Field Trip: Hartman Rock Garden

The summer after I graduated from college I drove across the country with an old friend. We were moving to California, following some beatnik dream. We pulled off the highway somewhere in Kansas and passed a series of whirligigs with political messages hard to ignore. We stopped for gas, asked about what we’d seen, and learned they were the work of an older eccentric down the road. He might be up for a visit–though he had an ornery reputation–if we wanted to stop by.

We drove to M.T. Liggett’s barn and hung out with him for a few memorable hours, not realizing he was a veteran of the American folk art world. Just weeks after graduating magna cum laude with a dual degree in studio art and art history, I learned of a major gap in my education. I had little to no knowledge of outsiders like Liggett whose art showed no concern for the latest trends in SoHo or L.A., just the the “human urge to create” (Kakas, 2001). Stumbling upon Liggett and his work was something I will never forget, and something that seems nearly impossible in 2017 where so much has been marked on Google’s Earth.

Yesterday Cora and I went on a field trip Hartman Rock Garden in Springfield, OH with some friends. Standing in this suburban backyard folk art environment I was reminded of the wonder such spaces hold. I first learned about the garden last fall in an essay by Karen M. Kakas published in Histories of Community-Based Art Education (Congdon, Blandy, Bolin, 2001). I had been living in Ohio for over ten years and had the book on my shelf at least that long but that chapter hadn’t caught my attention before. The images were hard to ignore and I put a field trip to Hartman’s at the top of the Ohio list of things to do.

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As we pulled up to Hartman’s former home, a tour bus pulled away and we had the space to ourselves. It was amazing, not least because the project has been standing out in the elements for more than 85 years. Ben Hartman worked on the stone and cement structures between 1932 and 1939 after a Depression era lay off from his work at a local tool manufacturer. He referred to the project as his “personal WPA project,” an antidote to the boredom brought on by unemployment. After his death in 1944, his wife Mary took care of the property until her own passing in 1997. After ten years of neglect, the Kohler Foundation purchased and restored the site. Today it is maintained by a local non-profit, Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden.

The farther I get away from my interests in gallery-sanctioned artworks, the more projects like Hartman’s appeal to me. The authentic passion and creative compulsion to create it displays, the attention to details, the use of materials at hand. It all fits my definition of what art is and what sorts of efforts and examples we ought to build art education around. In her essay, Kakas asks, “Besides [aesthetic] enjoyment, what does the novice art viewer learn about art upon encountering these objects in someone’s backyard?” This is a question I hope to consider further and explore in projects at Over the Fence Urban Farm this summer.

Kakas suggests art educators “need to make our students aware that most [environmental artworks] are like an endangered species.” After visiting Hartman’s I visited its Facebook page and plan to attend a volunteer day this spring to help with maintenance work on the site. It’s less than an hour from our house and I can’t think of many comparable opportunities I can give Cora to be part of art history and preservation.

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This final image is a one Cora took of her favorite piece in the garden. She thought it was funny to imagine a bird sitting on a cactus. I think Hartman, a religious and patriotic man, had a more profound message in mind but I think he’d be satisfied with her finding humor in the piece.

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Summer vacation is just around the corner. I’m hoping we can find other folk art environments to visit. Where have you been and what have you seen? What impact such spaces made on you? What have they inspired you to create?

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