Jacki Airamé at work in her inspired garden in Mariposa, CA (date unknown)
Coming home late one evening,
I found a message on my voice mail. I didn’t know the caller, but the next morning I returned her call. Jan Peters is eighty, she told me, and an artist. She wanted me to know about a remarkable garden in the little town of Mariposa not far from Yosemite. It's about a three-hour drive from the Bay Area. It was being destroyed, bulldozed. "Soon, nothing will be left," she said with some emotion. "Could you go up there and see what's left? When you see it, I think you'll agree it was worth the effort. It's just a terrible shame it's disappearing with hardly anyone knowing about it. My friend, Jackie Airamé, built the garden over a period of thirty-five years!"
The more I heard, the more intrigued I became.
Two friends of Airamé still lived in the area, she explained. “They can show you the place. You can call them. Jackie's garden is a treasure and it will be gone without a trace!"
I called them.
Ann Mendershausen answered.
The developers had given the Mendershausens one week to salvage whatever was left of the Airamé garden.
The Mendershausens hoped some of the pieces could be placed in Mariposa as public art, but the larger pieces—a griffin, a couple of horses and two large cats, among others—were too heavy to move without special equipment. They weren’t sure they’d be able to manage it, “and the blue, mosaic hillside has already been bulldozed - most of it, anyway,” Ann told me.
I'd heard enough.
Two days later, on a February morning, I was on my way to Mariposa in a cold drizzle. As I drove east on 580 the gray skies gave way to patches of blue. The hills of Altamont Pass had already turned green and further east, I noticed a tentative green carpet appearing in the bare almond orchards along highway 132.
A few miles out of Merced, a sign—“Fruit Basket”—caught my eye and I pulled over to stretch my legs. I'd get an apple and maybe some cashews. I couldn't help notice a long line of old farm equipment bordering the parking area. Hmm...
Once inside the spare, utilitarian building, I was surprised. "Where's the fruit?" I asked a middle-aged woman sitting behind a counter.
“This time of year, there’s not much,” she said.
It was an understatement. There was a little array of plastic bags spread out across a tabletop. Dried fruit and nuts. Getting past my criticisms, it felt as if I'd stumbled through a loophole in into another world. The woman at the counter was keeping to herself. Whatever I made of it all was my business, apparently.
Now I was curious.
I noticed a door at the back of the little salesroom and walked over for a closer look. A peek through its window revealed a large warehouse full of… only now did all the words on their sign sink in. I'd missed the Ag Museum
“Can I look around?” I asked.
The woman nodded.
Pushing my luck, I asked, “Can I take a few pictures?”
She nodded again.
The mysterious garden in Mariposa was calling me, but I couldn't resist exploring this unexpected trove of antique home appliances, gasoline tractors, eccentric relics - as odd a collection of humble gadgets and bygone equipment as anyone could hope to find. And I had the entire place
I wandered down one aisle and up the other. Leaning up against an old glass jar was a small sign: “Please help pay for the light and heat for the museum." Discreetly placed next to it, was a card stating that everything was from the personal collection of one Charles Parish. Just across the aisle, next to a broom jig, sat an antiquated cabinet with a vintage ceramic bowl on top. Inside, a few dollar bills were visible. I paused, reached in my pocket and dropped a dollar bill in.
On the way out, a bag of pistachios in hand, I pulled back onto the highway. As the next few miles passed by, I found myself thinking about it—about the "ag museum" and about Mr. Charles Parish. Jesus
. All the work involved
. Not many miles had gone by before I felt a pang of remorse. Why hadn't I left more? Here was a stranger's labor of love, someone who hoped to leave a record from a world he knew was quickly vanishing - the work of a single person hoping to make a difference.
Now my lack of feeling accused me. It was a labor of love. I had my chance to support it and, except for one stingy dollar, I'd missed it. How much of life is like that? But I needed to get to Mariposa while there was still daylight.
The Mendershausens’ place was well off the beaten path. When I finally found my way to their house, Ann met me. We’d been standing outside talking for several minutes when I spotted a man coming towards us from the woods. It was Ann’s husband Ralph. As we shook hands, I was a little alarmed. From his face, it looked like he might have been dragged through a long stretch of underbrush. But his grip was firm and he seemed in good spirits. “Give me a little time to clean up,” he said, disappearing into the house.
“He’s got to wash the poison oak off,” Ann said in a matter-of-fact tone. Standing there, it was easy to see that maintaining a little mountain retreat took some work. It probably contributed to the bond among this group of friends who all knew Airamé’s garden.
Twenty minutes later Ralph reappeared, a new man. We all walked down to their studio. As I was looking at Ann’s ceramic work, I heard something like a howling animal coming through the walls. “It’s a kid on one of those quad-bikes!” Ralph said. “Their parents just let them run wild. There’s not much you can do about it.”
Even up here there was a culture clash, he explained. “We never used to be able to see lights at night. Now it’s getting suburban out here. If you gave me the choice, I’d rather be surrounded by rednecks than suburbanites any day. At least they feel some connection to the land.”
Ralph Mendershausen had gotten his PhD in German History, but with the difficulties associated with finding a job in the university system, had decided he’d rather build a house in the Sierras and teach high school. Now, after twenty-one years, he’d retired. Ann had been a ceramic artist going way back, and Ralph had been drawn to sculpture himself. Their first house had burned to the ground in a forest fire, but they’d rebuilt. What I found when I arrived on their property was something of an artists’ retreat. Besides the new house and studio, there was a guesthouse and a couple of other out buildings. Sculptures and whimsical constructions were scattered across the grounds. I was in the company of Airamé’s kindred spirits.
The way Jan Peters had talked earlier about Airamé and her garden and—as my introduction to the Mendershausens continued to unfold—my sense grew that whoever the mysterious garden maker was, something significant set her apart. She'd been very close to Jean Varda, I was told. I recalled Henry Miller’s essay, “Varda: The Master Builder” (Remember to Remember
, New Directions 1941). Of Varda, Miller writes, “No wonder that people love to visit his place. I have never met a man so plagued with visitors. They come like locusts, people from all walks of life.... They come in search of that mysterious elixir which no vitamin seems able to supply our people with: the joy of creation.”
“Jackie had married a Frenchman and their place was very unusual,” Ann explained. She also told me that Airamé had worked on another project for years, one that never came to fruition. “Wait a minute,” she said and disappeared into the house. She came back with a twelve-page brochure entitled Magic Kingdoms—A Search for Bewitching Environments
. It was a preview of a book Airamé had envisioned. In a preface, Airamé wrote, "I used to ask people everywhere I went if there were any really strange creations around— houses built out of bottles or junk or shells. Any castles? Glass tree houses? People’s fairy-tale-like recollections were enough in themselves to keep me fascinated—rumors of underground fruit orchards, mountains carved in eagles and gods, ‘mistletoe heads,’ an old lady who lived in a redwood stump. 'Would I like to see the place where white clay pours out of the mountain? Six thousand sculptures in one garage?' But these were no rumors. They were all true."
Her search, she wrote, was inspired by the French book Les Inspires et Leurs Demeures
[The Inspired Ones and Their Dwellings] by Gilles Ehrmann, Paris 1962. Airamé continued, “Ever since seeing this spell-casting book I've been haunted more and more by a torrent of visions and intangible longings. In hope of exorcising these chimera, I took to going on trips to search out American counterparts to the European inspired ones.”
As much as I was enjoying the Mendershausens, I realized the daylight hours were fast disappearing.
“Maybe we better head over to the garden,” I said, and we all got into their Subaru. Our destination wasn’t far and on the way over, I heard more about Airamé. There had been many good times when Jackie and her husband and daughter still lived there.
Two months have passed since my visit to the Airamé property that afternoon. Pondering what to write, I’m reminded of something Richard Berger said a few years back. Reflecting about his life as an artist he said, “I find myself questioning what seems to be a pretty arcane cul-de-sac within which I find myself." It's the problem many artists must feel. Berger continued, "In a moment of transient bitterness, I described it to myself as squandering my imagination—working in this corner making things that virtually nobody sees.”
What’s left is the faint trace of a real something, but present now in its absence.
There was “the joy of creation,” as Miller wrote of Varda. It was
there. It was truly
there. It's what I felt that afternoon looking through the broken remains. And I felt at home
. Airamé’s garden, what was left of it, reminded me of parts of my own life—of people I’d known and places I’d lived, of the taste of hidden possibilities that life offers if only one can stop and turn towards the moment.
I remember what I felt one day when I gave in to an impulse and opened a little can of blue enamel paint. With a small brush, I inscribed a quotation from T.S. Elliot on inside of the claw foot bathtub of my little student apartment. This minor act of transgression freed me of some invisible bondage and released a startling amount of joy.
Airamé’s garden must have been a wild collection, a feast of breakthroughs of that joyful kind. What is the joy of creation if not a taste of sudden freedom? Look at the cat rolling on its back. But not every piece in her garden conveyed the same joy. The empty torso of the horse lying at the entrance to the property was like a dark fragment left over from an epic tragedy. And there was the horse with its neck stretched out in a scream. All is not roses. What do these abandoned artifacts express if not the words I found in Airamé’s own brochure, “I have been haunted more and more by a torrent of visions and intangible longings.”
My visit to Mariposa took place thanks to the friends of this unknown garden maker. As for the garden maker herself, I was to understand that she was not available for a visit. Perhaps one day she might tell me some stories, but I would have to wait to see.
Yet, something cried out for a witness. Here, even in ruins, was something original, something genuine. Could it be told?
All this I felt, and therefore was called back to myself. What is original, I was reminded, is what returns one to one's self. It's the opposite of closing a book. This return is to a place where the questions are still alive, still capable of touching us.
Postscript: The Mendershausens and some friends succeeded in rescuing most of the large pieces from Airamé’s garden. As of this writing it isn’t clear yet where they will end up.…