According to Wade Wharton, he was just a guy with a job, a wife, and a house -- until a stroke destroyed half of his brain.
"The stroke killed off the left side," said Wade, standing next to a giant green man he built from Volkswagen parts. "Threw me plum over to my right side. Then I got ideas. Maybe not unique ideas, but they was unique to me, whoo boy."
Wade retired from his job, and eventually from his marriage. He kept the house and began filling it, inside and out, with Wade-art, trying to express the new ideas in his head. "When my wife was with me, everything had to be pristine. Couldn't have nothin'," said Wade. "When I started this, she left!"
"This" is now unofficially known as Wade's Garden, a woodsy showcase of Wade's sculptures in an otherwise nondescript suburban neighborhood.
Wade enjoys showing visitors around. The yard is only a third of an acre, but it feels like a jungle. Bamboo curves overhead, blocking the sun. Narrow paths wind through underbrush and sculpture. The thick stalks of bamboo, 40 feet high, are convenient hand-holds for the slow-moving Wade, whose balance is a little unsteady.
Wade walked us to a large metal fly on its back, legs in the air, next to the colossal flyswatter that killed it. "I had green onions in its belly," said Wade, happily pointing to the dirt-filled hole in the fly's torso. "Looked like green worms! Then the art people made me take 'em out for a show and put Coca-Cola bottles in it."
Wade's relationship with the local art elite and city government has been bumpy. He went along with the Coke bottles in his dead fly, since until 2012 no one in Huntsville would exhibit his art, period, despite his repeated attempts to get someone to pay attention. Conversely, the City of Huntsville was far too attentive in 2008, when it threatened to throw out all of Wade's sculptures. "If Wharton thinks he's got art out there, we've got a bunch of it at the garbage dump," Wade recalled one official's remarks.
The city and the artist eventually compromised: Wade could keep everything he considered "art" but had to trash everything else. Wade saw it as the city's way to cut off his supplies and his ability to make any more art. But he kept on, using junk he found by the side of the road and "donations" of scrap metal from supporters, left in the bed of his pickup truck parked in his driveway.
Why anyone would want to stop Wade is puzzling, since his art is mostly whimsical and happy. Shovel blades, transmission gears, and ceiling fans are turned into giant day-glo flowers. Big goofy bugs and monsters are popular subjects; bottle trees flourish. Some sculptures are built around bad visual puns, such as "Spring's Just Around The Corner." Others are pseudo-machines, such as a car jack contraption that compresses a rock into a diamond (a glass block faceted by Wade).
Wade showed us his workshop and one of his latest projects, a perpetual motion machine.
"I don't really want it to work," he said. "I just want something to lie about."
Despite his successes, Wade understands that time is not his ally. He yearns for a pledge from a museum or gallery to preserve his work, which includes stained glass, paintings, wood carvings, and gourd art that he displays inside his house with a framed photo of his ex-wife, who he says is still his good friend.
"I tried everything to capture these neat feelings that I've had," he said. "I want people to know that after a stroke this is what you can do."