Erma Lee in her Inspirational Art Garden
One of our best finds this past year is actually the rediscovery of a fabled folk-art environment, presumed lost forever. In March 2011, we first covered Erma Lee’s Inspirational Art Garden, an installation/sanctuary/retail rendezvous/green space for bottle trees, brass bed frames turned into anthropomorphic sculpture, outrageously exuberant displays of potted plants and flowering shrubs and other curious, odd elements of enchantment.
The original Inspirational Art Garden burst forth from a Victorian two-story structure and its lawn along the 1100 block of Yale. A year or so after our article appeared, Lee was suddenly gone, her formerly lush yard nothing more than a memory — what succeeded the place of her former residence was an undistinguished turn-of-the-century structure that barely merits a glance. Later, she popped up on Yale outside the loop, but that miniscule utilitarian building with its patch of green could not do justice to Miz Lee’s vision.
Flash forward to last summer, and a call from the artist herself yielded a visit to the third home of the Inspirational Art Garden. Its new incarnation is a mid-century building that once housed a fire station; it’s now a visionary art compound, a worthy pilgrimage site for devotees of outsider art. (Are you reading this, Marilyn Oshman and Stephanie Smither?)
Inside the nearly 5,000-square-foot live/work space, the bottom floor is entirely devoted to Lee’s art. Equal parts curiosity shop and art installation, its creator’s signature bed-frame people — from a droll cowboy to First Lady Michelle Obama, all wrought from found objects and antique bed posts — populate the pleasantly lit warren of rooms. Stacks of vases atop paperweights and other unique forms of sculptural assemblage also captivate. Shelf upon shelf of cookie jars rival Andy Warhol’s collection; carnival and milk glass tchotchkes mingle with Victorian-era American brilliant-cut glass repurposed into sculpture from which vines sprout. Other rooms boast porcelain poodles and more dizzying gewgaws; ceramic poultry, including a “broke toe chicken,” also number among the for-sale curated collectibles.
Visitors may call ahead to determine if the proprietor is in, but you’ll usually find the Inspirational Art Garden open on weekends, when Lee and convivial caretaker Mr. Mike welcome one and all. Don’t miss the front patio, home to an array of bottle trees and stacked assemblages of flowering blooms that testify to Lee’s green thumb.
The backyard, still in progress, bears bath tubs, fireplaces and other salvaged architectural relics enveloped in plant life. Throughout all the outdoor spaces are placards with sayings loosely based upon Biblical verse. About finding her new home, Lee credits that to the Lord. Her favorite Bible passage, Galatians 5:22, corresponds to the 522 Crosstimbers address, so she took this as a sign when she discovered the property, in 2013.
Now Lee’s transformation is complete — from saleswoman (she once owned an office-supply business, and before that sold cars for the Marks dealerships) to full-fledged folk artist. “God has chosen me for this work of art,” she says.
For the garden’s upcoming Holiday Party Benefit, date TBA, check its Facebook page. Inspirational Art Garden, 522 Crosstimbers, 713.869.1993.