Friday, May 15, 2009

the end o' the line

You've gotta like a place that's honest about its intentions.  Da Yoopers Tourist Trap in Ishpeming, Michigan qualifies.  They want to sell you all things U.P. and entertain you a bit while you're there.  The snow pole out front, which showed how high the 272 inches that fell one winter really is, certainly caught our attention.  As did the World's Largest Rifle, built by Tom Moran, whose ironworks we saw in Onaway a few days back.  And a very cool hand-made map that covered an entire wall, along with a Yooper version of the internet.
We used the parking lot for some show-ending catch, bought souvenirs aplenty, and started the long drive back.  Yep, these six shows are now shot, and we're sitting in an Iowa hotel, amazed that twelve hours ago, we were a mile from Lake Superior.  I'm bushed, and pleased that after almost 5,000 maniac miles, we're right on schedule.  It's almost as if WE KNEW WHAT WE WERE DOING!  Hope that when the shows are put together, I'll still think so (and you will too.)

Music In the Van--James McMurtry's new one, Old 97's "Fight Songs", "K.T. Tunstall "Drastic Fantastic", Dr. John "Live at Tipitina's"
Don's found $$--Another day with nothing!   Is it the recession or what?  Final totals are sketechy, but somewhere just over $6.00

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Yupper-duper day

From the beginning of this trip, Michigan's U.P. or Upper Peninsula has been beckoning us.  It's so far north, and so set apart from most of the world that we knew we needed to see it.  Today we began by crossing the Mackinack Bridge (nearly five miles long) and emerging in St. Ignace.
Castle Rock is a local landmark, and the Curio Shop below it has added a large Bunyan and Babe to lure folks in.  But instead of standing, this Paul is seated--on what might be a block of ice or salt or possibly,  a porcelain throne.  If only he'd talked, like that one in the California redwoods, we might have learned just what he was doing...
Speaking of learning, we did pick up some more info on the peloskey stone (the state rock, you know) from a nice lady in St. Ignace, then discovered yet another Paul (without Babe) in Manistique, which claimed to be "Paul Bunyan's Home."!  We've seen that phrase before in Bangor, Maine and Brainerd, Minnesota, so we're getting a wee bit skeptical.
We lunched at Deb's in Gladstone, with walleye that didn't disappoint, and some pistachio pie, which did.  Not awful, just bland (and weirdly green.)
Then we ran north, to the shores of Lake Superior.  And ran back to the van as quickly as we could, since IT'S COLD.  We sang a few bars of "The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald" and headed on towards Marquette, and a place called Lankenland.  It may not be on your map, but it's showing up big on snowmobilers' charts up here.

Tom Lankenen is a welder who'd never even seen a sculpture park, but that hasn't stopped him from building his own drive-through art yard in the trees.  Over 60 metal pieces of all kinds, some political, some cereberal, some just plain silly are scattered on the path.  Tom couldn't really tell us why he did what he did, because he's on a job in Hawaii.  But his stunt Tom (Gardner) drove up from Escanaba to help us understand why someone would do all this for no charge.  I'm not sure we ever learned "why" but that's OK.   We talked snowmobile smack with Tom2, and shivered happily as we passed dinosaur fisherman, old miners, spaceships, monuments to Marines and a corporate pig excreting on the average American.  Is the sculptor full of himself and all puffed up?  Not at all, Tom2 told us.  In fact, just the opposite.  He comes out with a leaf blower and clears new snow off the art when that's needed.  That's what you call hands-on.  

Music In the Van--Steve Forbert Sings Jimmy Rodgers, Joan Baez new CD, "Combustible" John Mayer
Don's Found $$ count--10 cents

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

the legs have it

A true family business is hard to find these days.  The Legs Inn is one, and it's an amazing place to boot.  George Smolak's uncle Stan, also known as Chief White Cloud, started working on it soon after he arrived from Poland  in 1913 (at the time it was part of Austria.)  He was a man who could take elements of nature and create very cool furniture and distinctive decoration from them. His little bar and grill in Cross Village soon began to feature booths, tables and chairs he made, as well as tasty Polish fare and libations.  The collision of Native American images and Eastern European traditions helps account for its striking originality.  And as for the name, well, those white appliance legs on the roof made it easy to spot.
These days the Smolak kids, Mark and Chris, help make the Legs a growing concern--open only from mid-May to late October.  There's a regular Sunday night blues band, and five secluded cabins for rent in the woods near Lake Michigan.  Other than that, it's just a great off the beaten path roadhouse with pierogies and kielbasa and room after room of great folk art.  When it's busy, "no one ever complains about the wait," George told us.
We worked our way out to the Legs after a slow morning in Cheboygan, where Main Street is undergoing major rehab work.  It's so torn up that the best route to the coffee shop we wanted to visit was through a furniture store's "interior sidewalk."  Walking amidst the workmen and machinery made the whole experience more than a little surreal.  Kudos to State Street Coffee for brewing a darned good cup!
The van's starting to get awfully damn full, and stops like Seashell City a few miles down I-75 don't help at all.  It's the place that promises a "man-eating clam" on the billboards.  We weren't fooled, but that didn't preclude some awfully silly poses on the pirate ship out front, and more cheesy souvenir purchases.  Don's pirate clock for $5 seems like a steal.... 

Music In the Van-- Norah Jones, "Blue Train" John Coltrane
Don's found $$ count--11 cents  (no good stats since Mother's Day)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

big fun in a small town

When your day starts with you successfully tossing sneakers onto the branches of a shoe tree, you know it's all gonna be OK.  That particular footwear-bearing specimen stands alongside a very busy US 131 a few miles north of Kalkaska, Michigan.  Not only was there far more traffic whizzing by than we've seen at other shoe trees, this one had some unusual fruit, including a pair of waders way up high!  The wind was whipping things around pretty briskly, and that's a cool thing.
Along this route, you start to notice that populous areas up here are few and far between.  After finally finding a Starbucks in Gaylord (just off I-75) we ducked into Indian River for a peek at the Cross In the Woods and Nun Doll Museum!!  The giant crucifixion is currently under wraps, waiting for money to refurbish it (kind of like that "building fund" that Don remembers from growing up Catholic) but the gift shop still has plenty of shrine-centric snow  globes, keychains, mints, etc.  And a patron saint of highway driving emblazoned on cards and medallions.  We bought with conviction!
Our big stop today was a few miles to the east in Onaway.  Not a very big place, but one that people passing through often remember because of the giant metal heads--George Washington, Lady Liberty and at various times, Atlas, a helmeted soldier and others that Tom Moran creates at his iron works on the edge of town.  They're unveiled to the delight of everyone at the annual 4th of July Parade, and then auctioned off or sent to museums, collectors or civic organizations to be enjoyed by all.  Tom had to attend a trade show in Chicago (his real job involves a lot of welding work for power plants and utility companies) but we had a great tour courtesy of Jill.  Including some snooping around the edges of this year's parade project, super secret as it may be.  We did a phone interview with Tom, who blanched at the notion of being an artist, while heartily endorsing the idea that whatever time and energy he puts into these things comes back around a hundredfold.  
One side note--the guy hawking a giant loogie on the sidewalk in town needs to be stopped, before he does it again!

Music In the Van--Cat Stevens' Greatest Hits, "Washington Square Serenade" Steve Earle
Don's Found $$--would you believe just 1 cent?

Monday, May 11, 2009

dewey defeats open space!

Traverse City sits on a pretty bay on Lake Michigan, and claims among other things to be the Cherry Capital.   It baked the World's Largest Cherry Pie, some 28,00 pounds in a big steel pie pan back in 1988.  Naturally, we had to see that, and toss some pie puns against the wall to see what would stick.  We even bought a $1 Sara Lee at the bakery outlet store to pay our respects, and I gamely hauled the Big Ball out to see a genuine Guinness claimant.
Then it was off to Honor, a small town with its own still-functioning drive-in theatre--the Cherry Bowl.  It's the real thing, with a great old screen and speaker poles that glow red in the dark (though we were there at noon), not to mention giant fiberglass hot dogs and chickens, even an old Corvair out front.  The owners just opened a cafe and gift shop next door (souvenirs were purchased) and comped us a lunch, complete with peanut butter cheesecake that may have had a few serious calories in it...
Just a few miles further down Highway 31 we saw what was left of Don Crossman's roadside sculpture park.  Don was written up in Weird Michigan a few years back, but died before the book came out.  He was a farmer who just wanted to weld some metal animals, patriotic symbols and Biblical forms for his own amusement, and refused to sell them, because, well, then he wouldn't have them to enjoy!
Our real destination was only a little ways away, on Crystal Lake, where Dewey Blocksma has gradually filled his house and studio with a whole lotta art.  Not just the pieces he makes, but works by other artists (like Joe McCuaig) he admires and collects.  Dewey has an unusual trifecta in his past--as a child he lived in Amarillo, Grand Rapids and Pakistan!  Because of his time overseas, he missed out on typical childhood toys, which may have prompted him to start building some of his own later in life.  He left his career as an ER doc in 1980, and gave himself over to earning 95% less, but with far less stress.  More than any one we've seen he incorporates sporting goods into his sculptures--softballs, catcher's mitts, tennis rackets... And he even joined us for a little catch in the yard.  Dewey's Puzzle Heads are especially great, and lots of fun, but he's still a bit uneasy about being called "whimsical."  We mean it in the best possible way.

Music In the Van--the new Dar Williams, "Love" The Beatles (at least until it started skipping)
Don's Found $$ count--17 cents (but he did discover two $20 bills at the Sara Lee store and turn them in .  Right is right.)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

some morels for mother's day

Mike figures we've missed Mother's Day most of the last 13 years.  We're usually out on the road just like we are now.  We started MD '09 under sunny skies in Muskegon, which soon turned to cloudy, then rainy by the time we made Montague to play a little catch under the World's Largest weathervane (or so they claim.)  There are several other contenders, including Maxie, the Big Goose back in Brunswick, MO.  Naturally, some maritime wise-cracking was done during the spirited horseplay, not the least of which included our invention of Old Smelt, an aftershave for men that never really caught on.
Our GPS then took us on a lovely drive through forests and orchards to the gate outside of the legendary Shrine of the Pines in Baldwin.  Not open til May 15, and nobody wanted to let us in on Mother's Day...
So we headed for Kaleva, where tour guide Jim did let us in and told us all he could about the Bottle House that the town embraces to this day.  Pop bottler and builder John Mackinen constructed the sweet, tidy, symmetrical "happy home" in 1951 and died shortly after.  He was a Finn, as were many of Kaleva's other citizens.  Their heritage was celebrated in a series of colorful murals in the town's old gym, and more recently, with a metal grasshopper to honor St. Urho.  That's the saint who drove the hoppers out of Finland, doncha know?
Turns out it's only about five miles from the Bottle House to Big Joe's.  That's Joe McCuaig, the 6'6" painter/carver/morel mushroom hunter we met a few years back at Folk Fest in Atlanta.
His yard has some messages reminding "the paparazzy" to stay away, and a bottle tree to catch the light.  Joe's mermaids, snake handlers and fish eating fish eating fish are some of the themes that seem to recur most often in his art.  Getting "the previous occupant" out of the White House made Joe very happy, but he's already poking some fun at the stimulus package, and how little stimulation it brings the folks he knows.  While wandering with Mike out back, Joe found a couple small morels that we left behind for he and his wife Sharon to cook as they pleased. Along with a Big Ball T-Shirt to "negotiate" over.

Music In the Van--Best of Sam Cooke, "All I Intended to Be" Emmylou Harris, "After the Goldrush" Neil Young
Don's Mother's Day Found $$--75 cents (viva Starbucks!) for a new total of $6.20.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

sorry tom, I chose this shot of melissa

Tom D. is the reason we stopped in Grand Rapids  (well, East Grand Rapids technically) but the work he does these days is often done in collaboration with his lovely bride Melissa.  And frankly, we've had enough pictures of men on here lately.  Let's mix it up a little.  
Tom's a Dutch Calvinist by birth and a socialist agnostic through years of practice, making art without any training, but steadfastly resisting the path to easy sales--i.e. doing the same thing over and over.  His "vixens" for example are interesting to him lately, as are tin sculptures and some colorful  "wraps" that he makes from duct tape and other pliable scraps.  Sometimes he adds photos of Melissa in some "semi-erotic" pin-up poses to layers of text and weathered wood.  Often, when he's hit the end of the line on an idea, he'll hand it over to her (or vice versa) and they'll discover a way to finish it up.  They're even in a band together, though Tom's growing guitar collection (17) is a small bone of contention.
The daughters Duimstra, Ruby and Evee, peppered Don with good questions--"why's the camera so big?" and "what do you need all those microphones for?"  The latter was all too pertinent, since recurring audio issues were the bane of our existence today.  We also met their dog Larry, but failed to encounter Jessica the Hamster, probably due to our focus on those same audio problems.
Maybe they stemmed from the rain that fell upon us on the way over from Lansing, when we stopped to see a tiny church in Lake Odessa.  Size-wise, it was just a couple of pews--roughly the same square footage as ones we've seen in Oklahoma and Arizona, but the lake view out the cross-shaped window in back was much nicer.
After our visit with the D's, we rolled around Grand Rapids a bit, eyeing the Sanctuary Folk Art Gallery on Division Street just minutes before closing time, and the Heartside Gallery a block or so down.  Also some nice murals nearby, in a part of town that's got the art vibe going pretty strong.
Which left us with one task still on tap, Nunica's Stonehenge.  Nunica is a small town to the west of G.R., with a half-size foam Henge (more solid looking than it sounds) in someone's very nicely manicured yard.  No signs, and no signs of life either.  Nor room to play catch.  So "rock and fire" had to be nixed this time. 

Music In the Van "Somewhere" Eva Cassidy, "Workingman's Cafe" Ray Davies
Don's $$ Count--44 cents today, plus 2 I missed last night=$5.46 for the trip so far.

Friday, May 8, 2009

lightning strikes twice in southern michigan

OK, the day started a little shaky--when Don realized he couldn't find the CD's he'd brought into his hotel room last night.  The search was fast, furious and finally fruitful.  Mr. Murphy located them packed away in the camera bag, where eventually, they were bound to be found.
And the camera did get a workout today, in two different locations we only knew a little about prior to arrival.
And both were great!  The first was McCourtie Park, outside Somerset, Michigan--named for the man whose estate contains fifteen photogenic bridges made in the trabaja rustico way we've seen in states much further south.   Turns out Herb McC went to Texas, made a fortune in gas and oil, and while he was there met Dionicio Rodriguez, the art form's true master. When he got back to Michigan, a pair of Rodriguez disciples named Cardosa and Corona came to his place and worked (in secret, like Dionicio) to do their concrete magic.  Muy photogenico!
After a frenzied lunch at the busiest Subway in all the land (noisiest too) we rolled into Lansing--a repeat visit, since we'd buzzed through briefly to see the Big Lug Nut back in 2000.
This time we wanted to dig deeper.  Literally, at the Board of Water & Light Building, the water treatment plant known already for its art deco stylings.  It was built as a WPA project in 1938, complete with murals, futuristic grillwork, and even some handles from the Olsmobiles that were made here then.   Our guide, Mark, almost adjusted one he shouldn't have, which apparently would have altered Lansing's water supply for the worse.  Whew!!!
But the seriously surreal part was yet to come, over in the deep, dank bowels of the plant. That's where a water worker named Charlie Hewes painted panels and murals around the pipes and plumbing he maintained decades ago.  Popeye and a warship, local landmarks and poems about his fellow "narrowbacks" are still down there to prove, as we often say with this kind of work, "that he was here."  We love it, and the fact that even in these post 9/11 times, TV Weasels like us can still be allowed to wander through and share what we find.  Thanks, Lansing.

Music In the Van--"Michigan" Sufjain Stevens, "Together Through Life" (the new) Bob Dylan
Don's $$--It was a very good day, some 63 cents for a total so far of $5.00.
Note--We all did laundry today, and got that headcleaner we needed (for the camera, not Don)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

milton's big dream

Meeting Milton Mizenberger, Jr. makes a day special.  It doesn't hurt when the day is a prototypical early May stunner.  The sunny skies enhanced Milton's miraculous transformation of an old house in what was once a very battered part of Chicago's south side. And not only the 1883 era  home, which he's rehabbed on the inside and out with parts that others have thrown away, but with art that also lines his yard and several lots nearby.  Together, the whole notion is what he calls the Oakland Sculpture Park.
"You gotta dream big" he told us.  "People pay attention when you do that."  He spoke of the impact that he thinks art can have on communities.   And his hope for an even bigger space someday, with a massive roof under which he can display lots more of it-- particularly from African-Americans who don't have many outlets for showing their work.
Milton's made it through thirteen years of really serious illness, and has come through it as positive as it seems a man could be.  He's made his own little piece of "country in the city," with a fence and some greenery where he figures horses and cows would be right at home.  And now, with his first bronze piece about to be dedicated in a park down the street, he's gone farther than anyone could have ever predicted. 
From his rooftop, Milton's even got a good view of Lake Michigan, which we realized we hadn't really seen enough of.  Once again, what a great day to do it--joining sunbathers and roller bladers, dogwalkers and folks who all seemed very concerned if we were "getting good shots." I'd say we were, but then again, I might just be dreaming big. 

Music In the Van--"Soap and Water" Chuck Prophet, "Miracle of Love" Eleni Mandell, "Action Packed-Best of Jonathan Richman"
Don's Found $$ count--$4.58  
Today's equipment issue(s)--Another cheap headset (mini-plugs suck) broken, HDV camera needs a head cleaning tape  (the Radio Shack guy said "try Best Buy")

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

van the man solves yogurtgate (whew!)

The Big Ball o' Tape came out to play at Intuit, Chicago's Center for Outsider and Intuitive Art, and among the folks on hand was Van DeLisle--one of only a handful of people in the world who've purchased ALL OUR DVDs!   He and twenty or so others came out in the pouring rain to see our presentation, ably aided by Kelly  Ludwig and her superb Detour Art photos of self-taught artists and environments.  But Van didn't just come to hear us (wearing a Big Ball T-Shirt), he also answered our Facebook plea for yogurt, which the Holiday Inn Express hasn't offered at breakfast for not one, but the last two days.  Criminy, they just built the place last week, why don't they have at least a wee bit of the creamy good stuff to make our morning brighter?  So score 1 for VD on that!

And score 'em for Amanda Curtis at Intuit who also hooked us up with David Philpot, a carver of wooden staffs that dazzle the eye.  David told us he's guided by a power he can't explain, one that wouldn't let him refuse the gift of an ability to carve and create some truly amazing pieces, even though he was a slow learner!  His skills have sent him to foreign lands and into swanky Chicago affairs--not bad for a cab driver and "illiterate" as he modestly refers to himself.

Before our trek into the city, we'd started the day (unless you count the yogurt fiasco and a Starbucks employee burning herself) with a trip out to Lyons.  That's where 82 year old Stanley Szwarc blew us away with his boxes and crosses--shiny metalworks that start as scraps from nearby plants and emerge gleaming with beauty.  Stanley came here from Poland in 1977, an accountant and musician with no welding skills whatsoever.  He figured it out, figured how to channel his ideas into something others call art (but not him) and have fun in the process.  He's up most days by 3AM, working for at least four or five hours, and we think that says an awful lot about how this art really does do a body good!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

fore and aft, picks and a picker

We're talking standard issue li'l wooden toothpicks, from which Wayne Kusy (who also plays guitar in a band called Heavy Mental) has fashioned detailed replicas of sailing ships like the Cutty Sark and Queen Mary.  His fifteen foot Lusitania (193,000 toothpicks) is still on display at AVAM in Baltimore.   He calls ships like these "castles on the water" and pours hours, days, and ultimately years into forming them (in sections) in his third floor apartment not too far from Wrigley Field.

Wayne admits that in many cases, he's building models from someone else's model, since older boats aren't that pictorially well-preserved.   But getting the intricacies right matters to him. Over the years, he's perfected his construction methods, gluing together hulls so strong you can set a bowling ball atop them.  But that doesn't mean the boats travel without some damage. Each time one goes off to a show, picks do tend to tumble.  That's inevitable, he figures, when you're making things that you aren't supposed to be able to make in the first place.

Speaking of Wrigley, we did stop by the grand old ballpark just after the Cubbies had lost again, tossed back a Goose River brew or two and stuffed down perhaps the best nachos ever.  This, along with a couple of other iconic Windy City sights on our tour of the town where Don lived from '76 to '79--those wigged-out weinies atop the Super Dawg Drive-In on North Milwaukee, and the Leaning Tower of Niles, for which we brought out the Big Ball.  And the little ball too, for some vigorous catch at this repurposed old water tower (half Pisa size) in front of the Niles YMCA.  The sign said "no skating or bicycling" but it didn't mention throwing softballs into the fountains. No pepper(oni), indeed!

Music In the Van--"Tupelo Honey" Van Morrison
Don's found $$ total--not sure, but the drunks around Wrigley seemed to be leaving a pretty good trail of coinage.  I'll know more tomorrow,...