A handmade, life-sized Trumpet Man stands in our flowerbed near the street. One of his steel hands clutches an old dented trumpet, the other holds a wine bottle. He was made by my son Kirby, who has taken no art classes yet taught himself to weld and used those skills to create this utterly fantastic piece of art in an afternoon. Kirby says he measured his own torso and limbs to get the correct proportions. What he’s created is not only proportional but full of personality. Trumpet Man reminds me of a blues player standing on stage, fully present in that pause before the performance begins. It’s a powerful piece of outsider art and I love it.
I’m also a silly person right to the core and Trumpet Man makes it too damn easy to express that silliness. During the summer he wears a fedora, tilted at an ever more rakish angle as the weeks go by. At Christmas time I give him a Santa hat. Through the depths of winter he sports an old scarf that blows around in the wind with cheerful zest. My favorite look for him is a Viking helmet with horns (something my daughter assures me is not historically accurate).
I won’t apologize for my delight in dressing him up, but there’s some history* behind this. I say Trumpet Man is an edgier version of the dress-your-lawn-ornament-goose thing that continues in some Midwestern lawns. In our area, there are Amish produce stands that still sell handmade outfits for these geese. They’re available online too.
I may actually know the creation story behind putting clothes on yard adornments.** Settle back my dears and I shall tell you.
In a Cleveland suburb in the 60’s, a nice modest family lived in a nice modest house. Their children rode bikes, played with neighbor kids, graduated from local schools, and went off to make their way in the world. One of those grown children was a nice young man who ended up working in an Asian country. When he came home to visit he brought gifts from the land where he lived. The gift he gave his parents was a large stone Buddha meant to be placed in the yard as a blessing.
His mother was uncomfortable putting it outside. Maybe this had to do with the preponderance of Catholic neighbors. Maybe this had to do with the utter foreignness of Buddhism to 1960’s suburban Ohio. Maybe she was uncomfortable with his nudity.
The statue wore little more than a robe, open at the chest. Surely he was too exposed to the elements. Surely he was embarrassed to find himself in so conservative a neighborhood. What did she do? She made Buddha some outfits.
He wore a yellow slicker and yellow rain hat in spring. He had a straw hat and t-shirt in summer. He sported a sweater with the local team’s insignia in the fall. Naturally he wore a Santa outfit in the winter.
She didn’t see anything wrong dressing the spiritual founder of a 2,500-year-old religion this way. She was treating him like a member of the family. And that bit of kitsch, my friends, may have been reborn as Dress-Your-Lawn-Ornament geese. Samsara baby!
*There’s a much longer history behind lawn ornamentation if you count garden hermits. These were, believe it or not, living people paid to dress like druids and live as unwashed hermits on wealthy estates.
**A friend told me this story years ago. To my chagrin, I’ve forgotten who.