Chris Barbee's Bowling Ball Yard
"I've been called everything from an artist to a crazy old fool," said Chris Barbee, standing next to a robot he built of bowling balls.
Chris began dabbling in bowling ball art in the early 1990s, when his wife Carol had a garden in their yard. Instead of decorating it with gazing balls -- which could shatter in Oklahoma weather -- the Barbees used old bowling balls.
Then Carol died. As a tribute, Chris took the balls -- which at the time numbered maybe a dozen -- and started building a decorative fence along the road. He planned to add to it slowly, buying balls at yard sales. "I figured it'd take two, three years," said Chris. "Then people seen what I was doing, and the balls starting coming in."
The fence grew longer and longer with each donation, and Chris finally stopped it at 108 balls -- but by then he had hundreds more. So he decided to use his surplus on other projects.
Today, Chris's yard has about 70 of his bowling ball creations, ranging from single-ball versions of ladybugs and pigs to a large American flag (273 balls) and an Egyptian pyramid (1,015 balls). A giant rosary (59 balls) was built by Chris to honor his mother. The robot (45 balls) stands half-hidden in a canebrake in a corner of the lot.
"I just try to think of something to do with balls, and go from there," said Chris of his art project. "I had no idea it'd grow as big as it has."
Chris showed us his bowling ball house (344 bowling balls, 140 pins), which shelters his mini-museum of donated bags, trophies, and other bowling paraphernalia. Goofy bowling towels line the inner walls as insulation. Chris's "special" balls, which he doesn't want to leave out in the weather, are displayed inside; elaborately decorated with themes ranging from SpongeBob Squarepants to "Freedom Isn't Free." Chris also has a nearly complete collection of bowling balls from every state. Visitors are encouraged to call ahead if they think they have a ball that Chris needs.
The outer walls of the house feature Chris's memorial balls, dedicated to deceased bowlers. There's a ball for Chris's wife, and for one of his daughters, and for two of his brothers. There's a ball for Betty Patton, 84, who visited the yard and died soon afterward ("Her daughter brought that ball"). There are balls for five people from Joplin, Missouri, who Chris doesn't even know. "If people want to donate a ball in memory of someone, I'll add it," said Chris.
We wondered if some of the balls might serve as urns, which would turn the bowling ball house into a kind of bowler's mausoleum. "I'm not saying yay or nay on that," Chris answered. "I really don't know."
The outer walls also display balls with special meaning to Chris, such as the one that his son brought back from Paris, and the ball dedicated to Tanner and Meagan Claborn, who were the first couple to be married at the Bowling Ball Yard on January 6, 2016.
Chris wants his visitors to feel welcome, and friendly signs out by the road invite travelers to "come in, look around, take pictures." And, of course, leave bowling balls: any weight, any color. "Just kick 'em out in the yard," is the way Chris puts it. "I'll find them."
The balls will all be used for art, not for sport. Chris told us that his wife was the last person that he bowled with, and that was in 1994. "The ball I used is down there on that fence," said Chris. "I enjoyed bowling, I really did. But I never did get very good at it."