July 4th, 2008
Yard Art and Handmade Places: Extraordinary Expressions of Home

Paul's Stone Sculptures

Update: 2008-07-04

Jill Nokes’s wonderful Yard Art and Handmade Places has proven so popular that a second printing is out reports Carolyn Lindell in the Austin American-Statesman. I missed the June 14th article but about the same time Jill emailed me to say that she had updated her website to tell what became of the some of the gardens featured in her book and it’s taken me this long to pass the message along. The most depressing story, for me, because it’s happened just around the corner, is Paul Schleising’s garden. Yes, this is what’s becoming of my beloved neighborhood.

Jill’s book makes good Independence Day reading. Every person featured displays a unique vision.

Dateline: 2007-12-09

For years the highlight of a stroll through my south Austin neighborhood was a visit to the stone sculpture garden on South 3rd Street. Paul Schleising stacked rocks, not into simple cairns but into evocative sculptures. They were not glued or held together with a rod. The rocks were perfectly balanced and frequently tumbled at the touch of a curious stranger, wily squirrels, or a strong wind. Thus the garden was always evolving as old pieces fell and new found objects were worked into the design.

Paul's Stone Sculptures

Last January I walked by the garden on the way to the park and all the sculptures were gone. Paul had moved away and his home and garden have since been bulldozed to be replaced by an upmarket duplex. However, before the garden was destroyed, Austin landscape designer and author, Jill Nokes, interviewed and photographed Paul’s garden for her latest book, Yard Art and Handmade Places: Extraordinary Expressions of Home.

For those of you who live under the watchful eye of neighborhood associations that arrest old ladies for not mowing their lawns or that won’t let you grow vegetables in your front yard or hang laundry in out back, Jill’s book is a tonic. Although, I suppose, those same neighborhood associations could wave the book in the air as a cautionary tale of what might happen if they didn’t keep a lid on peoples’ natural exuberance in their desire to create and decorate. Why, things might get a bit crazy. Bottle trees. Replicas of the Statue of Liberty and the Sphinx (I always wanted to know the story behind that garden on the way to Austin’s old airport). Elaborate birdhouses made of aluminum siding. Cathedrals made of old cars and hubcaps. Giant flower sculptures made out of old water heaters. Harold, we aren’t in Sissinghurst anymore. No, folks. Welcome to Texas.

Paul's Stone Sculptures

Don’t dismiss these gardens as the work of mere eccentrics. All are passionate, true, but which of us, as gardeners, can deny some form of obsession? Some might consider these gardeners poor, tacky or trashy because many work with found objects, with whatever can be gleaned at flea markets, along the road, and even the dumpster. What they lack in money they make up for in the richness of their visions and their desire to bring a bit of beauty to their piece of ground. These are gardens of ordinary people who do not hire designers to create a landscape for them. Rather these gardens are an extension of self. Each garden is an “extraordinary expression of home” and an example of what it means to make a place one’s own.

The gardens are as different as the gardeners. Jill describes the gardens but the stories focus on the people who made them–what inspired them, what drove them, what they’re trying to communicate, and how the garden connects them to something beyond the garden. Most of the gardeners have a strong sense of spiritual communion, a feeling of creating sacred space.

I loved reading every one of the incredible stories from the urban garden of the Flower Man in Houston to the grove of trees planted on the flat, dusty plains of west Texas to the slice of jungle created in the Rio Grande Valley. If I have a quibble it is that the book itself is too small. I wish it were coffee table book size so that the photos of the gardens were larger and more numerous.

Yard Art and Handmade Places was an early Christmas present to myself. I’ve been enjoying it immensely. If you cultivate a love of the unique, the unusual, or the whimsical–or if you simply desire a peek into worlds beyond the American suburban lawn-scape–I think you’d like it, too.

by M Sinclair Stevens

27 Responses to post “Yard Art and Handmade Places: Extraordinary Expressions of Home”

  1. From Pam:

    I love those stacked rocks – the ones in the second image from the top (this is quite serendipitious – I just left a comment at Outside Clyde about the wonderful rock wall that Christopher C is building – and he asked what else he should do – and I mentioned stacking a ‘pillar’ of rocks in his front entrance garden. Then I come here! But oh – there are few rocks around my coastal garden. You Austin folks have such wonderful rocks!

    I hope I haven’t left a false impression about the book. The stacked rock sculptures were just one of many amazing gardens. And these photos are my own, not from Jill’s book. Follow the link to check out her website and get more peeks inside the book. — mss

  2. From Pam/Digging:

    Thanks for the review. I haven’t had time to read my copy yet, but now I really want to find a few hours to sit down with it. Jill has such a sympathetic voice. Isn’t it interesting that a well-known—maybe high-end?—garden designer ended up writing a book about homemade collections of yard art?

    “A sympathetic voice”…that’s the perfect way to describe Jill and the tone of her book. The people she discovered and their stories are so engaging…and I probably should have emphasized more the sense of place that she communicates. I feel so lucky to have known two of these places and I want to rush out and see the other ones for myself. — mss

  3. From bill:

    I want that book. I have lots of rocks. I need inspiration.

  4. From Yolanda Elizabet:

    Love those stacks of rocks as they make such lovely sculptures. Such a pity that Paul’s garden has since been bulldozed but it’s nice to know that his sculpures still live on in this book. I do so enjoy it when people create art (for the garden or otherwise) out of sometimes very strange material.

    You’ve given yourself a very wonderful early Christmas present MSS!

  5. From Annie in Austin:

    Jill talked about the book on Central Texas Gardener and it looks wonderful – it’s on my wish list now.

    Because you took me to see Paul’s garden, MSS, I saw those stacked rocks in person – thanks again! Well, Andy Goldsworthy doesn’t expect his fleeting works or art to last except in photos – like his art, Paul’s rock stacks can also live on in print.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    I think you were the last person I ever took to see the rock sculptures. I’m so glad that you got to see them, as well as my mom, AJM’s mom, and Incandragon. I like the Andy Goldsworthy comparison–but I miss the sculptures and my walks to visit them. And I wish I had taken a lot more photos than I did! I’m really glad Jill wrote her book so that a little bit of what was once special about my neighborhood lives on. — mss

  6. From Steve Mudge(Fort Worth):

    Huh, timely topic(and you expressed it very beautifully I might add); yesterday I started my painted landscape idea–my friend has a painting of a house and its back patio, done in loose brushstrokes– somewhat realism, somewhat impressionistic. Kooky artist that I am, I wondered how it would look if a real landscape actually looked like that…so I’ve started a small example to check it out. Done now is a fake boulder I made and painted with the same loose brushstrokes. Next some pieces of flagstone. The plants though, well was thinking of using real plants that have that painted look (variegated ivy, for example). I guess its the same concept as the Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach, CA except this one you can walk into.

    Steve, when are you going to start a blog so that we can see what you’re up to? — mss

  7. From Christopher C NC:

    The muses are really hollering right now. It is amazing how many places are doing Goldsworthyesque/spiritual rock lifting and stacking at the moment. I even slipped into the place where I was banished on this topic in a current thread.

    Now how eccentric do I want to be?

  8. From kate:

    I love the rock sculptures. They are cool … the book must be a fun read!

    I don’t know a gardener who doesn’t have at least one obsession!

  9. From Carol (Indiana):

    Gardeners have obsessions? Who knew? The book sounds quite entertaining, a good read on a cold winter’s night. I live with one of those homeowner’s associations and I just don’t have enough rocks, clearly.

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

  10. From Don, Iowa City:

    I’m with you; I love gardens that are idiosyncratic, where a lone gardener sets out to express some vision from inside himself that he often can’t even explain, and doesn’t give a hoot if anybody else objects or approves… he’s just got to do it. I hate the “McDonaldization” of American gardens that seems to be taking place. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I got to go get me some rocks!

    “Idiosyncratic”– the perfect word to describe the gardens in this book. I think it’s a worthy goal–certainly when I visit everyone’s gardens via blogs, I’m amazed and encouraged by the diversity. — mss

  11. From M2 in Bothell:

    Sqeee! Now there’s a book that needed to be done. AND SEQUELS! When I’m old, I shan’t wear a stupid purple hat. I’ll have a berzerk yard. And perhaps I’ll start early. Brian and I have been looking at Christmas lights decorating yards, and rating them on a scale of 1 to 37th St.

  12. From Aiyana (Arizona):

    I’m going to look for this book. It sounds like a great read. There’s a local artist who makes colorful stacked ceramic balls–the same look as the rocks. Hers cost upwards of 1K. The rocks look just as good, and certainly cheaper!

    Yard Art and Handmade Places is available at amazon.com for a very good price. — mss

  13. From Steve Mudge (Fort Worth):

    Oh yah, the blog! Actually was working on my art website(okay for a shameless plug?)
    bajaartgallery.com You might be interested in it since you grew up in the southwest. A few Texas pieces there too.

    Shameless plug? Nonsense. You’ve been holding out on us. I linked your site via your name. I especially like “Cirious Hinterland” and “Long Afternoon Drive”. — mss

  14. From Julie (Austin):

    I understand that Paul S. relocated here in Austin (to Barton Hills?) and has begun again with his stone sculptures and the rest. Keep your eyes peeled!

    But I’m selfish. I want him in my neighborhood–not some neo-Modern block duplex. — mss

  15. From Angelina:

    That sounds like a really great book.

    There was one garden in our old neighborhood that featured some artificial flowers in it. For a long time I used to pass by it thinking “Who would do such a tacky thing?” but at some point it became a fond landmark and though I personally don’t care for the style I ended up appreciating that the freedom to put plastic flowers in your own yard and not have to answer to anyone else’s taste is absolutely one of the best freedoms ever.

    I reserve the right to put metal farm animals in my yard.

    You’d love my neighborhood then…I’ll have to write a post on it. — mss

  16. From Walter Jeffries:

    Wow, amazing balanced rocks. I am truly and duly impressed with the height. There are some people around here who do that but I’ve not seen any so tall. The rocks on our land are much easier to pile, they’re jagged and squarish for the most part. 🙂

    Paul is a true artist. I live just down the street from Paul’s so I have access to the same materials. I’ve often tried to stack rocks and they look like a stack of rocks–not anything special. In addition to the cairns, many of his other works looked like figures of human beings or animals. — mss

  17. From Miroslav Provod:

    The great amount of unsuccessful trials to understand the reason of megalithic structures shows us that the right answer isn’t anywhere in the region of known facts. I have found empirically that the “completion” isn’t any little thing but some laws of nature that have been neglected by the present science. It sounds unbelievably but did men in the ancient history know about some natural laws better than the present science? Surely, they didn’t but knew how to communicate between continents. I think that research in this field will be very interesting.

    New theory of balanced rocks

    The balanced rocks are rocks of great mass and in the same way as menhirs are located in places of great concentration of cosmic energy. They differ from menhirs by their more rounded shape and by their location on a small area. They may be swung by the wind due to their precise balancing. In my last article I’m describing an experiment, which shows that matter gains energy when being swung.

    Further, I will be dealing with important information about balanced rocks, which could be deducted from information found at GOOGLE – pictures, after typing in “balanced rocks”. “Balanced rocks are located in great amount on five continents. “ This fact eliminates any discussions whether ancient civilisations were able to communicate over great distances or not. We don’t know the answer to the question how they were exchanging information in such a way. However, we have enough organisational experience to say that without communication and coordination it wouldn’t be possible to built thousands of balanced rocks around the globe. The transport of rocks weighing more than hundreds of tons over a rough terrain, many times on top of mountains, and the difficult balancing enabling their swinging motion would be an unsolvable task for our technically advanced civilisation. If the ancient cultures solved this task, we can’t doubt that they used some for us unknown technological progresses.

    The usual reason for megalithic structures that they were built for ritual, calendar, agricultural and astronomical reasons wouldn’t hold out for balanced rocks. We can approach the reason for balanced rocks only if we lay away the textbook thought about people with a stone axe and think in a way that we are dealing with a technically developed civilisation, which was ahead of our civilisation in some unknown direction. I will enlarge on these thoughts about the megaliths in this direction in connection with the findings of the empirical research about new properties of matter. I will try to explain how people exchanged information over great distances by the use of balanced rocks.

    A menhir is a rock placed in a region of an energy source from which it spontaneously gains energy. At the times of building of menhirs there were only natural energy sources of cosmic energy on the Earth – underground springs, streams, rivers, large streams, sea currents, thunderclouds and others. The energetic value of these sources wasn’t stable; it was affected by the change of flow of water streams and the changes of other sources. Menhirs were affected by this in a way that their energetic parts were in a constant movement by which the zones and inter zones changes their separation. At times of drought it’s not possible to identify them. For the transport of energy it’s necessary that the zones of the individual sources cross each other. This however can’t be accomplished by menhirs due to the instability of their zones. It wasn’t possible to use menhirs for the transport of energy due to the lability of their energetic parts.

    The way in which people in the ancient times solved this problem deserves admiration. By the swinging motion they built a source into the rock, which compensated for the changes and disruptions to the external sources – it functioned as a stabilisation element. The energetic parts of balanced rocks became stationary and could be used for an uninterrupted transport of energy. If you visit
    http://www.miroslavprovod.com , Chapters / 2003, NO, 6, there is a diagram of energetic parts of two trees which intersect. In the text attached I’m describing how the transport of energy is realized. Therefore, balanced rocks could have functioned as part in the transport energy process in a similar way as retranslation stations of our time. Balanced rocks could have transported energy in two ways. They could have had their own transport network or they could have been just an interconnection of zones of sea currents, great streams and other great sources in their common network, as it looks like at Nazca.

    All the megalithic structures on the Earth have the same purpose. Cosmic energy is accumulated in their matter, which people than used for curative and also other reasons. The structures had to undergo one condition – they had to be situated into an energetic part of cosmic energy. The regional difference of the shapes of megalithic structures was usually accommodated to the local material sources and other conditions. In America, mounds were mostly built, which were from mud and no good workmanship was needed. More advanced civilizations built pyramids, ziggurats or other more difficult structures. Also, great structures with energetic regulation were built, such as Teotihuacán, San Lorenzo, Nazca Plain, Laos – stone jars, the pyramid of Acapan or Osireion.

    Another category of megalithic structures are Easter Islands, Nan Madol, Zimbabwe and others. These probably ensured the connection and maybe even intensification of zones over great distances. In connection with previous results, we could await interesting results from further research.

    January 2008

    Miroslav Provod


  18. From linda:

    Love the rock sculptures! That sounds like a fascinating book. Maybe I’d better appreciate some of the yard art I’ve seen over the years by reading it.

    I have mixed feelings about yard art. I had a next-door neighbor years ago who had an old bathtub and an old toilet in his front lawn ‘planted’ with plastic daisies and geraniums. They weren’t even cool fixtures, like maybe a claw foot tub. . . just ugly nondescript 50’s fixtures.

    I’m all for creative expression and love all kinds of art and found objects. There are times when something doesn’t work (for me,) and I think “Maybe that ‘sculpture’ might work better in the back yard. 🙂

    I’ve seen some great yard art and handmade pieces around here. And then there’s the dark side where things get tacky or even worse!

    Tacky or worse, eh. Like this?

  19. From Nancy Bond:

    I adore the rock sculpture in the first photo – it looks like a lady in a bustle dress, all set for a picnic by the stream. These are wonderful!

    The sculptures are like ink blots; we each see something different. To me it looks just like a Japanese monk wearing a traditional bamboo hat. — mss

  20. From Jenny Austin:

    I visited Jill’s garden once and enjoyed her yard art. We have a wonderful fence near us on Old Bee Cave Rd. I wonder if it is in the book? Enjoy the show. I bet you will be able to hear the symphony from your house.

    I know which one you mean–I initially thought it was part of the Cathedral of Junk but that’s in south Austin. So, it’s not in the book. But a lot of tremendous spaces are. I highly recommend Jill’s book.

  21. From Diana - Austin:

    I love Jill’s book. It really does open your eyes to other styles of gardening and decorating. And it helps us appreciate things that we might not choose to put in our own gardens, but now see in a new light. I’m sure your blog will send lots of folks looking for her second printing. Hey – I’ve been awol on vacation and must have missed your new web stuff – it’s beautiful! I’ll have to read back to find out more about it, but I just wanted to tell you how fabulous it is.

    My new web stuff? What new web stuff? — mss

  22. From Robin at Bumblebee:

    I think all gardens are constantly changing. But the rocks are easy points of reference and somewhat whimsical without being cute. It ALMOST makes me wish I had some rocks in my soil…But not really.

    Robin at Bumblebee

  23. From Lori, Austin TX:

    I was especially bummed to read about the birdhouse guy. I’ve never been into birdhouses, but I loved his creativity.

  24. From Robin at Getting Grounded:

    MSS-I absolutely hate seeing those pictures of Paul’s home. My significant other lived in your neighborhood, and we took many walks by his house to see the latest rock stacks. He inspired us to stack rocks on every vacation we took – British Columbia, San Diego, Mexico. There is so much “improvement” in Austin that hurts to see. I hope he continues his art somewhere.
    Robin at Getting Grounded

  25. From Leigh, Austin:

    Jenny, that fence on Old Bee Caves is one of my favorite things in Austin. Fortunately, it’s on the way to another of my favorite things, The Natural Gardener.

    I have all the bottles for my bottle tree; now I just have to find a suitable dead tree to “plant” in a buried bucket of concrete. The late afternoon sun will shine through the bottles and provide a lovely . . . or at least, colorful . . . sight as I sit on my handbuilt rock patio, enjoying all my little kitschy doohickies.

    “Idiosyncratic” is the word I also use for this. My sister calls it tacky, but I live in Austin because I am, after all, a little weird.

  26. From maggi fredericksburg texas:

    I am having issues with the city I live in with my extraordinary effort to beautify the historic home I live in. This house has been in my family for many generations. I took care of the yard as a child through my teens and listened intently to both my great aunt and grandmother talk about dreams they had for the houses. In doing so, I built dreams of my own. I have been putting in gardens, using free scrap pieces of granite, wine bottles as edging, fencing that is shaped for queens crown to grow on instead of the rock walls of the house. The queens crown has been a focal point of this house for many years. It has been on the house for over 100 years. It is a constant battle with the city. Neighbors who dont know the difference between a hothouse and a tent. I have most of my plants labeled so that walkers can see what is being planted. I am going to have to go to the board of adjustments soon and plead my case for lienancy on a 15 foot set back saying that I cant have anything over 4 feet. I am an artist. I started out making cairns and moved on to stacking pieces of granite as edging. its very frustrating, but I love the challenge. I just dont love having to destroy what I have been trying to create. City officials are always wondering why it is never completed. My response is this, “If you would not continually come around, especialy in the fall, and complain about something, I might be able to finish it instead of tearing it down. Thusly wasting my time and effort and deflating my bubble.”

    anyone who does yard art, I commend you…but when does the harrassment stop and my love of gardening and creating take precident over beaurocratic red tape and the need that the government has to control my freedom to express myself.

  27. From Keith:

    I have just been inspired with what to do with my abundance of flat rocks. I have enough to build a mini-Stonehenge in the back yard (not brave enough for the front yard yet.)

    But first, I’ll have to get out my dowsing rods and see if I can find a nexus of positive energy on the property. That would be really beneficial to have that energy spot over the whole property.

    Thanks for the inspiration and information.