Secondhand News: Art on the front lawn? That’s ‘classic Hyattsville’

A painted bathtub filled with rocks, a pink-haired dummy head, and rubber ducks is the centerpiece of a local garden. Photo courtesy of Lauren Flynn Kelly.

By LAUREN FLYNN KELLY — When my husband and I were first looking at homes with local real estate agent Dylan Hanna, one of the things that stood out to us was Clarke Bedford’s “art house” on Nicholson Street. Having grown up in a town where every lawn was perfectly manicured, I found it unusual to see a house, a fence, and three cars adorned with welded metal, glass, street signs, and just about anything else you can think of. When I asked Hanna what the story was behind the house, his simple response has served as a fitting explanation for many other oddities: “It’s classic Hyattsville!”

Since many of us got to see the inside of Bedford’s “Vanadu” art car at last month’s Arts and Ales Festival, I decided to explore the origins of some other notable recycled lawn art. Like the supine rock figure in front of Albert Donnay’s 42nd Avenue home. Donnay, a toxicologist by trade, explained that those rocks came from a quarry in Baltimore where he and his wife used to go “rock stacking” when they were dating. “There was this lovely couch-shaped rock that fit my wife perfectly, so when I agreed to move here, as a testament to my love and the fact that I wasn’t going anywhere, I brought the rock with me.” (It was towed on a flatbed, in case you were wondering.) The pair of glasses that once sat on the figure has disappeared, but Donnay said things come and go and that the glasses had actually been left there by a passerby years ago.

Donnay attributes his interest in rocks and stacking them to growing up with geologist parents, but he also credits British artist Andy Goldsworthy, whose “Roof” installation is at the National Gallery, for “inspiring found art in nature.” And he’s grateful to the city of Hyattsville for “being liberal about letting whatever we have in our yard go as art.” Other Donnay works are often made of recycled metals, including “The Fool on the Hill,” which won Best in Show at the Frederick County Fair two years ago and is currently on his lawn.

Around the corner from Donnay on Jefferson Street, you might have seen a mannequin in a painted bathtub. That bathtub came straight out of the bathroom of homeowner Carol Funkhouser; her daughter Cindy McManes said was it was supposed to be a planter but ended up as a centerpiece of the garden kept by Carol’s son Robert Schultz. It is now filled with rocks, a pink-haired dummy head, and rubber duckies!

Then there are some less obvious pieces. On the 4900 block of 42nd Avenue in the shaded yard of Joel Martin, you’ll find a stacked tower of rocks, several metal “planters,” and a giant mosquito sculpture made out of used car parts and shovels. Martin made the sculpture in the mid-1990s when the Asian tiger mosquito arrived and recalled that children from the block were excited to watch him weld it in the backyard. The other metal pieces of art on his porch and lawn were made by his brother, John Martin, of North Carolina, and the rocks came from a neighbor who threw them over the fence when he moved and said, “Here, do something with these!”

Finally, in the next yard over, is Hyattsville’s original “bottle tree,” constructed by the prominent artist and scholar David C. Driskell in 1976. The white-painted tree is disassembled for the moment as it undergoes repairs, but a hand-painted plaque in the yard marks its presence. Driskell, who has a painting in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, told me that while he was growing up in Georgia, his parents would deposit their used glass bottles at the base of a tree. The ritual was intended to protect the home from evil spirits by capturing them. His own bottle tree includes pieces from his parents’ collection, like antique blue milk of magnesia bottles.

“When I went to Africa for the first time in 1969, I noticed that there were bottle trees, but the way we constructed them in the South was slightly different,” Driskell recalled. “They, for the most part, they did what my parents did, burying these bottles and pieces of broken pottery at the base of the tree, but not deep. And they don’t know why they did it, but their parents did it, and their parents did it ahead of them, so my interpretation — and there has been research done on this — is that this really is an African tradition of dealing with shrines, that it had some religious significance.”

Who knew what incredible backstories existed behind these things? It’s amazing what you’ll learn just by knocking on your neighbors’ doors. Please share your favorite lawn art with me on Instagram using the hashtags #classichyattsville and #hvillelife.