A trip to where 'found art' is found

Sally Lilychild Willowbee and Thomas Carrol at the Perkins Center in Collingswood. Willowbee, of Deptford, is the author of "Found Artists on Country Roads, Side Streets and Back Alleys of South Jersey."
Sally Lilychild Willowbee and Thomas Carrol at the Perkins Center in Collingswood. Willowbee, of Deptford, is the author of "Found Artists on Country Roads, Side Streets and Back Alleys of South Jersey." (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 22, 2014

Cornfields unfurl into the green horizon as our bus hurtles south into Cumberland County, past roadside chapels, pick-your-own farms, and hamlets with names like Shiloh.

We're off to see "found art" and meet the people who make it in South Jersey, a fertile habitat for quirky creations like scrap-metal sculptures, dryer-lint collages, and "bottle trees."

Those are among the idiosyncratic objects on view through Aug. 23 at the Perkins Center for the Arts in Collingswood (perkinsarts.org), where I join about 40 other people Saturday morning for the $35 found-art tour.

We're about to discover how self-taught, working-class South Jerseyans are taking ordinary, often local, materials and making objects that delight, amuse, and amaze. Perkins arranged the event to promote not only the show, but the aesthetic charms of a region not generally known for its indigenous creativity.

"Keep your eyes open," our guide, Sally Lilychild Willowbee, advises as we head south on Route 55. "People tend to go right by things. I like to stop and look."

The Deptford resident, 67, confesses to having a long love affair with South Jersey ("because everyone looks down on it") and with what is variously called folk, primitive, outsider, or visionary art.

Willowbee researched, wrote, and self-published Found Artists on Country Roads, Side Streets and Back Alleys of South Jersey. The coffee-table book, available at Perkins, showcases folks like sculptor Brian Ackley, whose sawdust-covered outdoor atelier near a Deerfield Township peach orchard is our first stop.

"I carve a lot of bears and eagles," says the tattooed, bare-footed Ackley, 45, as he deftly filigrees a four-foot chunk of white pine with a chain saw.

He describes himself as a "third-generation sawyer with a bit of an artistic gene." Bridgeton handyman/wood carver Garry Ecret similarly combines craftsmanship and artistry.

"It just came naturally," says the shy, rangy Ecret, 62, who has a pack of smokes tucked under his sleeveless T-shirt.

He watches closely as visitors wander the mossy grove next to his home, where totem-like poles and fanciful birdhouses beckon.

"That one there is $40," Ecret says as a prospective buyer examines a birdhouse that features a corrugated metal roof.

Buyers stash purchases under the seats as the bus leaves Ecret's and navigates the center of Bridgeton, lately much enlivened by immigrants from Mexico.

We soon arrive at Vineland's Palace of Depression, a curiosity built from discarded materials in the 1930s by local eccentric George Daynor.

Reduced to rubble in the years following his death a half-century ago, the palace is being re-created. This work in progress is a cross between a sculpture garden and an archaeological dig.

"Those vaulted arches remind me of Pompeii," observes retired Trenton art teacher Diane Bonanno of Roebling.

As uber-knowledgeable restoration project president Kevin J. Kirchner leads a tour, I chat with Bonanno and other fellow travelers.

"I've been on roads today I've never been on in my life, and I was born and raised in Turnersville," says Nancy Ferguson, a retired sixth-grade teacher who lives in Cherry Hill.

"This is unique even for those of us who grew up in South Jersey," says Marty Rudolph, 71, of Turnersville.

"I'm here with my sisters," the retired Gloucester Township librarian says. "We like artsy, historical, out-of-the-way things."

Following a reviving lunch at El Mariachi Loco, a restaurant that is helping boost downtown Hammonton, our group makes its final stops: Tom Peterson's Egg Harbor City car service center, and the home of Jackie Stack Lagakos in Lindenwold.

Peterson, 42, is a soft-spoken father of four whose White Horse Pike shop features entertaining scrap-metal sculptures, including a Statue of Liberty made of car parts. And Lagakos, 62, is a former New York City bricklayer who builds glorious mosaic walls on the grounds of her home.

Like the other artists we meet, Lagakos recycles material in her work. The art is of a piece with the sustainability movement, as well as the do-it-yourself "makers" cultures that are blossoming across the country.

Five artists, eight hours, and 100 miles after our departure, the bus arrives safely in Collingswood, thanks to ace driver Tenisha Michael of Willingboro.

Willowbee stands up for a final announcement.

"What a delightful day," she says, accurately.

Even more delightful: If there's enough interest, Perkins will try to arrange a second tour.


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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