For some Lawrence residents, living with an unadorned yard is like dwelling in a house with plain, empty walls. Boring. Bland. Unthinkable.
The Martin, Gruber, Schmiedeler and Wedel families have that and another attitude in common: They love to share their yard art with the community. But the origins of their outdoor displays are as different as the art lovers themselves.
In their southeast Lawrence neighborhood, within lasso’s reach of the Douglas County Fairgrounds, a bevy of western figures in silhouette adorn Ricky and Belle Martin’s wooden privacy fence.
“My husband — he’s disabled now — had so much time on his hands, I was trying to come up with a hobby for him. This was about six years ago,” Belle Martin says.
“He wasn’t quite able to cut out the silhouettes, but he got it all set up and showed me how. I started cutting them out of plywood, and he would paint them. Then, we just screwed them to the fence. It was something we could do together.”
The Martins started with smaller figures like coyotes and eagles before trying their hands at the 6-foot pieces.
“We did the smaller horses first because they reminded me of the mustangs from Central (junior high school). Then, he wanted a cowboy on a horse and an Indian. It got addictive.”
Because they live on a corner lot, Martin says the fence occasionally sustains beer bottle strikes from passing cars. But, for the most part, the response to the tableau has been encouraging.
“We’ve had a lot of people stop and tell us they enjoy them,” she says. “Especially older couples out walking. They’ll knock on the door and ask to take pictures.”
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Several blocks to the northwest, a colorful two-story mural peeks over a fence on the south side of Charles and Khabira Gruber’s home.
“The mural was done in 1999 by Missy McCoy,” Charles Gruber recalls. “My wife had a dear friend — an artist in California — who died. He left my wife a thousand bucks to make art. We decided it would be a great idea to have a mural painted on the house and came up with a design that was a reflection of our garden. Then, we noticed that it was a traffic-calming device. People driving by would always slow down to look at it.”
Not everyone, it seemed, was admiring the Grubers’ artistic expression.
“We had one cranky neighbor quoted as saying ‘there goes the neighborhood,’” Gruber says. “But we’ve had, literally, thousands of people come by over the years and tell us how much they love it.”
Buoyed perhaps by the response to the mural, the Grubers decided to get creative again when a beloved cherry tree in their front yard died of old age.
“One spring, it was evident the tree was dying,” Gruber says. “Khabira read in a magazine that an artist had a cherry tree that was dying and he painted it blue. So, we got out the spray cans and did a number of it.”
But, deceased cherry trees tend to decompose and, unfortunately, the “brilliant blue” paint applied by the Grubers wasn’t much of a preservative.
“The tree finally rotted out, so we took it down. The neighbor across the street at the time was a sculptor, Dave Kennicott. He used big branches from a hedge tree, which has very hard wood and will never rot, to sculpt an image of a tree and we put it up. Now, we have a representative of a dead tree.”
Passers-by seem to be fooled and often stop to admire and photograph the sculpture.
“The most typical comment we get is, ‘I love your blue tree,’” Gruber says. “And I say, ‘Well, my blue tree loves you.’”
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Mature trees provide shade and a framework, of sorts, to the awe-inspiring assemblage of art and salvaged objects in Nick and Cindy Schmiedeler’s yard in Old West Lawrence.
Rusty metal mobiles, tricycles and wind chimes hang from branches. A fence made of old license plates with bowling ball finials complements old bathtub planters, painted with flowers. Dotting the eye-catching landscape are Nick’s kinetic and stationary sculptures.
“We moved in ’96 and started right away with the eclectic vintage junk collecting — whatever you want to call it,” he says. “I kind of dance around the word ‘art.’ Maybe it’s folk art, sure.”
Unlike the Martins and Grubers, some of the pieces on Schmiedeler’s property are for sale.
“I do a lot of stuff with 1109 (Gallery) and the art guild,” he says. “Some of my pieces have been in different shows and maybe they haven’t sold, or whatever, so I bring them home and they go in the yard.”
Almost every inch of the home’s front and back yard — and the alley — has been embellished in some way, but Schmiedeler says he rarely fields a complaint.
“I haven’t heard any bad comments in over 10 years,” he says. “I think part of that is we’ve really tried to keep it organized and not as junky, because I do love it when people come by and want to look at things and touch things and take photos. That’s a big part of the energy for me.”
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A few blocks to the west, all that stands in the corner of Clint and Xan Wedel’s front yard is a bouquet of huge, Disneyesque metal flowers.
“We bought them at the It’s About Time store downtown about a year ago in May,” Xan says. “We had been looking at them for some time and we saw them in the clearance room. We thought, ‘Those need to come home with us.’ So, we bought the whole ensemble.”
The five whimsical blooms, from 3 to almost 6 feet high, accent the periwinkle two-story with white trim and bring a smile to people who cruise their corner.
“I’ll be out gardening and people will come by and roll their window down and either ask where we got them or say, ‘Thank you so much, those made me smile,’” Xan says.
The Wedels have smaller metal sculptures, like butterflies and geckos, and a mural, painted on the garage by Clint Wedel’s mother, depicting a beach scene from Key West. But, those are all confined to the fenced back yard.
“We wanted to share the flowers with everybody,” Xan says.