He Never Promised You a Rose Garden
Maybe it was the flea-market matador that sparked the lightbulb over Henry Whittaker's head. Or the wooden tiki mask. Or the Fisher-Price dollhouse. Or the plaster conquistador figurine. Heck if Henry knows.
Besides, even if he could remember what inspired his collection, it's hard to explain the appeal of a sculpture made of faded boards, a clay woodpecker, a fake owl, a miniature suit of armor, a toy chicken, a Virgin Mary and a green swamp-monster doll sprouting purple, red and white flowers from its head.
"Well," Henry offers. "I try to have a little bit for everyone."
And so he does.
Since 1977, visitors from as far away as Tokyo and London have made their way to Henry's modest brick home at 28th and Kearney streets to gawk, gasp, snap photos and wander through his front-yard garden of earthy delights.
There, like a convention of mutant plant people from The Day of the Triffids stand more than two dozen assemblages of man-made evergreen bushes, imitation potted palms, plastic poinsettias, fake carnations, ceramic critters, Halloween paraphernalia and other choice items. Although no two Whittaker originals are the same--not even close--all have certain common features: a dollhouse, a bed of red and white lava gravel, a thicket of plastic bushes and flowers, a menagerie of toy people and critters, a lamp or lantern, and a peculiar patron saint such as Jesus, Mary, Joseph or a Revolutionary War soldier.
"I don't have no name for them," Henry says of his creations. "I don't call them anything."
Which is just as well, because his work is nothing if not interpretive. Walking through his yard is like walking through a three-dimensional Rorschach test. Is that a replica of the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse, or a secondhand version of the Taj Mahal?
"I just see things and I buy them," Henry shrugs. "I just walk around and get whatever catches my eye. You'd be surprised at what you might find."
Indeed. While surreptitiously exploring his yard one day, I find Henry peering at me from his front porch.
"Can I help you?"
It's just after 5 p.m., quitting time for Henry, who sags into a lawn-chair recliner after a long day in the neighborhood lawn-mowing business. His slippers are off, his gospel music is on, and his blue mechanic's coveralls are unbuttoned a few notches down his chest.
"What is it you would like to know?" He frowns. "Because my wife is getting ready to fix supper, you know."
He's tall and serious, with a balding head, a thin gray mustache and a pair of hands that look as if they could repair practically anything with a pair of pliers, a crescent wrench and a roll of duct tape. Which they have. Witness his cushion, flyswatter and lawn-chair recliner.
"I do what I can," he says.
Henry was born eighty years ago in Louisiana and settled in Colorado after serving in the Army during World War II. He worked construction, logged 32 years as a Colorado Highway Department custodian and retired to this neighborhood of trimmed hedges, shade trees and clean driveways.
"I was going crazy," he says. "So I decided to find me something to do. That's when I started mowing lawns."
He also started eyeing a bare spot in his front yard that was in need of decoration. And the lightbulb flickered.
"I got some rocks that I wanted," Henry recalls. "I picked up different knickknacks. I started adding on and adding on and things like that."
The result: a wooden platform topped with a Tiny Tikes dollhouse, several plastic evergreens, a strand of faded sunflowers, a toy pig, a toy airplane, two miniature windmills, a ceramic chef, two ceramic scarecrows, a ceramic donkey, a ceramic Japanese fisherman figurine with a broken foot, a ceramic fox, two ceramic doves, a pile of fake fruit, a seashell display, assorted pinecones and a fancy living-room lamp with tinted blue glass.
"I don't know what possessed me," he says. "I just did it."
What he did was create the prototype for a collection of folk art as original, expressive and interesting as anything in Santa Fe or Aspen. More fun, too.
Henry doesn't consider himself an artist, craftsman or inventor. But if he had to name a creative influence, he'd probably point to his mother.
"Back in the country, we always had a nice yard," he says. "A nice flower yard. Mom was crazy about flowers. And she always had us working in that yard. We couldn't go anywhere until we worked in that yard. I guess that's where I picked it up."
He did not, however, pick up his mother's fondness for actually growing things. Instead, perhaps because he was traumatized during his years of child labor, Henry prefers the everlasting qualities of Made-in-Taiwan flora and fauna.
"I don't fool around with growing no flowers," he says. "Too much work? I guess so. But I don't fool with them."
His wife, Marilyn, doesn't fool with them, either. Or anything else involved with Henry's garden, for that matter.
"Oh, I don't have nothing to do with it," she says. "It's all him. Sometimes I go out and water, but that's about it."
Does she like it?
Does his granddaughter? "He's creative," responds Monica Jones. "And my eighteen-month-old daughter likes them."
From the front porch across the street, Cheryl Curtis and her kids offer their own critique: "They certainly are diversions."
As a Park Hill native, Cheryl had long heard about the Whittaker place and had even passed Henry's yard a time or two. But the full impact of his work didn't take hold until she moved into the neighborhood in 1991 and found herself staring at his pieces every day.
"When we first moved in, it took a while to get used to it," she says. "But now when I walk out the door, they don't bother me at all. It's just normal. I'm so used to them, if something were missing or if he took something down, I'd notice it; I'd think there was something wrong outside."
"Oh, he's real particular about his yard," adds Cheryl's son, Aaron. "One time I lost a ball and went over there to get it, and he said, 'No. Don't do that. Don't do that.' He doesn't like anyone messing with them."
"And it's really easy giving instructions to our house," says Cheryl's daughter, Allison. "All we have to do is tell them we live across the street from the man with all the stuff on his house."
"Oh, everyone comes by to take pictures. It's like a national monument."
"If I ever want an old Fisher-Price dollhouse, I know where to go."
"The kids just love it. I've even seen kindergarten classes sitting out there sometimes."
"We see him add things now and again, and we say, 'Oh, no. He's at it again.'"
"He's just a real nice guy," Cheryl concludes. "Never gives anyone any problems. He mows most of the lawns in the neighborhood and watches everyone's houses. He's kind of a busybody, but we like that. Everyone around here just loves him to death."
What's not to love? Truth is, Henry Whittaker's yard is neat, clean and orderly, not a synthetic carnation out of place. It's peaceful, too--comforting, like a combination cemetery, child's playroom and Japanese garden. Visitors sometimes stay for hours.
And so long as you've asked permission, Henry doesn't mind at all. A Utah TV station once camped out among his sculptures for an entire day.
"They had coffee and doughnuts, and it was real nice," Henry recalls. "People come by all the time to take pictures and look at it. It doesn't bother me."
What did bother Henry were the vandals who drove by his home under the cover of darkness and snatched a few of his plastic palm trees. He put an end to that, though, with a little help from vigilant neighbors and a lot of time in the old lawn-chair recliner that serves as his front-porch post.
"They don't come by anymore," he says. "And that's good."
Every now and then, Henry visits garage sales or secondhand stores to find items to keep his yard looking presentable. But aside from the odd ceramic cow, plastic fern or jack-o'-lantern decoration, his sculpting days are over.
"I'm done," he says. "Through."
What about the backyard?
"Oh, no," he says. "I've got two big dogs that done tore it up back there. They just dig and dig and dig. Every time I look up, there's a hole, a hole and another hole. Got to get back there and lay some sod."
Until he does, and despite what anyone says or thinks--and they say and think quite a bit--Henry is content to sit back after a long day at work and savor the strange beauty of his salvage garden.
"I just like to look at them," he says. "That's all. And I got nothing else to say.
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