austin art city

Austin Artyards show a 'No-Limits' approach to landscaping

Austin Artyards show a 'No-Limits' approach to landscaping

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The "Cathedral of Junk" created by Vince Hannemann. Literally built from other people's junk - with help from some wire framing and concrete. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel
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A concerned-looking teddy bear awaits his fate as the guillotine blade whooshes down on his neck at the "Jim Hates Work House."   Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel
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Jim Mansour holds the head of a guillotine victim at his artyard installation "Jim Hates Work." Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel
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Bird cages hang from a Live Oak tree in Sharon Smith's artyard. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel
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Sharon Smith's "Tree of Life" sculpture is just one of many found-object pieces in her artyard on Choquette Drive in the Brentwood neighborhood of Austin. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel
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Mannequins, doll heads, cactus and yucca are the predominant elements of Scott Stevens' "Smutt Putt Heaven" artyard.   Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel
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Scott Stevens' "Smutt Putt Heaven" is a tribute to Alice Cooper, his favorite musician.   Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel
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Room Service Vintage Owner Lucretia lines her front and back yard with colorful bowling balls at the "Alleycat" artyard. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel
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At the "Museum of Ephemerata" in South Austin, a salvaged archway from the Cathedral of Junk's partial deconstruction due to city ordinance last year. Museum of Ephemerata by Jen and Scott Webel. Cathedral of Junk by Vince Hannemann. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel
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At the Stellhaus artyard, a 16-foot monkey welcomes passersby. Created by Tim Stell. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel
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Arlinda Abbott's "Texotica Gardens" artyard is full of colorful found objects.   Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel
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Sparky Park - an old electric substation - was transformed into a public artyard by Berthold Haas.   Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel
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One of my favorite hobbies is to drive around all the different Austin neighborhoods — Westlake Hills, Tarrytown, East Austin, Hyde Park, Sunset Valley, and so on — and ogle the different styles of architecture, ornamental design, lawn care and landscaping. So when I learned about the 3rd Annual Austin Art Yards Tour, I couldn’t wait to hop in my car and follow the self-guided tour on a journey of public and private yard art.

The Austin Art Yards Tour was started in 2010 by Robert Mace and Scott Stevens to showcase some of Austin’s hidden art gems. At first there was a verbal tour, a word-of-mouth artyard scene, Stevens says. People would stop by his or Mace’s house and they’d point them in the direction of other houses with art installations around town.

Eventually, Mace and Stevens met over breakfast one morning to knock out plans for a more formal tour. They included some of their friends, accrued more recommendations for artsy places from those friends and drove around Austin to see what else they happened upon. In 2010 there were 24 stop-in and drive-by locations. This year, there are 34.

The tour is free and flexible. All you need is some mode of transportation, the Austin Art Yards itinerary printed off from the website and a few hours. I spent all Sunday from noon to 5:00 p.m. following the guide — with a short stop for lunch and to pick up a friend — and only had time to see 11 of the locations.

 In 2010 there were 24 stop-in and drive-by locations. This year, there are 34.

My first stop was at the “Jim Hates Work” house on North Loop Boulevard, across from Epoch Coffee. If you’ve been down North Loop recently, you may have noticed this art installation is a bit out-of-the-ordinary, even for Austin: Jim Mansour, artist, mechanical engineer and handyman, built a working guillotine in his front yard.

The wooden framework of the guillotine is adorned with it’s victims’ heads, stuffed teddy bears of all hue and fur length with their “blood” — red yarn attached at the neck — flowing in the wind.

Mansour started his art yard when he bought the house in 2003. His first installation was a huge arrow made of PVC piping stuck into the ground. Since then, the installation has transformed into a giant lollipop and a pole with a huge, body-less teddy bear in various forms of “decomposition” and decoration.

So far he’s had only a little trouble with the Austin Police Department. They showed up in response to a call from a neighbor, but Mansour just showed them how the safety worked (the lever to raise and lower the blade is padlocked shut), and they went on their way.

“There’s no law against a guillotine,” Mansour says. “And plus, we’re American. We’re founded on revolution.”

Mansour says Mace and Stevens approached him while developing the first tour. They had happened upon his lollipop installation and thought it fit right in with the artyard vibe. He’s been a part of the tour ever since.

 “There’s no law against a guillotine,” Mansour says. “And plus, we’re American. We’re founded on revolution.”

So what, exactly is the art yard “vibe”?

Mace says an art yard falls into two broad categories: “Over-the-top Maximalism,” like the Cathedral of Junk off of South First Street, or “What-the-hell? Minimalism,” like the giant monkey at Tim Stell’s “Stellhaus”.

“There’s a fine line between ‘artyard’ and ‘yard with yard art,’” Mace says. “We ‘know’ an art yard when we see it.”            

Art yards are ephemeral, Mace says. Mace used to have an art yard covered in blue glass bottles — “Blue Plate Special” — but sold his house last year and is now living in an apartment without a yard.

“Someone moves, gets evicted, or dies and the art yard is no more. The magic is temporary,” Mace says.

All the more reason to check out the tour.  

Stellhaus is a new addition this year. The 16-foot monkey faces the road with both arms flung up in the air. It is made out of beige carpeting that’s been sewn and hot-glued together over what was once a tree stump but, over time, has been a grim reaper, mummy, Betty Boop, Grinch, burning witch and a leprechaun — all made out of many differing mediums.

Owner Stell changes the stump covering every year or so and adds and subtracts seasonal decorations. The monkey went up in October around Halloween time, sported candy canes during Christmas and even had a Willie Nelson theme for a while. This weekend, he’s only adorned with a tattered red scarf.

Stell is a business analyst for the state. He says he puts up art installations for the fun of it. “The creative side of me gets the out here. It’s where I can get away from the stresses of the day,” he says.

 “Someone moves, gets evicted, or dies and the art yard is no more. The magic is temporary,” Mace says.

Sharon Smith’s house, on Choquette drive in the Brentwood neighborhood, fits the “maximalism” category. Smith has known Mace and Stevens for a while now; she was part of the verbally-guided art yard circuit and has been a part of the formal tours all three years. She likes the structure of having a deadline to accomplish yardart installations.

Her yard is a mish-mash of found objects, ceramics, gardens and mixed-media sculpture. But art like this isn’t for everyone, she says.

Smith has had the neighbors on each side of her call the City of Austin about one thing or another since she started putting art up in 1999.  

“A lot of people think it’s all kind of like roadkill, because it’s all busted bits and metal and recycled,” Smith says. “Everybody’s entitled to their opinion. And it’s my Karma to be free enough to not worry about peripheral small-minded people.”            

Opening up small minds is only one of the reasons to continue with the Artyard tour, according to Mace.

“Art yards are part of Austin’s grassroots culture. Austinites should go on the tour to see what folk do with their yards when they allow themselves to have no limits,” Mace says. “Hopefully people will be inspired to look at their yards a little — or a lot — differently.”

As part of my grassroots artyard immersion. I also stopped by the notorious Cathedral of Junk by Vince Hanneman, the Museum of Ephemerata by Jen and Scott Webel,  Alleycat by Lucretia of Room Service Vintage and a few others. Not all the stops were houses, some of them were arty park installations — like Sparky Park in the Hyde Park Neighborhood — or roadside art installations like “Woodnado” on the corner of Guadalupe and 38th streets.

My last stop for the day was at Stevens’ house, Smutt Putt Heaven in South Austin.

Smutt Putt is mainly in the backyard of Stevens’ home. It is a shrine of decapitated dolls, doll heads on spikes, cactus, yucca, bottlecaps on strings and metal odds and ends. He says it’s somewhat of a tribute to Alice Cooper.

Stevens says when he started building his art yard he didn’t really have a design in mind.

“I don’t have a master plan. But I’ll be thinking real hard ‘I need this or I don’t have this.’ And it will show up in a day or two,” he says. “What you manifest in your head will appear in real life. I’ll be driving down the roads and I’ll see something I need. Crutches or a lamp I can take apart.”

His advice to the aspiring artyardist is to stay open-minded. “If an idea comes into your head, don’t discount it. Don’t let society keep you down. Celebrate your own free spirit because that’s what it’s all about. Now go start your own art yard,” he says.

If you missed the tour this weekend, or if you went on the tour and didn’t get enough, there are a few art yards open year-round.