saw this house. It was one of the strangest things I have ever seen. Totally covered, from the front step of the porch to the tip of the roof in big, bizarre, really ragged-looking stuffed animals. I thought for sure this house was one of a kind but, as Celeste Headlee reports, a lot of folks in Michigan transform their properties with art.

CELESTE HEADLEE: You wouldn't think of the Detroit suburb of Hamtramck as a must-stop on a tour of outdoor art. It's a quiet town of about 23,000, with tree-lined streets and rows of modest homes.

Mr. RANDY MASON (Host, "Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations"): And then you come to this house, and there's stuff all over it. Whirligigs and brightly colored things that he's constructed.

HEADLEE: Randy Mason is the host of the Public Television show, "Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations." He's describing a home where one former auto worker has made helicopters, teeter-totters and fan blades that tower 30 feet into the air. Wooden soldiers line up to board the Concorde jet, not far from red, white and blue rockets and windmills in yellow, green and orange. Hello? And the creator of all this fancible art?

Mr. SHERLOCK: Mr. Sherlock (ph). Your (unintelligible) man. Come from Germany.

HEADLEE: Sherlock came to the US in 1950 and worked on a General Motors assembly line for 30 years. And when he retired, he built what he calls Disneyland North in his yard. And thousands of people come to Hamtramck each year, to see it.

Mr. SHERLOCK: Three weeks ago, came a testified man for bicycle. Testified man. And girls, too. Testified.

HEADLEE: And Sherlock isn't alone in this field - well, his yard. I plotted a mini-tour of Michigan's backyard artists. Starting in Hamtramck, head north for about four hours to Honor, Michigan, and you'll come to the Cherry Bowl Drive-In. "Hellboy II" and "Get Smart" are playing now, but you're not there for the movies. Next to the vintage speakers and 14-foot neon hot dog, owner Harry Clark has installed some fantastic sculptures.

Mr. HARRY CLARK (Owner, Cherry Bowl Drive-In): I think that pink and blue Volkswagen with a clown head on it is art. I sincerely do.

HEADLEE: Then there's that pink cow with cherries for spots and a classic car that seems to be driving through the wall.

Mr. CLARK: The half a Chevy coming through the fence is probably more fun than art, but I think it's cool.

(Soundbite of car door closing)

HEADLEE: Hop back in the car, go about six miles southwest on US 31 and you'll come to Beulah. There, stop by Dewey Blocksmith's (ph) house. He's surrounded the place with fantastic figures made out of baseballs, bike wheels, vent fans and broken cellos. Linda Godfrey turned up lots of amateur artists while researching her book, "Weird Michigan." She made one discovery in the small town of Matherton, northeast of Lansing.

Ms. LINDA GODFREY (Author of "Weird Michigan"): Very hard to find. My husband and I drove around for a long time before we located it. And there you have this beautiful bottle tower made up of glass bottles. It's in the shape of a bottle, it's made of glass bottles set into concrete.

HEADLEE: Godfrey says going to the zoo or spending a day at a theme park is great. But seeking out places like this can be more rewarding.

Ms. GODFREY: Because you're getting the distillation of a real human experience, a human life put into art.

HEADLEE: Two hundred miles north, in Onaway, Tom Miran (ph) doesn't think he's creating art. He says it's just good craftsmanship. The owner of Miran Ironworks has created close to 20 monumental sculptures using steel and brass. A 12-foot bust of George Washington, an Indian head that weighs 76,000 pounds.

Mr. TOM MIRAN (Sculptor): Oh, there's plenty of people that ask me what's the matter with me, for a lot of different reasons.

HEADLEE: Miran built an eagle head out of stainless steel, brass and copper, worth about 10,000 dollars in materials alone. That doesn't include the time he puts in.

Mr. MIRAN: It's not uncommon to get six, 800, maybe a thousand hours into some of the sculptures.

HEADLEE: But he says it's not about money, it's about the pleasure he gets from making them and displaying them.

Mr. MIRAN: It's just something inside of you that needs to get out. Probably as simple as that.

HEADLEE: On the drive back, on the outskirts of Detroit, is Silvio Bariless' (ph) private gallery of monuments.

Mr. SILVIO BARILESS (Artist): Follow me south outside the walls. The phones is outside. Since America does not have one, I built one for America.

HEADLEE: Barilles came to the US from Italy in 1956 as a war refugee. For years, he baked pizza in a small storefront restaurant. Now, he focuses entirely on creating massive sculptures out of concrete and rock. You can wander among dozens of the pieces in a shady courtyard near his home.

Mr. BARILESS: Liberty Tower going to be, but this is the American entrance. This Liberty Tower is for imaginary entrances.

HEADLEE: The tower is about six feet tall, with messages and historical figures carved into the sides. On one side are three very familiar faces.

Mr. BARILESS: Since I love the Three Stooges. I always wanted to be Curly. Woo-woo-woo!

(Soundbite of laughter)

HEADLEE: Barilles is creating his own idyllic world with statutes that celebrate Greece and Rome, Catholicism, America, even his beloved Detroit Red Wings.

Mr. BARILESS: This is Helen of Troy and this is Parisi, the guy that kidnapped her.

HEADLEE: And, if you visit him in Redford, make sure you have him sing a Neapolitan folk song for you before you go.

(Soundbite of singing in Italian)

Mr. BARILESS: Everything we do, we do for life. We don't do it for make money, for any other reason. To enrich life. Do the best I can in my own way. Comprende?

HEADLEE: Sometimes, though, that urge to enrich life can make you powerful enemies. Artist Tyree Guyton angered city officials when he started bedecking abandoned homes in inner-city Detroit with shoes, polka dots and old toys. But, he says, the drive to express yourself can be overwhelming.

Mr. TYREE GUYTON (Artist): And it makes me do it, it makes me do it when people are laughing at me, when people are talking about me. When city government is trying to beat me up and trying to sue me and take me to court and trying to say, you can't do this, and I'm fighting for the right to do it. It's something inside, something greater, that's pushing me to do it.

HEADLEE: Guyton has since settled his dispute with the city, and his art on Heidelberg Street is an international attraction. But most of the artists I spoke to will never make headlines. They're building simply for the enjoyment they get out of creating. And if other people stop by to look, all the better. Randy Mason says often it's the people, and not the art itself, that makes the stuff so inspiring.

Mr. MASON: You spend time with them, and you can't go away and not feel like, hey, there's some hope for humanity, with people who are really this motivated.

(Soundbite of singing in Italian)

HEADLEE: And it takes a little motivation to get out to see them. But well worth the trip. For NPR News, I'm Celeste Headlee.

(Soundbite of singing in Italian)

Mr. BARILESS: I'll do the rest the next time.

(Soundbite of singing in Italian)

COHEN: Day to Day is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Alex Cohen.


And I'm Alex Chadwick.

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