The Society for the Preservation of Southern Vernacular Landscape Architecture, an apolitical organization, got its humble beginnings in Aiken, South Carolina in 1987. A loosely knit group of amateur landscapers met one day in the backyard of a 150 year old home in the oldest section of town. Surrounded by wisteria, concrete yard art, and shaded by centuries old live oak, this small group decided to form a collective, the purpose of which involved preservation of all types of vernacular landscaping from a southern perspective. The main objective: to document the existence of a particular landscaping phenomenon during a definitive moment from within both its cultural and uniquely southern perspective, regardless of the property (physical entity in which the design is placed) or the design’s physical condition.
The fleeting decadence, the rampant decay, the constant insinuation and ever-present mass destruction capabilities of kudzo, as well as the inevitable chemical breakdown of the rubber components of tractor tires, even when coated with white-wash (a common element in most circular yard art groupings) combined with the unfortunate fading of red plastic in both artificial begonias and roses, brought about a sense of urgency in the group’s ultimate mission Preserving the Southern Yard.
One important fact, probably unknown to most of the readers of this column, concerns my early association with PopMatters Associate Books Editor Phoebe Kate Foster and her instrumental role in the formation of the Preservation Society. Miss Phoebe Kate, as she is known by those who revere her landscaping expertise and the always available pitcher of sweet tea at her family’s home place on the Savannah River, is the Preservation Society’s textual historian. While the photographic evidence compiled and maintained in the Preservation Society’s archival database is the President’s responsibility, Miss Phoebe Kate’s meticulous hand-written documentation forms what must be considered the back-bone of the Preservation Society’s primary source research materials.
The Preservation Society sponsors a bi-annual research project. The Robert J. Heinold Memorial Scholarship (“RJHMS”), funded by donations from his family and friends, provides scholars with a stipend to cover living expenses, transportation, and research materials. The second recipient of the RJHMS, was me. It should be noted that I became President of the Preservation Society two years after receiving the scholarship. Readers should also note at this time that the Preservation Society is not a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation and it neither solicits nor accepts outside funding.
A synopsis of my research completes this article:
Southern Yard Art: An Unhurried View
by Valerie MacEwan, Travelling Fellow, Southern Yard Institute
I. Traditional Southern Yard Art Representational Analysis
Representational analysis is required when considering placement and composition of items when decorating the Southern Yard. If the South has anything, it has symbols. Each component of the Southern Yard contains, within its concrete soul, a meaning which is oftentimes overlooked by the drive-by observer.
Take, for example, the white concrete swan usually exhibited in the form of a planter and filled ever so graciously with either live petunias or plastic begonias (according to the landscaper’s preference and growing ability). One thinks to one’s self, upon slamming past the figurine while driving down the highway at sixty miles an hour, “Ah, a swan.” But it is much more than a mere bird with flowers coming out of its mid-section. The swan symbolizes the beautiful virgin. In early times, the swan represented the Virgin Mary, her purity and grace. Filling the swan’s abdominal cavity with either real or artificial foliage through an open incision in the spine could be construed as a pannier of virtue, containing the most exquisite of God’s creations: the flower of womanhood, the buds of which contain the heart rendering recollections of blossoming progeny. Even at a mile a minute, the heart of the aesthete sings: “Hail to thee, blithe spirit, bird thou never wert.”
Let us take another example: The concrete pig. Many Southern Yards contain not just a pig, but an entire pig family. Often a sow in suckling position with her young placed carefully nearby. An obvious symbol of good barbecue, these pig figurines denote, in North Carolina, the joy of a “Pig Pickin’”, an event enjoyed by family and friends during many social occasions. As a matter of fact, many a time, the Pig Pickin’ IS the occasion. The profound religious symbolism of this ancient ungulate (e.g., whited sow, prodigal son, cast-out demons, etc.) is beyond the scope of this work. However, The Pig, long known as the symbol of the Butcher, has recently become a highly debated member of the Southern Community. Those who live downwind of the large corporate swine farms are loathe to include entire pig families within their yard art framework. Those who do include the concrete pig are often ostracized by neighbors and completely misunderstood by their friends and family. What they really want to say is, “Howdy ya’ll. I have a pig cooker and I am proud to chop an entire pig for your enjoyment.”
II. Non-Traditional Yard Art Formation
Problems of cognitive dissonance arise when concrete figures are presented in non-traditional formations. Through careful study, we have ascertained that many of these “arrangements” come from another revered social tradition in the South: the utilization of diverse fragmented objects to create a “new complete”. The “new complete” is most often witnessed within the now traditional pedestal display and is made “new” by placing disparate objects upon said pedestal.
Often, the Southern Landscape Artist receives or purchases a concrete bird bath which rests upon a pedestal. The most popular pedestal designs are: three seahorses, back to back, and the most common Greek columnar design (fluted Doric). Many Southern Landscapers choose to “gild the lily” by placing a family of robins in the bird bath bowl. Sadly, over time, the bird bath bowl becomes either too chipped or cracked to hold water and the owner replaces the bowl with a figurine. The robin family becomes part of the “on the ground” placement motif. The landscaper replaces the entire bowl/robin family contingent with a completely different concrete figurine. Much like the asymmetric Gothic cathedral complex crafted at different times and of transiently available materials, we may that like Topsy “it just growed”.
While it may appear to the drive-by observer to be a randomly placed concrete figure, the objects placed upon the pedestal contain a symbolic significance beyond the common “on the grass” placement of concrete figurines. By placing a concrete figurine upon a pedestal, the Southern Landscaper creates an entirely new intentional and symbolic display. We can see in the illustration provided, a squirrel which has been placed upon a pedestal. Such placement can create confusion for the drive-by observer when the realization of expectational representation is denied.
Oftentimes, the bowl is replaced with a whimsical character such as a gnome or gargoyle. These displays signify an attitude which we call “millennial”. Or, more simply put, “the new traditional” or “outside the box” yard art display. Occasionally the box is displayed alongside the art. This is a break from the “true traditional”, so to speak, and creates a nuance representational of the new century, the new millennium of yard art. The Southern Landscaper seeks to replace the concrete chicken of the 1950s with the icons of 2001. The traditional “Spring Refurbishing Ritual”, in which entire families unite to re-paint the cement chickens each April, is henceforth replaced with “new” and “better” concrete figurines which serve to illustrate the intrusion of the new century upon the Southern Yard. Alas, to the dismay of the Southern Yard Art Placement traditionalist, the chicken has been delegated to the “on the ground” status and is frequently placed in an insignificant yard position and never again painted and refurbished.
It should be noted that interviews with Southern Landscapers and yard connoisseurs reveal a reluctance to admit the symbolic significance of placement. Whether it is candor on their part or the inability to express their inner feelings, we shall never know. Inescapable, however, as the unrefurbished chicken, is the love of many, shared with the Renaissance masters, to place everyday life in a lavish setting of classical ruins.
III. The Inclusion of Dysfunctional Appliances with the Yard Art Contextual Framework: A Contemporary Analysis of Style Versus Function.
A southern yard is composed of many elements. It is not a random string of cement ducks, geese, chickens, and reclining frogs. The focus of this section of the discourse will be on the inclusion of both barnyard figurines and dysfunctional appliances to create a cohesive string that has both structure and form. While the content may be varied, the purpose of what shall be referred to as “a grouping” is to provide aesthetic comfort to the inhabitants of the domicile.
Thus, in the same way “cat dog the chased” is not a sentence (it is merely a list of English words) so follows that the grouping “chicken, chicks, reclining frog, washing machine” lists the contents of a yard. A yard, then, is more than the sum of its parts; it is cement art ordered in a particular way, in this case, according to the rules of Southern culture. But how do we learn these rules, rules which, to a large extent, we don’t “know” that we know. It would take a modern Vitruvius to synthesize the canonical elements of this intricate art form.
For example, take placement. Let us examine some of the basic positioning rules of Southern Yard Art that we all use every day of our lives. No single article can possibly treat Southern Yard Art syntax in depth, but by drawing on examples from various rural settings and from several familiar constructions, one is able to illustrate some fundamental principles.
Within this conceptual framework, it is believed one can illustrate that children (the Southern youth culture) come to Southern Yard Art “grouping” knowledge with an inborn mechanism that “severely limits” what the “cement grouping” authority needs to take into account. This same point, one of the crucial concepts of contemporary lawn art placement, will be made later in a subsequent scholarly diatribe to be published in the
Society for the Preservation of Southern Vernacular in June. This piece will be edited by guest scholar Wayne Bob Woolard, Southern Landscaper, and again, in another section by Lumin Smelts, bounty hunter.
IV. Hegel and Southern Yard Art: A Brief Discourse on Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis as Applied to Cement Chickens
By applying the Hegelian Dialectical form of analysis to the subliminal urge to acquire and prominently display cement animals in a landscape setting, one can clearly comprehend the Southern affection for yard art. The thesis (ideational entity) is initially defined as any live, sensate meat-producing animal whose functional characteristics are legitimized by their ability to sustain human life by providing nourishment essential for the survival of the human species.
The antithesis of the fully-functional food source strata of yard animal would therefore be lurking, within the yard or beneath the mobile home, the swine and poultry contingent of the traditional Southern family. These yard animals serve as domesticated pets for many families and also exist for the crass entertainment potential to lower levels of Southern society a type of cultural travesty visited upon the rural and urban body politic, as it were.
The synthesis is then obvious. If, as Hegel explains, the combination of the two (thesis and antithesis) being resolved in a higher form of truth represents synthesis, synthesis, therefore, can only be proved by the existence of the popularity of cement figures representational of barnyard animals. The proliferation of cement pigs, and the sister sculptures signified by chickens, ducks, roosters, and turtles, represent the sine qua non of the Southerner’s true need to synthesize a wanton carnivorousness with a true appreciation for art.
As Southerners, and citizens of the larger and more diverse international community of landscapers, let us unite with one voice to celebrate the inclusion of all things domestic and foreign within the Southern Yard.
As drive-by observers, let us strive to appreciate that which our fellow landscaper has included within his acreage.
Those outside the familial context of the Southern landscaper must seek not to criticize the yard art movement or the zeitgeist that created it, but praise it for its refreshing individuality during an era of concentrated cultural imitation by the masses. The Figurine has truly earned its place in culminating the spirit of familiar animal art harkening back to its first flowering in the Lascaux Caves. Now, Figurine Art takes us to a Brave New World of symbolic expression. Because it can so touch the human spirit, it justifiably emblazons its capital “F” upon art as we know it.
[Please note: This research would not have been made possible without the learned assistance and guidance of my mentor: Professor Beauregard Stubblefield, Chair Emeritus, Southern Institute of the Plastic Arts.]