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Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Garden of Eden

Samuel Perry Dinsmoor built this post rock log cabin on the prairie and adorned it with the cement sculpture version of a graphic novel about religion, masonry and politics.

He built the house to be a tourist attraction, and if that sounds crazy, well, tourists like me are still showing up and paying to take the tour over a century later.

I've always been a sucker for folk art. I used to watch Rare Visions & Roadside Revelations with my first wife, and wanted to visit all these crazy places and artists on the show.

I believe Lucas, Kansas, home of the Dinsmoors Garden of Eden, may have accounted for a full season of that show. As much as there is in this post, this is just the Garden of Eden, not even close to all the grassroots art on offer in this thriving metropolis of less than 400 people.

I took the guided tour, of course, which was a little different than what I remember back in 2008. For one thing, it appeared to me that the Garden had been repainted. I think I remember hearing something about restoration work, but I'd forgotten that until I saw it.

Except I had that wrong. There's no paint involved, just cleaning.

Dinsmoor mixed stuff into the concrete to give it colors, red quartz for instance. The first time I visited here, there was almost a century of weathered crud on the concrete.

The restoration, I gather, largely consisted of cleaning stuff with a special solution that was supposed to be gentle on concrete and hard on the other stuff. People on ladders and scaffolding with Q-Tips and brushes.

The other thing they did was some repair work. The dog's tail had broken off, and they made him a new one, that sort of stuff.

I haven't taken the time to research this, but someone else who was visiting told me the infamous Koch brothers paid for the restoration. According to the tour guide, the Koehler Foundation did the work, but I don't suppose it's impossible that the Kochs could have been where Koehler Foundation got their money from.

It might not be true, I don't know, but if it is, it's hilariously ironic. Dinsmoor was a hard core populist, no fan of big business.

I suspect that while he built this joint as a tourist destination he did a little rolling over in his (on the site) grave when the patronage of robber barons came along.

Speaking of his grave, you can see him but there's no pictures to be had here of that. I'm a relentless shutterbug, shot over 800 frames on this road trip, probably a third of them here. But while they let you in the mausoleum to see Dinsmoor lying in state, they ask that you not take photographs in there.

He has changed a lot more than the Garden, and not for the better. The glass his mummified body is behind cracked a few years ago and the climate has wreaked havoc on him. I remember his beard having some color left in it, too, back in 2008, and it's all white now. A lot of him is white, actually, thanks to mold that's grown on him and his clothes. I guess there was some discussion of trying to restore him, too, but at least one authority said he'd likely disintegrate into dust if moved around so they're letting it go.

I should have taken notes, but the miniature houses and conical 'mountains' next door to the Garden aren't actually part of it. They're the work of another Lucas artist, who I guess made a lot of miniature versions of actual buildings around the area that were at one point sold off and then a bunch of them reacquired by the same historic society that now owns the Dinsmoor estate.

They got something in the water in Lucas, I can't even keep all their folk artists straight—Dinsmoor, Deeble, Mri-Pilar, the recently late Eric Abraham, and that's not including all the stuff on display in the Grass Roots Arts Center.

Obviously I had fun shooting the place up. Hundreds of frames, as I say.

I'd left Kansas City that morning aiming to hit the Garden of Eden by 1:00 p.m., meaning get to Lucas a little after noon so I could eat lunch at the diner on the edge of town first.

I almost made that time window, but the thing about early afternoon is the light is kind of harsh and straight down from above. I still madly clicked away, but I kept wishing there was more flattering light for these sculptures.

So after I'd done some of the other Lucas stuff I came to see, pitched my tent by Wilson Lake, and bought groceries for a camp-side dinner, I returned to get the late afternoon/early evening 'magic hour' light.

When I returned there were lots of cars parked there, but it was after hours. Turns out a ghost hunting expedition had booked an event. Several people asked me if I was there for the ghost tour.

No, I told them, just there to shoot some more concrete sculpture. Who needs ghosts when you have nekkid concrete Adam & Eve?

They had all sorts of ghost hunting equipment, much of it looks to me a lot like camera gear. And the folks who had signed up for that tour had to pay $20 more than I did for my guided tour. To my mind, that's a huge premium to pay—$20 for ghosts.

Sorry, that's cynical of me, I know, but when I hear about such things my instinctive, internal reaction, But there's no such thing as ghosts!

If you believe otherwise, I guess I respect that. I think you're wrong, but I respect your right to be.

If there is a place that's haunted, I would grant you, this is it. The physical remains of Dinsmoor and the first Mrs. Dinsmoor are still there, and in a creepy homemade pyramid at that.

The second wife is buried with her second husband, I guess, far away. Talk about a May-December relationship, the second wife Dinsmoor took was several Mays behind his December—him 82 and her 20 at the time of their nuptials. She was a cutie, too, strikingly beautiful with a mischievous smile. At least visually, a huge upgrade from the first wife, who from what I could tell in the pictures, wasn't exactly a looker on her best day.

A visitor whispered to me that the rumor around town was that the two kids from the second wife weren't really Samuel's. Which I guess is the kind of rumor you leave yourself wide open to when you go robbing the cradle by six decades. The assumption, of course, is that an 82 year old man wouldn't have the physical function left to father any children. But how many 82 year olds build sculptures out of concrete 30 feet in the air? The guy had a lot going on.

And really, anyone who's taking verbal pot-shots at him, jealous much?

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