Outdoor Art
A writer scours SJ backyards recording the whimsical
By Sally Friedman

Sally Lilychild Willowbee is in love with Southern New Jersey. She loves its beaches and saltwater marshes, its farmlands and Pinelands.

She also adores its byways and back roads, its unexpected outdoor art, mailboxes, signs and gardens.

After years of wandering the SJ terrain, Willowbee has done something about this long love affair. She has written and published “Found Artists: On Country Roads, Side Streets & Back Alleys of South Jersey.” In the process, she created her own publishing company, Quirky Words Press.

“I spent last year putting it all together,” says the 66-year-old, Iowa-born woman who has lived in various parts of the country, but has settled back in Deptford. The SJ town is where she spent most of her childhood years and where her fascination with the region has increased and intensified.

The art Willowbee loves is not the sort found in museums. It is not traditionally beautiful or lush. It is, instead, the quirky and offbeat, the “grassroots art,” as she calls it in the book’s introduction. “South Jersey,” she says, “grows extraordinary artists in ordinary places.”

And when it comes to extraordinary, Willowbee is Exhibit A.

The second of four children of ardent peace activists, Willowbee – whose given name is actually Willoughby – spent childhood  summers on peace marches. Her parents, both employed by American Friends Service, imbued their own values in their children, and Sally felt both pride, and occasional embarrassment, at their very public activism. “Reading and creating became my escape,” she says.

FoundArt_1411Over the years, she gravitated toward her own peace activism in Philadelphia, and then to feminism and ultimately art.

Writing, she says, evolved over the years, as she moved from the East Coast to California, Florida and then back to her family home in SJ in 2007. She came home partly to help her late elderly parents, and also to start a new chapter of her life as a serious writer. Her art had earned her numerous exhibitions and lecturing engagements in various regions.

“But I think I was ready for some new challenges. I’d taught myself how to live a communal life in Sugarloaf Women’s Village in Key West, Fla., and I’d taught myself cabinet-making and carpentry. I’d written pieces for ‘Art Matters,’ a Philadelphia art magazine, which ended publication several years ago. But I needed to find some kind of synthesis in all of this.”

It turned out to be this spirited woman’s lifelong addiction to the unusual, the quirky and what some might call “trash.” Some artists, like Willowbee, see what most of us discard as fascinating and useful as raw material.

Willowbee is a proud Dumpster diver, someone who literally transforms trash into treasures. Her first book bore the unlikely title “Down in the Dumps: A How to Manual for Trash Picking or a Commentary on Society.” Along the way, she began casting a keen eye on kindred spirits who, like her, have let their creativity thrive in unlikely ways.

But the real genesis of the book, says Willowbee, was a class she took some years ago at The New School in New York City. She realized she agreed with her professor, who told the students that it was their obligation not just to chronicle grassroots art, but also to document the creators of the genre.

“I began to understand that the documentation was as important as the photography, that whenever possible, getting to know the creators of this art was really part of the experience.”

At about the same time, Willowbee started carrying a laptop computer on her “sallies,” a word she uses to describe forays into the world. Those combined factors led a book that reminds us of human ingenuity, creativity and whimsy.

It’s no wonder that a woman who transforms croquet mallets into table legs, recycles old drawers and junk jewelry into lamps and sculptures, would delight in the ingenuity of others and how they reinvent found objects.

Willowbee takes us into the environments of people who transform their yards, garages, grounds or even mailboxes into personal statements that reflect what they care about or care to share with the world passing by.

The book begins with Willowbee’s own property in Deptford, where she has created a mosaic wall comprised of pieces of broken pottery that together create a magical, colorful artistic statement that expresses how she sees day transform into night.

She also has created a striking blue bottle “tree” made from wine bottles and another tree made of prescription bottles. “They provide the only bit of color in a fog of gray, or shine like bright ornaments on a blanket of snow,” she says in her book. Hardly the kind of plantings one would expect outdoors, but exactly how Willowbee chooses to share her creativity.

Also unexpected is the outdoor landscape work of William Clark, whose Junk Yard Robots dot EL&M Auto Recycling in Hammonton and A&A Auto Salvage in Williamstown. Clark takes parts of demolished and dismembered automobiles and trucks and turns them into robotic figures like guard dogs and rock ‘n’ roll musicians. “I do it for the passion of it,” he says. “It gets me away from the rest of the world and releases something.” (art is on pp 37-39)

Quite different is the book’s collection of mailbox art. In various locales, from Vincentown and Tabernacle to a country road in Gloucester County, this traveler/author has found mailboxes like a carousel horse atop a mailbox in Vincentown or the trotter hobbyhorse pulling a sulky in Deptford.

Yet another contrast: the hubcap pyramid that may startle and amuse those passing along the Black Horse Pike in Weymouth. Created by J.C. Lester, also known as “Hubcap Jack,” the 25-foot-high assemblage sits outside his hubcap business. It’s hard to ignore this tower of silver that is the most striking of advertisements.

From Stanley Szymanski comes a strangely beautiful bowling ball world surrounding his property in Clarksboro. Szymanski has cornered the market on bowling ball outdoor art, bordering his home and grounds with assorted bowling balls spaced out almost as fences. When asked by Willowbee to discuss this rather unorthodox yard display, he replied, “What’s to talk about?”

There are those who choose wheels as outdoor ornamentation, while others opt for bicycle parts or colored electric insulators, while still others make their statements with wooden carvings or animal sculptures. At many homes, birdhouses, erector set whirligigs, airplanes and windmills all have become motifs in roadside art displays.

The book contains an all-important map indicating the locations of the various artistic displays, so those who are interested can find their way to these wonderful, quirky statements.

For Willowbee, the lessons about vernacular art have come in a steady, pummeling stream. She’s observed that more men than women create these oddball landscapes. And the vernacular artists tend to be friendly to strangers since they have gone public on their properties and probably expect some of the curious to pause for some answers.

As she has roamed, photographed and interviewed across SJ, the author has in some ways, also found herself. “I think the most important thing I’ve learned is to open myself to new ideas, new people, new experiences. I do have a shy side, but I’ve managed to overcome it through this process.”

Willowbee passionately hopes others will also pause in their travels to see the world in new ways. “It’s like when you’re in a foreign country and you open yourself to new experiences and new people. You get out of your own box.”

For this artist, the other personal awakening is the joy of expressing herself in writing. “I realize now that I’ve been accessing a different part of my brain, and that in writing, as in art, we do discover new parts of ourselves.”

Next year, there are plans to create a program at Perkins Center for the Arts in Moorestown and/or Collingswood, highlighting the works of the outside artists featured in Willowbee’s book, combined with the insights of Perkins’ folklore expert. Sally’s brother is Alan Willoughby, the executive director of Perkins, who is enthusiastic about the concept of that unique programming.

Most of all, Willowbee hopes her SJ neighbors will also go out and “look and really see.” The discoveries, believes Willowbee, are out there for the taking.

July 2013
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