A Walking Project by Larsen Husby

Early Autumn 1914

March 5th, 2018

People have asked me “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen on your walks?” and I don’t really have a good answer for them. I suppose they’re hoping I’ll say something along the lines of “I saw a man jump out of a second story window!” or “There’s a house in Northeast that’s completely covered in tin foil!” The truth is, I have seen countless bizarre things, they just tend to be much less dramatic than all that, and most of them fall into a category of items I refer to simply as “lawnstuff.”

Lawnstuff is just that: the stuff people have on their lawns, and more broadly, on any parts of their property visible from the street. This includes the normal stuff, such as mailboxes and flowerbeds, but it also includes the tricycles, bicycles, broken cars, sofas, shoes, statues, bags of garbage, and so forth, which people let sit out there. If I have learned anything from this experience, it has been that people leave an astonishing amount of objects on their lawns, whether deliberately or incidentally.

Intention ends up being the main characteristic with which I categorize lanwstuff: that which is clearly there because the owners want it to be there, and that which is there because the owners don’t care where it is. I think of them as the Cares and the Don’t Cares. It has become something of a game when I’m out walking through a neighborhood, trying to determine whether that those faded plastic flowers are tied to the fence because the homeowner likes the way they look, or because they can’t be bothered to take them down now that they’ve been bleached white by months in the sun. Usually, you can make a pretty good guess. But I have also discovered that the houses and lawns of the Cares do not necessarily look any better (or rather, are any better to look at) than the houses of the Don’t Cares.

When someone doesn’t care about the external appearance of their home, it generally ends up looking pretty bad. Sometimes, the house will be unadorned but presentable: no garbage on the lawn, and at least the paint isn’t peeling. Other times, it looks ugly and wretched, with stains on the walls and broken furniture littering the dirt patch lawn, giving the overall impression of a garbage heap.  But occasionally the chaos of the unattended front lawn invites moments of beautiful serendipity. Take this picture of the corner of a house. It would appear that the owner cares enough to have plants lining the foundation, but doesn’t care enough not to pile spare bits of wood and a broom on top of them. I am certain that the owner did not compose this group of objects out of any desire to make something artistic, and yet they did. Look at it, it’s like a still life, a triangular composition leading the eye upward, with the flat plane of the wall offsetting the busy line work of the plants and debris. Lovely! And also complete garbage!

In art, the intention of the artist is secondary to the interpretation of the viewer

When someone does care about the external appearance of their home, it can end up going all sorts of ways, and most of this depends on your personal aesthetic preferences. I’ve seen houses with wonderful gardens and handsome lawn chairs which induce in me fantasies of homeownership. I’ve seen  houses which are perfectly neat and presentable and so utterly boring that they end up actually being somewhat ugly. I’ve seen many, many houses where the lawn is just covered with the tacky kind of lawnstuff which I have always detested: pinwheels, bird baths, little statues of donkeys, tiny wrought iron benches too small to sit on, flags with saccharine pictures of flowers or snowmen or autumn leaves, rocks with words carved into them like insipid gravestones. All of these decorations are put there deliberately by their owners, and all of them make their lawns infinitely uglier than if there were nothing there at all. And yet part of me loves that someone loves these awful things. Someone finds them beautiful, and when that’s the case, they cannot be completely horrible.

Now, the houses I take pictures of tend to be either Don’t Cares with instances of beautiful lawnstuff happenstance, as with the corner composition, or Cares with an amusing or bizarre aesthetic sensibility. But the ones which are most intriguing are those which are somewhere in between, where there is a poetry to the lawnstuff which hints at the intentional hand of the author and yet eschews easy interpretation.

Take for example the Hannah Wilke House. I was on a walk in Northeast when I came upon a little blue house. The house itself was not very exciting, a clapboard bungalow painted baby blue with a dark blue trim. But the front steps were covered in Astroturf, a style I’ve seen occasionally and which always confuses me, and next to these steps was a pale pink mailbox. It was an odd color combination, this rich green and pale pink, and I realized it reminded me of a sculpture by Hannah Wilke that I’d seen at the Walker Art Center several years ago. Even the matte quality of the mailbox, and the way it folded over itself, was similar to the sculpture! And so I took a picture.

Top: The house in question
Bottom: “Teasle Cushion” by Hannah Wilke (photo: the Walker Art Center)

I had to take a step onto their lawn in order to get close enough for a decent shot, and in my head I said to myself, “I sure hope no one is home!” I kept walking, and about half a block away a voice called out “Excuse me!” I turned around, and a woman was standing in front of the Hannah Wilke House, saying “Did you just take a picture of our house?”

The bottom of my stomach dropped out. “Yes, I did,” I said.

“Why?” she asked.

I explained as best as I could, that I was an artist and liked to take pictures of interesting houses, and I was taken by the color combination of the mailbox and the steps and the baby blue clapboard, and that in particular I had been noticing pink recently, perhaps because it was the dead of winter when color in Minnesota is in short supply. She looked at me as if she didn’t quite believe me, but even if she questioned my sanity she apparently was satisfied that I wasn’t a threat. She asked if I wanted to know the story of the pink mailbox: apparently, she inherited the house from her father, and when they moved in her daughter wanted to paint to the whole house pink. She wasn’t a fan of this idea, so her compromise was to paint the mailbox. She went back inside and I kept walking, feeling jumpy and embarrassed at being “caught” taking a picture.

(There’s no denying it: taking pictures of other people’s houses is one of those things which is ostensibly ok but which no one, myself included, ever feels genuinely ok doing.)

So there you have it: the strange color story happening on the front steps of this little blue house had an actual story going on behind it (though I did not get an explanation of why she carpeted her stoop with Astroturf). It was a reminder to me that there can be motivations behind decor that have more to do with relationships and personal history than aesthetics. Houses are extremely personal objects, after all. The way we decorate (or don’t decorate) our homes is a reflection of how we live, what sorts of relationships we maintain, how much money we have, and on and on. The exterior of a house, the part which strangers see more often even than the owners, is a heightened version of this phenomenon because it exists in the public realm. Lawnstuff can be a literal reflection of these lives, in the form of detritus from our quotidian activities, or it can be a contrived reflection, like a political lawn sign.

I’ll close with another example of lawnstuff which, like the pink mailbox, left me wondering for a long time after. The house was, like the Hannah Wilke House, unremarkable: a one story building with yellow-brown shingles on the lower half and white vinyl clapboard on the rest. On the corner of the house were two small signs. One was a brown rectangle with the words “Early Autumn” carved in a solid, restrained script, painted off-white. Beneath it, the other sign was a sort of pennant shape, black, with white numbers set upon it reading “1914.”

A curious inscription

Now, I know the “1914” is in reference to the street number of the house, but I can’t help reading them together as a period of time: “Early Autumn, 1914.” A short phrase both precise and vague, like a description scribbled in pencil on the back of a faded black-and-white photograph you might find in a basket in an antique store, for sale for 50¢. Why is the “Early Autumn” sign even there? Is it the name of the house? Some people do name their houses, though I admit I imagined this was a practice limited to vacation homes and grand estates. And did the owners realize, in so naming, that it would pair so perfectly with the city-designated house number to create this little dedication to that particular moment in history? Did they choose to do so deliberately, out of a particular attachment to that time?

After my walk, I did a quick Google search of what had happened in early autumn, 1914: World War I was just getting started, and the First Battle of the Marne was fought; Pope Benedict XV succeeded Pope Pius X; and in Cincinnati, a passenger pigeon named Martha, the last of her species, died. And of course there where a million unrecorded stories of love and anger and loss, played out by all the millions of people alive at that time, one of whom perhaps even went on to own this house in Minneapolis.