|1905 Russell Avenue, Springfield, Ohio, from the street in August.|
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|
|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?|
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.
|"Let us smile"|