As Lori Werdin-Kennicott greeted me at the door of the house she shares with her husband, Dave, she had a slightly befuddled expression, like she was expecting a pitch for candy bars or lawn services. Her clothes were paint-splattered, and it was apparent that I was interrupting a home improvement project.
Recognition came from Dave, also with paint on his clothes, when he joined us and recalled my appointment to tour their garden.
It might have been a welcome break for these busy do-it-yourselfers to guide me around their artistic East Lawrence garden, for as we toured the grounds, they would regale me with one project or another.
Dave, a sculptor and handyman who is earning his Master of Fine Arts, has created an artist's imprint on the land through his garden accessories. A towering skeletal form sways in the breeze, standing probably 12 feet tall and made of various metals: Osage Orange for the ribs, metal cobbler shoes for feet and a foundry bucket for a head. The creation is affectionately known as "Big Foot."
"When I was a kid I was terrified by Big Foot," Dave says. "A neighbor kid would scare me with stories. Now he is like one of the family - our boys call him 'Dada's Robot.'"
Confronting the peculiar is not an unusual occurrence in this art-infused sculpture garden and property. A molten metal piece is perched on a pedestal. It is an imprint of a rotted log, and what the tree must have looked like 20 years prior is particularly engaging for me. Seeing the cold, hard molten metal material associated with a once-living, breathing, soft, pliable gift from nature is a fascinating juxtaposition of man-made and made by Mother Nature.
There is an iron lung sculpture, which sports a plaster molding of Dave's head atop of a steam tank system with a pump made of an old tractor handle. Moving the handle compresses and deflates the air bag. I must admit I find this sculpture quite unsettling. After all, if art is in the eye of the beholder, this beholder is moving on to the divine functional pieces.
Dave also has created some exquisite pieces from wood, like the glider that sits under the large walnut tree in view of the kid's playground. There's an arbor and pergola that help frame the natural-looking, multi-tiered water garden. His artistic expression touches almost every aspect of the garden, from the glass-blown shards embedded into the rock path to two of the borders that line the garden. One fence hugs the back alley and was a Mother's Day present for Lori.
"I got tired of seeing the handyman equipment," she says. "The fence really finishes the yard. ... At night this fence is back lit from the alley, and it looks pretty cool."
The other fence that is such an impressive display of quality craftsmanship and invention backs up to the north side of the water garden, with tall bamboo stalks and an architectural frame made up of various square forms repeated throughout the fence, arbor and pergola.
"I wanted something tall and open and inviting," Dave says.
His mission has been accomplished. Now curious neighbors and passers-by can view the flowing water streams, yet the family can still have a sense of privacy.
The water garden is justly a large focal point of this outdoor canvas. Dave further describes his inspiration:
"The pond is about the seventh permutation. As I kept landscaping, I kept realizing I could do it better. I don't like the look of a ring of rock around water, but I do love rocks. While we were visiting my in-laws' cabin in Northern Minnesota close to the Canadian border, we took note that there is never a sheer fall of water anywhere. It is always turbulent and moving."
The Kennicotts have basically torn apart and put back together the once-dilapidated house and yard. When I asked how the couple met, I began to understand just how hands-on this dynamic duo really is.
"We met in the Peace Corps in Africa," Lori says. "We were there from 1996 to 1998 and married in Ghana in 1997. We built a library; the official language is English, so we collected some books through our parents in the states. I rehabilitated the water system in the village, and Dave helped write a grant to get a community center. My specialty was water sanitation, and Dave's was youth education."
Nowadays the Werdin-Kennicotts are bustle with activity at home, with a lengthy to-do list, two young boys, Sebiyam, 4 and Sedgiku, 2, and a garden that needs tending.
So do these two cut any corners?
"I cut my flowers a lot and give the bouquets to friends," Lori says. "That way I don't have to deadhead."
Well, it's better than nothing.