Midland Mosaics - Backyard Giants
Many self-taught outdoor artists are chatterboxes. They'll talk your ear off describing their motivation, or their grumpy neighbors, or the logistical obstacles overcome in getting bottles to properly adhere to a pebble-encrusted robot.
Not John Lewis.
John doesn't mind if people stop to look at the sculptures in his back yard enclave, which he calls "Midland Mosaics." But he'd rather not talk about them, he doesn't want his picture taken, and he doesn't want to give tours. When you visit, you're on your own.
Oblivious to John's wishes, we peppered him with our usual assortment of dumb questions, and he graciously provided some answers. He's a tile-setter by profession. He began building his massive artworks in 1988. He uses steel, concrete, and tile, most of it left over from jobs. His largest works are so big and so heavy that they needed building permits, and he had to call in an engineer to tell him how much concrete and internal rebar he had to use.
That's exactly the kind of background detail that frustrates John. He's tired of people focusing on the process. He wants people to focus on the art. That's a fair criticism -- except that John won't talk about the art. There are no interpretive signs or laminated local art critic articles; instead, there's a dog house and some piles of yard junk and some well tended plants and flower beds. John insists that all of the sculptures mean something, but he also says that after all of these years, no one's figured it out. And until that person comes along, John's keeping his lips zipped.
John likes big human faces, we know that much. Several of them are scattered around the yard, decorated with bright tile stripes in colorful combinations, like red-on-green linoleum in a 1950s bathroom. Maori, Egyptian, Japanese kabuki? We couldn't pinpoint John's inspiration. Maybe they're modeled after the exotic aliens -- or maybe not.
At one end of the yard, near the trash cans, John has erected a giant hand, its palm open, extending skyward. John said he sculpted it freestyle by stepping back, holding his hand in front of his face, then walking to the sculpture and shaping it to match what he'd seen. It's an impressive accomplishment, and it's similarly proportioned to a nearby giant head that appears to have popped through a tile bull's-eye set into the ground.
Other artists have created giant heads, but John's is particularly striking, with its tiled planes and slopes. He said that it took eight years to build, most of it spent learning how to float flat tiles over its curved surfaces. Lime oozes from the grouting, and John said that he expects it to eventually form stalactites. He didn't seem displeased at the idea.
John's most enigmatic work is a faceless tile giant, tucked into the back of the yard, turned toward the trees with its rear to the rest of the sculptures.
It stands 20 feet tall, and sports John's craziest color mix, with arms and legs in a jiggly pixilation pattern that reminded us of circuit boards, or a subway map, or the test circles for color blindness. A yellow stripe snakes from its cranium down into its butt crack. Some kind of solar system thing is emerging from its belly button. At its feet is another of John's faces, set into a colorful tombstone arch, and next to that is a tile mosaic of a guy walking on a light beam into space.
Apart from the deliberate ambiguity, John's approach to art differs from many of his contemporaries in another important way -- he builds to last. Home-made art has a sad habit of falling into ruin, but John has used only the best materials -- each of the sculptures is anchored deep into the ground with steel and tons of concrete. It would take a cataclysmic earthquake or an immense bulldozer to topple his creations. John expects his art to be standing intact into the 23rd century, by which time there will be no one left to tell admirers if they've interpreted his work correctly.
That raises the question: what about the generations of people who will live in John's house after he is gone? The answer is that whoever buys John's property, even 200 years from now, gets John's art as part of the land. It's one of the questions he's tired of answering, and of course it was one that we had to ask.