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(Glass) Bottle Trees

There are two kinds of bottle trees:  The first one is a plant with a bottlelike shape (Brachychiton Rupestris) that grows mostly in Australia. Then there are trees — living or dead or sculptures resembling trees — that hold empty bottles. Originally these recycled sculptures had spiritual significance but have morphed into garden decorations.

L: Bottle Tree in Bottle Tree Park, Singapore. Photo by Greg Grant. R: Bottle Tree in Felder Rushing's garden. Photo by Felder Rushing.

Fascinated by bottle gardens since his teens, Felder Rushing has researched their history and photographed them throughout the United States, Europe, South America and Africa.

According to Rushing, who lives and gardens in both Mississippi and Shropshire, England, hollow bottles were invented in Egypt in 1600 B.C. People probably thought that spirits could live in bottles when they heard sounds caused by wind blowing over the openings.

This led to the idea that imps and genies (from the Arabic word djinn) could be captured in bottles. If you could lure roaming night spirits into a bottle, the morning light would destroy them. The notion spread through sub-Saharan Africa into eastern Europe and eventually came to the Americas via African slaves, who put colored bottles in trees near their homes to keep evil spirits away.

Bottle Tree in Ghana. Photo by Felder Rushing.

Bottle Tree in Ghana. Photo by Felder Rushing.

Traditionally seen throughout the rural American South and the Caribbean, bottle trees soon became a colorful, inexpensive way to decorate yards and lawns. Handcrafted ones are usually made with dead trees, but unless the empties are well placed, bottles can fall off the branches, or collect water, and can be attractive to insects looking for a place to hang out.

Bottle Tree in rural Mississippi. Photo by Felder Rushing.

Bottle Tree in rural Mississippi. Photo by Felder Rushing.

Because bottle trees are now a popular decorative fixture in gardens throughout the U.S.  — like plastic flamingos, bird baths and gnomes — steel versions are sold in garden centers and online by Amazon and Target.

In 1997 Dudley Pleasants, a freelance musician, welder and farmer in Greenwood, Mississippi, made a bottle tree for his wife. She wanted on because the once-popular ornaments had been disappearing from the local landscape as farming became more mechanized and tenant farms were razed.

One of Dudley Pleasants' Bottle Trees

One of Dudley Pleasants’ Bottle Trees.

Soon others admired the tree in the Pleasants’ yard and wanted one of their own. Because farmers don’t have much to do in the winter months, Dudley and a neighbor went into the manufacturing business as The Bottle Tree Man. They provide everything but the bottles — the recipient can collect them in his or her favorite color and size.

Pleasants recommends that collectors check to see whether their bottles are painted — you can tell if there is a small clear spot on the top.  If so, he suggests spraying the bottle with three coats of acrylic protector to prevent fading.

Jimmy Descant: Still Moving On

Jimmy Descant understands change. A lifelong resident of New Orleans, he spent 15 years performing mostly behind-the-scenes work in the music business, for both underground and better-known bands. In 1996 he found a 1952 Kenmore vacuum cleaner in a flea market, deconstructed it and rearranged the parts into a retro-rocket sculpture. Pleased with the result, Descant bought a drill press and left his job to create his deluxe rocketships.

“I don’t do any welding in my work,” explained Descant, who has no art background or training. “Everything is bolted together so that it creates a look of the golden age of American manufacturing, Art Deco, and sci-fi when it was mostly imagination and not computer graphics.”  He said he finds “just the right components to fit together and be bolted or screwed in to look like they’ve never been apart.”

By 2005, Descant had developed his art and a career when he and his wife lost their home, belongings, all his early art works, a collection of other art and his shop filled with tools and raw materials to Hurricane Katrina. They decided to leave New Orleans for good.

"The Baker Happier Hunting Grounds Deluxe Model"

“The Baker Happier Hunting Grounds Deluxe Model” by Jimmy Descant. Made from an old brass code Morse code signal lamp from a navy ship. The base is a beauty shop chair stand, the front an old lamp and beehive hair dryer and the rear, an office chair base, fan and parts, and an old Pontiac chief hood ornament (1939 or 1940). 5.5 ft. high x 8 ft. long. 400 lbs. Included in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum permanent collection.

The couple traveled to an art festival in Colorado where they met a developer who was renovating older buildings near the Denver city core into themed, boutique apartments. He commissioned Descant to provide art inside and out on the Rocket building near City Park.

"VR Azure Electro-Andromeda"

“VR Azure Electro-Andromeda” by Jimmy Descant. 1950’s Electrolux with 1960’s Valiant grill wings, on weight reducing machine stand.

The developer also provided the artist and his spouse a place to stay and work while they looked for a new home — which they found in the artsy little town of Salida, Colorado, on the Arkansas River.

"Robot Heart"

“Robot Heart” by Jimmy Descant. Private Collection.

Along with his free-standing sculptures, Descant creates assemblages he calls “cypressionist paintings”: sculptures mounted on flat surfaces, such table tops turned upside down, designed to be hung on the wall like paintings. Components include metal pieces found on parking lots and curbsides.

"Deluxe Cowboy/Indian Rocket Bike"

“Deluxe Cowboy/Indian Rocket Bike” by Jimmy Descant. Installed at the Iron Horse Tap Room in Washington, DC.

Descant’s decision to work with materials culled from outdated appliances and scrap metal is not a solely artistic one. He describes himself as a “severe recycler” and avidly condemns “the horrible waste of today’s terrible cheap products.”

Jimmy Descant with one of his sculptures

Jimmy Descant with one of his sculptures.

His work is included in varied collections, including the American Visionary Art Museum; Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum in Florida and  South Korea; The Mayo Clinic; and Washington, DC’s Rocket Bar (which was named after his work).

For a schedule of his 2012 exhibits and Instant Art events where he creates a sculpture on the fly, visit his website.

Free-Range Pianos Play On As Art

Everybody loves a piano.  But what do you do with one when it comes to the end of its days? Sometimes the innards can be salvaged for spare parts, but most owners wind up paying movers to get a piano out of the house. Thousands go to the landfill every year.

In Fort Collins, Colorado, any playable upright 48 inches or taller can live a second life as a Piano About Town. Donated instruments get a complete professional tuneup and a stunning paint job and then are released onto the streets for anyone to play anytime they want.

Two of Fort Collins' brightly painted Pianos About town

Two of Fort Collins’ brightly painted Pianos About Town.

What started in 2010 as a holiday gift to the community from the local Bohemian Foundation – which also brings dozens of local and national musicians to play for free at the city’s birthday party every August – has grown into a collaboration that combines visual and performing arts with community engagement. The pianos attract everyone from students who want to practice to virtuosi who give impromptu concerts, casual noodlers to daily players.

A few performers.  Some play improv. Others bring sheet music

A few performers. Some play improv. Others bring sheet music.

A partnership with the foundation, the city’s Art in Public Places program and the Downtown Development Authority’s Art in Action initiative places a baker’s dozen of pianos each year in different locations, from historic Old Town Square to the Colorado State University campus, in alleyways and plazas.

Mural artists are selected through a juried process to transform the pianos into works of art — and they do it in public, under a tent in the Square, where they can interact with passersby and bring the creative process out into the open. Some actually invite people to play while they paint.

The entire program costs about $30,000 per year, according to Libby Colbert, Art in Public Places program manager. Most of the expense is for a full-time piano tuner and the movers who pick up the donated instruments and take the painted pianos to different locations about every two to three weeks between May and October. Artists receive a stipend of $650 to paint a piano, and Colbert sees their creative input as a key ingredient in the community caring for the instruments in the wild.

“Nearby businesses ‘adopt’ a piano and agree to cover it with the (attached) tarp if it rains,” she said. “But lots of times someone has already done it, if it looks like the weather is getting bad. And regular players are very good about letting us know if a piano needs repair; they call or Facebook me. We’ve only had one piano tagged with graffiti, and that was only minor.”

Unlike in New York or Los Angeles, where street pianos travel through on limited engagements, the Pianos About Town live in Fort Collins and are open 24/7; most move indoors for the winter, but one usually stays out by the skating rink in Old Town.

And when a piano finally comes to the end of its days of wandering about, it might be lucky enough to play a third act. The gallery in the Fort Collins Lincoln Center commissioned five local artists to create works from decommissioned pianos for a May 2012 exhibit called Rescue and Redemption.

Necklace and earrings made from a decommissioned piano

Necklace and earrings made from a decommissioned piano.

“The Art in Public Places people dismantled four pianos, and let the artists go shopping for materials,” explained Gallery Coordinator Jean Shoaff. “We invited artists who were already using recycled materials in their work and challenged them to create something new. They selected everything from wood from the shell to the actions and other internal parts, and made everything from jewelry to a large interactive piece.”

…Colbert said Art in Public Places kept the large back panels and some of the parts for spares, but the artists consumed the equivalent of two whole pianos for the exhibit.

Shoaff said comments from gallery visitors were overwhelmingly favorable, and it’s quite possible that she’ll do it again, inviting different artists to participate as more pianos come in from the streets.

To see the transformation of a 1929 upright into the first Piano About Town for 2012, go to artist Laurie Zuckerman’s blog.

Bowled Over in Kansas

Lucas, Kansas, population 407, is located 114 miles from Wichita (its largest neighbor).  Although the quirky town is way off the beaten track in north-central Kansas,  it is a tourist destination — 10,000 people come by each year to see the art in residents’  backyard galleries of folk art.

In 1996, Governor Bill Grave named Lucas the “Grassroots Art Capital of Kansas” due to the large number of “yard environments.” Today Today the town boasts a resource center for 90 such collections, created by self-taught artists in Lucas, most over the age of 65.

The Grassroots Art Center in Lucas was established in the early 1990s to document  folk art in Kansas, and the Midwest.

“We are a magnet for self-taught artists…residents move into an art career after they retire from 9-5 office jobs,” explained Center Director Rosslyn Schultz.

Most make their art from recycled materials lying around the house. When their homes’ indoor space is used up, they put art into their front and backyards, which are open to the public.

Lucas has a long history of residents-turned-outsider artists.  Between 1905 and 1927, Samuel P. Dinsmoor, a retired teacher, who had served in the Civil War, created “The Garden of Eden.” The Garden consists of a “log cabin” — a ten-room house built of local limestone which he painted — and a landscaped garden with over 200 concrete sculptures of figures from religious and political figures. The Garden is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Concrete statue of an Indian in the Garden of Eden by Samuel P. Dinsmoor.

Concrete statue of an Indian in “The Garden of Eden” by Samuel P. Dinsmoor.

West Facade, “The Garden of Eden.”

West Facade, “The Garden of Eden.”

His work inspired Florence Deeble who, at age 58, built postcard scenes, sculptures around her home with rocks brought back from her travels. She continued to add to the collection for nearly 50 years, creating what is now known as “The Deeble Rock Garden.”

Detail: Mount Rushmore by Florence Deeble

Detail: “Mount Rushmore” by Florence Deeble.

In 2008, 30 Lucas residents got together and decided the town needed a public restrooms for its thousands of visitors. “They said, ‘You find eccentric art in Lucas. We need something unusual,’”  according to Schultz.

Entrance to the new public restroom, Bowl Plaza, in Lucas, Kansas.

Entrance to the new public restroom, Bowl Plaza, in Lucas, Kansas.

They settled on a building that looks like a gigantic toilet. Two businessmen donated the land for it; Kohler Plumbing Company, which supports outsider art, donated the two sinks and 3 toilets and a urinal. Nearly 75 percent of the residents volunteered their time and materials to make it happen.

Plans for Bowl Plaza called for mosaics. One retired person who had experience with the medium came from 30 miles away and showed people how to do it. Eventually everything was covered with mosaic. The floor is created from leftover tiles from individuals home projects in all sizes and colors. The town collected 1,700 bottles that were incorporated into the design. One man contributed his chess set while others gave jewelry they no longer used.

Details of a mosaic mural in the Bowl Plaza.

Details of a mosaic mural in the Bowl Plaza.

The plaza at the entrance to the bowl is sunken, providing an area for people to sit and talk. A giant concrete toilet paper roll unfurls outside as a stimulus for conversation beneath the toilet’s 14-foot-tall lid.

“Our lid is always up,” Schultz said. “This was done by volunteers and took thousands of hours to put together.”

The $100,000 building is almost complete and paid for by grants, local fundraisers such as the Great Toilet Seat Art Show and Auction, and donations from people throughout the country. To close the gap, the town took bids on eBay for the honor of the first flush of The Superbowl on the men’s side, on June 2 at 3:21. The highest bid was $265.

The public restroom was officially open for business on June 2nd after 3:21p.m. For further information, visit the Grassroots Art Center’s site.