Is this art?
My 11-year-old niece asked me this once about a pinball
machine sitting by itself in the center of a small, eclectic art
I repeat the question today. To myself. I'm alone as I patrol the
chain-linked perimeter of a crowded, jumbled and decaying mish-mash of
aging whirligigs on Highway 155, near Grand Coulee Dam in northeast Washington.
The signs say this is the Gehrke Windmill Garden. And, indeed, the
things are "planted" like a garden, inside a fence, in rows, close to
each other. Too close, however, to let each piece breath.
Can the wind even wind its way through?
Each "windmill" is stuck to a long pole that's "planted"
in a garish orange (it looks like plastic) tub. Some tubs have cheap plastic flowers "planted" around the poles.
Weeds, neglect and disrepair overrun the whole "garden." It looks
I shake my head. Is this art?
I close my eyes. I want to see this work as intended, not as it ended
up, in a crowded square plot next to a dusty main highway.
So, I do a little research and open my mind to a time maybe 50 years
ago, when the artist, Emil Gehrke (1882-1979) and his wife, Veva,
(1902-1980) moved to this little corner of Washington from Nebraska,
where he was an ironworker. Together, however, they were artists.
They'd spend their weekends collecting items others tossed out (lots of kitchen goods, some auto parts, a few farm items). Emil would craft them into whirligigs; Veva would paint them.
They "planted" the art on their hilly, treed lot near Grand Coulee Dam, and let people walk through to enjoy the results.
When Emil grew too old to care for the items, he offered them to the
city, hoping they'd be set up in a park for all to enjoy. Apparently,
the notion appalled the town leaders; they considered the whirligigs
eyesores, not artwork and wanted to get rid of them, not display them.
What a shame. The Gehrkes, even after death, continue to enjoy
artistic renown in Seattle, where their wind sculptures decorate the
northwest corner of an electric substation (it's called public works
art). But in their own hometown, they have no fame.
So, friends, years ago, came to the rescue and had the works installed
on the land they now occupy.
I open my eyes, and LOOK! How lovely!
I now see a field of enigmatic windmills and can imagine a delicate clattering of tin against tin as the wind catches and moves the bowls, helmets, oil funnels, pie plates, funnel molds, tea cuts, saucers and sundry other lost-and- found items.
Perhaps the friends who started this project have been busy and plan
to return to straighten the tilting poles, plant real flowers not
plastic ones, replace weeds with grass and then open the gates to
let people like me mingle with the art.
And, yes, this is art.