Ornamental America

by imageguy

Most of us are collectors of a sort. We surround ourselves with objects that make us feel good. Some are personal adornments like jewelery, or perhaps they’re other things like art or nice cars or lawn ornaments. And usually we want others to see these things we collect in hopes that they will make someone else feel good as well, or at least take notice. We make a personal statement that says, “this makes me feel good so I’m going to keep it around and put it where other people can see it too.” Or perhaps we feel creative and make something we feel is attractive. Why not display it where everyone can enjoy it as we do? Or maybe we simply find something that is still useful in some way and see no reason to dispose of it, so it becomes decoration, something used to beautify.
VW bus front in Florida

Right after I got out of high school my best friend at the time helped me get a job working with a land surveying firm. We spent most of our days doing small surveys for real estate sales and occasionally larger property boundaries and some engineering layout for apartment complexes and subdivisions.

Early George surveying

One property outside of Stone Mountain comes back to mind in particular. It belonged to a guy who was known as the “Mad Striper”. He painted pin striping details on cars by hand and had a well known reputation as a master of this craft. We arrived at his house to do a normal survey of the property and I was immediately struck by the unique decoration of the home and yard. It was a typical house for the area. Probably three bedrooms and of modest size. Nothing unique as far as architecture. But the yard was quite unique and unlike anything else in the neighborhood. The driveway was flanked by two white, low brick pillars with concrete lions on top. More brick pillars were spaced across the front and sides of the front yard with a heavy black chain strung between each one. The yard had been cleared of any grass or vegetation and was covered with bright white coarse crushed stone. There was a concrete birdbath/fountain in the middle of the yard with a large central statue of a Greek style woman, and chains bordering the walkway to the front door. I think the idea was not only to make a bold decorative statement, but also to keep the yard on the lowest maintenance level possible. No grass to cut or leaves to rake here.

green house in Florida

As I’ve collected photographs over the years, I have begun to work on a number of series. One of my favorites I call Ornamental America. I am always amazed as I drive about the country, no matter where I am, that Americans seem to take great delight in the placement of all manner of unusual things in their yards as decoration.

house in Willimantic

From painted rocks to wagon wheels to plumbing fixtures and old appliances used as planters to lawn jockeys and garden gnomes, whirly-gigs and artificial wildlife, flags and banners and silhouette cut outs and little painted figures that look like some fat woman bending over in the garden. The list goes on and on and often includes very creative and imaginative constructions. One of my neighbors has crafted several figures in his yard made from clay flower pots joined together. He has a small person in the front yard, a large female in the back yard, a large male figure sitting under an arbor on the side of his house, and a small dog out under a tree. And as the seasons and holidays change, he costumes these figures in appropriate attire. Right now the little guy is dressed for St. Patrick’s Day. But they might wear outfits for Christmas, or Easter, or Halloween, winter scarves or summer aprons, even a New York Yankees baseball uniform.

small flower pot guy at Christmas

Some people go with trends, the wishing well, the lighthouse, the butterflies on the side of the house or ceramic kittens climbing up a tree. Others obviously craft their own creations from found objects and salvage.

wash tub on blocks

Some are religious shrines like the statue of the Virgin housed in a buried bath tub stood on end, and some are shrines of other varieties like tributes to fallen soldiers or lost loved ones. Some are like totems for luck or to appease the gods. Some are patriotic and some are humorous and whimsical.

yard shrine

The homes range from well-to-do to rural shacks and house trailers. Some are manicured garden spots and some have the feel of a junk yard. There are retired men in garages every weekend making endless numbers of whirly-gigs and folk art yard ornaments. And when we drive south we are sure to pass the road side lots filled with concrete castings of all manner of lawn sculptures.

Light houses for sale

So I look for these yards and for creative expressions of home owners, and I add these to my collection of Ornamental America. Of course not every decorated yard qualifies for inclusion. It must be unique in some way. Maybe it’s the quantity of items that make it stand out. Maybe it’s the creativity. Maybe it’s the stark quality of the lone item standing by itself as a small monument. And these lawn icons are not always easy to photograph. They are on private property after all and in most cases I can’t just wander into someone’s yard and shoot what I want. And I have found that as subjects, they are often difficult to compose in a way that conveys their unique quality in association with their surroundings.

yard people

As documentary photojournalism they are a challenge. But for me, a fascination and a joyful ongoing project. An American folk art of the times.

All images are Copyright © George Cannon, All rights reserved.