Monday, January 4, 2010


Written by Mark Karpel

This piece originally appeared in the Folk Art Messenger, the Journal of the Folk Art Society of America, Vol.21, No.2 (Fall/Winter 2009).

Richard Richardson collects old stoves, stones, plants, salvaged material and people. The stoves, which he restores and sells, help to support the creation of a two-acre art environment behind his home in the hills of western Massachusetts. The stones, plants and salvage find their places in a space that comprises roughly a dozen outdoor "rooms." And people are woven into every aspect of the site - from its original inspiration to its physical construction and intended uses. Unlike those visionary builders who labor in solitude or create their environments to retreat from the world, Richardson's environment is profoundly social.

His "Three Sisters Sanctuary" lies behind his house and nearby stove shop. The stove shop is a barn-like building covered with signs, old tools, rusted bicycle frames, stove trivets, bells and birdhouses-all stuck to its outer walls as if yanked there by a giant magnet. In front of the shop stands a two-story-tall tin man sporting a jaunty tin Stetson. Richardson traded for the figure, fashioned in the 1950s by a local contractor to advertise his skill with ductwork. Sara LaBonte. Richardson's daughter, points out that he was drawn to antique stoves for many of the same reasons that fuel his passion for creating the Sanctuary - an appreciation for beauty and artistry, a love of the heaviness of iron, and a delight in breathing life into otherwise forgotten ojects. Owning the business - fittingly named The Good Time Stove Company - has also given him the time and to explore his creative passions.

Between the shop and me house is the Bike Arch, an 18-foot-high rainbow of painted and rusted bicycles, which rises and falls like the frozen spray of some strange subterranean fountain. Richardson spent 15 years building his home here, a whimsical but functional two-story structure with peach-colored siding and moss-green trim. The site behind it documents his passions and preoccupations and the arrivals and departures of those whom he holds dear.

Raised in suburbia, Richardson knew early on that wherever he was meant to be, it wouldn't look like that. He drifted up to western Massachusetts, started the stove business in his early 20s and raised a family. Later, he named his environment after his daughters -Tina Marie, Sara Wenona and Megan Elizabeth - one indication of how central relationships are to his vision of the environment. He says, "The first gifts from the gods in my world were my children, and they're the most precious part of my world."

When he finished building his home, he felt lost until his younger brother Chuck encouraged him to create ornamental gardens. Soon after, however, Chuck became seriously ill. His death inspired Richardson to initiate an annual "garden party'" to celebrate his brother's life and ill help him and others who had lost ones to heal. Guests brought and planted their favorite perennials for nearly a decade, and the gardens grew larger and more varied. Richardson's interest in "softscape" -natural materials such s trees, shrubs and plants-grew after meeting Tammy Lee Graves, an expert gardener who encouraged him and who now continues to tend the gardens.

Graves introduced Richardson to Donnie Lesure, a skilled stone mason who inspired him to work with "hardscape," such as stone and brick. Richardson says. "Like a Bic lighter, he ignited it. He gave me a taste of stone and what stone can do." Over the past ten years, Mike Samson has added another dimension by operating the earth-moving equipment that enables Richardson to excavate and move large stones. One of the unusual aspects of the Sanctuary is how smoothly it integrates hardscape and softscape. Many, if not most, visionary environments tend toward one or the other. In the Sanctuary, pebble, brick and stone paths are edged with butterfly gardens; found objects and sculptures are surrounded by perennial plantings; and borders of large standing stones alternate with tall grasses or arbor vitae. Richardson estimates that there are about 200 large vertical stones and nearly 60 tall arbor vitae.

The next expansion of the site grew from Richardson's need to heal from a more profound loss- the sudden death of his oldest daughter from a ruptured aneurysm. He and Lesure had just begun building the first outdoor "room" that subsequently became the Tina Marie Richardson Sanctuary, with stone walls surrounding a cairn of rounded white river stones, topped by a large white quartz rising like a spirit ascending and supporting a honey-colored, clear glass globe. The Fire Pit and Water Garden lie nearby, and the juxtaposition is no accident. As Richardson says, "I felt you had to have both in order to have balance in your world." Here, a small stream produces the soothing sound of splashing water as it descends over small waterfalls into a pond bordered by river stones, plantings, standing stones, statuary and benches.

Paths of small white pebbles-alternating with inlaid stone, brick, colored glass and found objects-lead to a large area comprising several different "rooms" that Richardson calls the Amphitheater. After Tina Marie's death, he thought, "My daughter loved music, and I'm going to build an amphitheater that's going to bring music to her spirit." He built it adjacent adjacent to her sanctuary. At its lowest elevation, the amphitheater features a wide grass circle, with stone seating around its perimeter, tall vertical stones embedded at irregular intervals, and a slender, spire-shaped stone rising from its center. The Drum Circle lies above this, serving as a natural stage for the seating below.

At the highest point, where the backdrop of a stage would be, stands a feature that for many visitors defines the site as a whole. Hundreds of flat stones piled seven feet high form the sinuous C-shaped body of an immense dragon. Above them, a dragon's head arches upward like that of a howling wolf, its mouth open and long tongue lashing up into the air. The head is positioned over an outdoor hearth that, when lit, produces smoke for the dragon's fiery breath. Seven people worked with Richardson to create a skull of steel and wire mesh covered with cement into which shards of colored glass were embedded. The curve of the dragon's body forms an intimate room - the Dragon's Den - thoughtfully equipped with another stone bench, allowing people to sit facing one another for conversation. The crevices between stones are chockablock with hundreds of small objects - including candlesticks, driftwood, glass globes, colored glass fragments and figurines-like offerings left at a shrine.

Now in his 60s, Richardson's current focus is a labyrinth he calls the Dance of Life- a figure-eight -shaped space bordered by large vertical stones and waving grasses, each space featuring a huge, dazzlingly white quartz in its center. Here, the elements of the overall composition will evoke fundamental life passages from the beginning of a relationship (Dancing with the Ladies) through the End of Life. The narrow passage that marks the End of Life forces a visitor to exit alone but leads to an open space surrounded by butterfly gardens.

Characteristically. Richardson uses this project to engage people, asking them, for example, about experiences with seduction or commitment in their lives and giving him a way to explore areas he finds challenging in his own. "There are so many lessons in this yard. - he says. "The lessons are endless." He clearly relishes the social contact, saying, "It's just way too much fun...They all want to talk about it."

Just as the site began with relationships, it continues to depend on them and to foster them. Richardson's surviving daughters, Sara and Megan, have both contributed to the site. By handling the administrative details of the stove business, Sara ("the Stove Princess) has, in Richardson's words, "made the whole thing possible."

Altogether, he has worked with more than 15 people on the site. Their contributions are creative collaborations and labors of love, but each worker is paid. He plans to bring others into his current project. "The labyrinth," he says, "is going to be the most fun I'll ever have. I'm trying to build a path that is going to be very enlightening, and I'm going to be able to incorporate people into my world." He says, "I've spent every week this spring meeting with somebody new pertaining to the yard, from bus tours, to artists, to gallery owners." The site attracts a steady stream of visitors and, if he's not working, Richardson will usually walk with them and answer the inevitable questions. He recently hosted a third-grade class visit, dressed in a suit that somehow evoked Uncle Sam crossed with a circus clown and a '70s-era Deadhead.

Richardson says, "The things that I do out here have to do with chasing passion and wanting to have that passion in my world. And now that I've created it, it's the greatest place I've ever been, the greatest job I could have, the greatest lifestyle I could have. And it doesn't want to end. It keeps getting better. 'Curious George' - that's what they should call me. And Curious George is building this labyrinth called "The Dance of Life." ...with a little help from his friends.

MARK KARPEL is a psychologist and writer living in Massachusetts.

A website with information and photographs of the Three Sisters Sanctuary can be found at:

1 comment:

Qu'que chose said...

We sold an old family kitchen stove to the Good Time Stove Company in late Winter. We'll be going back this summer to have a really nice visit to the Sanctuary. Very special people.