Dinner table crowd at Sunnyslope Rock Garden.
Dinner table crowd at Sunnyslope Rock Garden.

Sunnyslope Rock Garden

Field review by the editors.

Phoenix, Arizona

Sunnyslope Rock Garden is a cheerful folk art conglomeration, mostly built low to the ground as if designed to be admired by children. Its creator was Grover Cleveland Thompson, a man with no formal art training, but with a lot of time and energy.

Roadside America's first visit, 1994 (we brought our own masks).
Roadside America's first visit, 1994 (we brought our own masks).

Thompson's biography is hazy. The accepted timeline is that he was born during the presidency of Grover Cleveland (hence his name) and lived the majority of his life near Redmond, Oregon. He relocated to Seattle during World War II, where he worked as a heavy equipment operator, and when he retired he and his wife moved to a little house in the Sunnyslope neighborhood of Phoenix. Harboring a hidden artistic urge, and inspired by the Petersen Rock Garden in his Oregon homeland, Grover spent the next 22 years obsessively packing his small yard with human sculptures, decorative walls, and miniature buildings made of concrete and salvaged bric-a-brac.

The garden fills three separate sections of Grover's yard, suggesting that he worked on one, ran out of room, then still had the energy to fill up a second, and then a third. To make the sculptures and buildings he would form a framework out of junk metal, cover it with wet concrete, then press in rocks, marbles, and seashells to create mosaics. His favorite decorative materials were colorful Fiestaware crockery and cobalt blue Bromo-Seltzer bottles, which he would smash into shards.

Rockwork and people busts.

As an artist, Grover had no concept of negative space; everything in his garden is crammed together, piled in front of, next to, and on top of each other, as if he simply couldn't stop. There are over 50 mosaic-encrusted structures, including fountains, four-bladed Dutch windmills, a ziggurat topped by a large star, a multi-tiered wedding-cake-of-a-building perched on legs, a tee pee, a wishing well, and a Seattle Space Needle nine feet tall. Encircling walls are topped with arches that undulate like a sea serpent. The only plain surface is a dun-colored miniature cliffside Pueblo, which stands out nestled among Grover's other architecture's colorful cacophony.

Cool shades on Native Americans and cowboys.
Cool shades on Native Americans and cowboys.

A number of Grover's human figures are almost 2-D, squat and lilliputian, with oversized heads and stubby arms and legs. One has an age-blackened knife and fork embedded in its outstretched concrete hands. A Mexican man in a serape and sombrero stands watch in front of a niched wall filled with busts of women; other busts simply rest on the ground. Many of them had their faces made by pouring concrete into Halloween masks. The faces are more goofy than terrifying, and the paint on the statues has held up surprisingly well. The colored vintage Fiestaware, made with radioactive uranium oxide (Bring a Geiger counter when you visit!), glistens in the sun, shaded in spots by leafy citrus trees.

Miniature buildings covered with dinnerware shards and color ceramics.
Miniature buildings covered with dinnerware shards and color ceramics.

Grover died in 1978, and a year later the property was purchased on impulse by Marion Blake, a visiting New York art history major and schoolteacher. Preserved by the dry Phoenix climate and Marion's persistence, the Sunnyslope Rock Garden is now owned by the University of Arizona. Marion's only addition during all of these years has been to place real hats, necklaces, and eyeglasses on some of Grover's busts.

The Garden is open to the public on the first Friday of each month from 2 to 6 pm, which can make visits from June through September feel like an oven. However, stasis in the desert air is better than being plowed under by a misguided neighbor, and much of the Garden can always be viewed from the street by peeking through the driveway gate or peering over the low perimeter fence.

Just resist the urge to caress the the Fiestaware.

Sunnyslope Rock Garden

Address:
10023 N. 13th Place, Phoenix, AZ
Directions:
I-17 exit 207. East on Dunlap Ave. for three miles. Turn north onto Cave Creek Rd for one mile. Turn right onto E. Cheryl Drive (a small street), then an immediate right onto N. 13th Place. The Garden is halfway down the block, on the east side.
Hours:
Visible from street; open to public first Friday of every month, 2-6 pm.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Viking StatueViking Statue, Phoenix, AZ - 1 mi.
Grasshopper BridgeGrasshopper Bridge, Phoenix, AZ - 4 mi.
Vietnamese Martyrs ChurchVietnamese Martyrs Church, Phoenix, AZ - 4 mi.
In the region:
World's Tallest Continuously Running Freshwater Fountain, Fountain Hills, AZ - 20 mi.

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June 1, 2020

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