Vanadu Art House.
Two of Clarke Bedford's vehicles, "Demise" and "Vanadu," parked outside his Art House.

Vanadu Art House

Field review by the editors.

Hyattsville, Maryland

On a quiet, residential street in a suburb of Washington, DC, stands something abnormal: Vanadu Art House. Its creator, A. Clarke Bedford, is disappointed that Vanadu is seen as an oddity. "My street is full of interesting people and boring houses," he told us. "What are they doing planting rhododendrons? Why don't they want to do this? I don't get it. I don't get it."

Vanadu Art House.
Clarke models his Global Warming hat.

Despite the "House" name, Vanadu encompasses a building, fence, yard, and several vehicles -- usually parked out front -- wrapped in art. It's been described as "sinister" in appearance, and although Clarke understands that characterization, he generally dislikes labels. According to Clarke, Vanadu is inspired by the "weird threatening elegance" of the Victorian age, as if a machine shop had smashed into a 19th century salon and turned inside-out. "The 19th century Industrial Revolution was astonishing and scary and horrible," Clarke said. He finds it artistically exciting.

Vanadu Art House.
Clown head greets visitors at the front gate.

Clarke has made his own art most of his life -- but it wasn't until he retired from his job as a Smithsonian art conservator that he began seriously cocooning himself in it. The obsession began mildly enough, with Clarke bolting a few pieces of metal to one of his cars. Then one car became two, then three, and then Clarke went art-wild on his Ford 150 Econoline van -- from which Vanadu gets its name -- accessorizing it with everything from high-voltage insulators to Edwardian lobby lamps.

Vanadu Art House.
1995 Chevy Caprice. 1946 Buick Roadmaster. In one car.

"I can drive one of my cars to Home Depot, and when I walk out there'll be 15 people around it. And they're amazed," said Clarke. "I'll say, 'Well, why don't one of you make one? It's not that hard. It won't look like this, but it'll look like something.' But they can't make that leap."

In 2007 Clarke began adding art to his fence and house, and started filling his yard as well. Now Vanadu is so densely encrusted that there doesn't seem to be room for any more art, although Clarke said that he works on it nearly every day: adding, modifying, improving. "You just keep going," Clarke said. "It's a need. And all the while you're thinking, 'You know, some day I'm gonna have to take all this stuff down.' And then you get further along and eventually realize, 'This is just staying. I'm in too deep.'

"I could stop," said Clarke, "but then what am I gonna do?"

A superabundance of art is not really a problem for Clarke, who enjoys being surrounded by as much of it as possible. The density and detail, he said, is how art and architecture was enjoyed in Victorian times, and the opposite of the way it's seen today -- if it's seen at all. "It's romantic and a little crazy," said Clarke of his need to fill every space. "Modern times have taken that away. Everything's cleaned up and ordered. I understand the practicality of it, but you're missing out on visuals. It's sensory deprivation. I just hate that."

Vanadu Art House.
Fence, house, and two buses are barely visible through Clarke's art.

Nearly all of the art in Vanadu -- made of everything from animal skulls to motorcycle wheels -- is either tied, screwed, or bolted into place; there's no welding, and very little glue. Clarke's years as an art conservator taught him how to put things together correctly, choose materials that would endure years of weather, and make each item appear as if it had been outside for over a hundred years -- when in fact it might have been added only yesterday. And his Smithsonian pedigree comes in handy when the building inspectors stop by. "They're loathe to mess with it because maybe I know something they don't," said Clarke. "And I can shower them with references and verbiage. You know, 'It's just assemblage, and assemblage started with Picasso in 1905, blah blah blah.'"

Vanadu Art House.
Helmet of Hands in Vanadu's yard.

Clarke made Vanadu to please himself, but he also enjoys it when others take notice. He's usually around, and if he's outside he's open to answering questions, although he bristles when someone asks him how long it took him to complete one car or part of the house -- the "home improvement" scale of timekeeping ("We did our kitchen in six months") -- as if they were individual projects, not part of an evolving whole. He's also puzzled when people perceive him as dangerous, since, he said, a truly dangerous person would never own a car or house as distinctive as his. "The dangerous people always look ordinary," he said. "It's the nice guy who's selling you insurance, and the next thing you know the cops are finding body parts in his freezer."

Clarke said that his artwork is meant to be conceptually accessible -- even if it confuses some people -- and "mischievous" as a counterpoint to the self-important pretense of most contemporary art. He's pleased when Vanadu makes visitors feel a sense of wonder, or even if it just makes them smile.

"I think people find joy in it because it's unusual," Clarke said, "and because people are so bored."

Vanadu Art House

Address:
3810 Nicholson St., Hyattsville, MD
Directions:
Baltimore-Washington Pky exit at Hyattsville. Turn west onto MD-410/Riverdale Rd. Drive 2.5 miles. Turn left at the stoplight onto MD-500/Queens Chapel Rd. Drive a half-mile. Turn left (no stoplight) onto Nicholson St. Vanadu is the sixth house on the left. Private residence; easily visible from the street. Please don't touch the art.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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