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.


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.


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.


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?


The Aura of “Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard”

I love traveling to new places and stumbling into unexpected encounters with art. It’s my favorite form of professional development And so, on a recent trip when our airbnb hosts recommended a documentary film screening at the local college, I listened. Their description of Picture from a Hiroshima Schoolyard sounded too close to my interests to ignore; a movie about drawings sent between American and Japanese children after the bombing of Hiroshima. Dan was convinced as well  and so we wondered our way through the city to the small, urban campus of Colorado College (est. 1918). It reminded me a lot of my own alma mater, right down to the socially engaged subject of the film.


A poster for the Colorado College screening.

Like it’s subject, Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard bounces between interviews with current and former members of the Unitarian church in Washington D.C. that started the cultural exchange and the Japanese students who made the drawings, and are now in their 80s. There is a sense of urgency to the stories they tell – not in their presentation, but in their ability to share them at all, so many years later. They were among the survivors of an attack that leveled an entire city. Going to school was their salvation and the art supplies they received from the children of All Souls Church helped them along the way.

The images they drew were not dark and dreary, they were bright and cheerful. You can see them on the film website. They depict the Hiroshima of their memory and their future dreams rather than the devastation outside. Cherry blossoms and grassy fields, rivers and bridges, temples and, of course, playgrounds. It’s amazing that these drawings were preserved for so long and it’s amazing to hear the stories they evoke from those who made them and those who saved them.



I recommend this film for those who believe in the power of art in fostering intercultural dialogue. It is also a powerful story of how art can provide a therapeutic outlet for those experiencing trauma. And it is a testament to the value of art in authentic and inadvertent  historic documentation.

But the thing I left thinking about most was how this film spoke to Benjamin’s ideas about The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936). Benjamin argued that images loose something inherently meaningful when they are copied – he wrote of photography and film and the idea of the Internet and camera phones would have blown his mind. As Pictures unfolds, the former Japanese school children often appear with cheap copies of their drawings, presumably supplied by the filmmakers and interviewers. But when they set their eyes upon the original works, sparks fly and tears roll, on the screen and in the theater. For these viewers, these drawings possess an aura, a unique sacredness tied to the context in which they were creation and the very paper on which they were made.

Can a selfie ever hold that much power?

(Note to educators: Educational and non-profit screenings of this film are just $100. Consider scheduling one for your school or community center. More information on the film website.)

You CAN bring your kid to Fallingwater

I firmly believe in experiential learning in context. I think the cuts to field trips we’ve seen in recent years in response to reduced funding for programming beyond school walls and preparation for standardized tests is one of the most under-discussed problems with public schools today. I’m working on an article on the value of field trips, for educators as well as their students,  and exploring the subject with my students.  IMG_2477This weekend, as a means of breaking up a long journey across Pennsylvania (seriously, if you’ve driven it you know what I mean), Cora and I went on what might be considered the penultimate art field trip when we visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. We joined the Saturday morning children’s tour (ages 5-8) and set out from the visitor’s center promptly at 9:30am. There was only one other boy and his father in our group, so it was intimate and Cora got to converse a fair amount with our docent, Susan.

As we walked down the path, Susan asked the children to start looking in the bushes and rocks for natural homes animals might live in. We stood under the boughs of a giant rhododendron, near its trunk and at the edge of its canopy, imaging where we would stay driest in a rain storm. We looked for covered crevices in the ravine walls of Bear Run and Susan told us that Frank Lloyd Wright studied animals and their shelters to see what he could do with rock.

She asked each of the children about where they live. “Do you live in the city, suburbs, or country? When you get home, I want you to compare your house to the one we’re about to see.” In retrospect, this suggestion reminds me of something I read about Fallingwater before we visited, that it will change how you see the world. I’ve seen a lot of Wright’s work in my lifetime but this was, hands down, the most thought-provoking and awe-some. I’m left wondering, what happens when you see that at five?

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We paused on the bridge leading up to the house as we took our first view of it from the ground level. Susan introduced the kids to the term cantilever as she pointed out the numerous unsupported terraces hanging out over the waterfall. Then we followed her onto a landing where she guided the children in a block building exercise to help them see and experience this building concept. Using three blocks, she asked them to build bridges over the water. Then she asked them to remove a support from one side and watch what happened. Together, they added weight to the supporting side to help keep the cantilevered end supported. (I see opportunities to revisit this in the future with our own wooden blocks and Legos.)

“Use your imagination. This blue piece of cloth is the creek….

Susan showed the children some photos of and told them stories about the Kaufmanns, the Pittsburgh family who commissioned the house. One of the photos depicted the rustic cabin they had on the land prior to Fallingwater. It would be an understatement to say the contrast was like night and day.

Finally, we got to go inside! No photos were allowed. On the one side it felt like torture not to be able to take photos of something so amazing, but on the other, the tour  moved through the spaces quickly it really was better to spend the time looking directly than through a lens. That is a rare thing these days.
As we paused to look around the main living room, Susan told the kids,”A lot about this house makes you wonder if you are inside or outside. As we walk around, see if you can spot the outside coming inside.” Cora embraced this challenge. She found large stones embedded in the floors and walls and immediately understood when Susan demonstrated how the windows could be used to control the volume of the waterfall based on how wide they were opened. I have to admit, it gave me a lot of pleasure to watch her actively soaking it all in.
At the end of the tour, Cora was upset to learn we wouldn’t be staying overnight at Fallingwater. I was too. Maybe someday, in another life…