Friday, August 9, 2013

Hartman Rock Garden in Bloom

1905 Russell Avenue, Springfield, Ohio, from the street in August.
Bright, tidy gardens are a hallmark of August in Ohio, and where best to see them but in a Springfield neighborhood of small houses in big yards, all carefully trimmed and maintained. Number 1905 on Russell Avenue, at the corner of McCain, has a particularly fine display of zinnias, cone flowers, and black-eyed Susans these days. But the riot of colors doesn't disguise the fact that among, beyond, and between the ebullient plantings arise a multitude of gray stone structures miniature and grand. 

This is not just any backyard, but the Hartman Rock Garden, a small treasure of American folk art nestled into a corner of the ordinary world that begat it.

The garden is the work of Harry George (known as Ben) Hartman, an industrial mold maker who was 48 when he was laid off during the Great Depression. Not one to be idle, and, moreover, being an ardent gardener, he undertook to make a concrete goldfish pond in his yard. The pond was the beginning of an enthusiasm that lasted his whole life. Unemployed from 1932-1939, he spent nearly all of his time constructing the structures and figures that grace the yard today. Once he was rehired by his foundry, his work on the garden was slowed down. He lived only a few more years, dying form work-related silicosis.
Looking toward the back of the garden from the side of the house.

This narrative is courtesy of a fine guide that the Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden provide. That aside, one barely notices that there's any institution between you and direct experience of this marvelous place. The morning I visited, I walked through the garden gate marked "Entrance," past a box for voluntary contributions (to which I was more than happy to make a deposit), but then I may as well have been in my own yard. No one peeked out from the yellow bungalow. If it is inhabited by the gardener, (s)he is just the good hearted sort one might expect discreetly to oversee such an antic property.

I think it is just this—the antic aspect of the work that functions within a conceptually earnest structure—that makes it so completely engaging. Hartman was clearly a man with the sort of true moral compass one so often longs for. The dioramas and monuments all have something to do with religious (Catholic) devotion, love of family, and pride in the canonical stories of American settlement and growth to power.

The Tree of Life is the centerpiece of the garden, demonstrating its themes. One branch holds a house, the other holds a church, and a bald eagle sits atop it all, with an emblematic American flag below. Its floral setting emphasizes its status as a focal point. 

Tree of Life: Home, Church, and Country
Clothespin cannon from Valley Forge
Highlights of American nationhood are memorialized through Hartman's representations of historic sites and important buildings: He shows us Lincoln's log cabin, the White House, Independence Hall, Fort Dearborn, and the Battle of Little Bighorn, complete with warrior figures. I was touched by his scene of Washington's Valley Forge headquarters in the winter, with icicles dripping from the men's quarters, and cannon covered with rime. The icicles are made of snipped tin, and the cannon of wooden clothes pins. The effects, though, are stirring, as it's impossible not to share the conviction of greatness the artist transferred through his painstaking commitment and ingenious fabrication. 
Winter quarters at Valley Forge

Because of the way Hartman constructed his garden,
structure by structure, apparently without a master plan, the installations don't follow a logical course nor even the logic of any particular scale. Along the back of the property, the castle (of no particular title or reference) looms twelve feet tall, with an open drawbridge over a moat and an anachronistic American flag atop. To its left is the cathedral, larger still, punctuated with niches that house figurines: Madonnas, saints, and, in a long, low archway, a replica of the painting, "The Last Supper."

Other displays, however, are miniature, as measured by the size of the plantings around them. Bushy flowers serve the roles of great trees or forest settings to establish scales far grander than the literal size of structures allow. Hartman does this successfully with a charming chapel graced with a stained glass window, with sacred tombs, and a little "red" school house. 

The castle and moat (Fort Dearborn, left)
Schoolhouse--in the woods?
An hour at Hartman Garden returns the visitor to the best part of free-hearted, open-minded childhood wonder. Hartman marked most of the displays with little hand-printed signs, and many others are self-explanatory. When you come to Daniel in the lion's den, there is no question about who this is, as the lions, with manes blown back, advance with extended paws and the robed man flinches with his weight on his back foot. La Rabida Monastery, however, I would not have known without a hint from the guide: "This structure, a re-creation of the monastery where Christopher Columbus consulted with the Franciscans about his voyage to the 'New World'..." Well, now I know.

Of the many singular scenes and structures, Hartman signed one in particular with an emblem he created for himself, a heart that outlines in stone the word, "MAN." This is set prominently behind, of all delightful things, a cactus garden where sit several impressively square-jawed Native Americans, one in a chief's head-dress. The scene commemorates the Oregon trail, including a covered wagon as well as the scenery and the Native people settlers would have encountered en route.
Oregon Trail, cactus garden, Heart-Man

This is definitely the season to see Hartman Rock Gardens, even though it's open every day of the year. The flowers are spectacular right now.

Directions are on the Garden website: It's only five minutes from the highway. It's fun even to get there, as the setting is so unprepossessing. The effect of Hartman Rock Garden on the heart and spirit is entirely salutary: You'll be smiling for days to come once you've been there.

"Let us smile"

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