Lawn becomes canvas for creating `yard art'

Ornaments: Garden statuary has always been popular. But today, more homeowners are using lawn decorations as an expression of their personality.

August 29, 2004|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Lillie Clayton spied her first wishing well years ago on a car trip through the back roads of Georgia.

"I just had to have one," Clayton, 63, said.

So she hinted to her husband, and he surprised her by building a well with a cedar shake roof on the front lawn of their Timonium rancher five years ago. No pennies or fountains flow through it, but she does fill its sturdy bucket with brilliant annuals each year.

Like millions of American homeowners, Clayton spruces up her lawn with what is known colloquially, at least, as yard art: from wishing wells to gazing globes and marble sculptures to pink flamingos. And, like most of them, Clayton didn't know that yard art - whether Zenlike or whimsy - and how it is displayed can boost a home's value.

Research compiled from surveys by the American Nursery and Landscaping Association in Washington shows that most real estate agents believe that landscaping, which includes yard art, greenery and design, enhances the appeal of homes on the market and can add as much as 15 percent to a home's value.

It's like icing on a cake, said Timonium Long & Foster agent Marney Kirk.

"If it looks nice, you're in," she said.

Yet, like most decadent confections, a little yard art goes a long way. And too much can spoil a deal or even lower property values. Some Baltimore neighborhoods, with residents' penchant for kitsch a la John Waters - cutouts of grannies baring bloomers, tutti-frutti two-by-fours nailed in abstract form and even toilets planted with marigolds - may want to tone down the folk art when it comes time to sell, real estate agents warn.

"You know, pink flamingos ... that's not going to do it for a lot of people," Kirk said.

But art done well can help homeowners recover between 100 percent and 200 percent of their landscape investment at selling time, the group's research showed, compared with 75 percent to 125 percent for kitchen remodeling, or about 50 percent for pool additions.

Regardless of the numbers, Americans have always treasured yard art, said Colleen Sheehy, a yard art expert and American studies instructor at the University of Minnesota. Sheehy traced the roots of American yard decoration in her book, The Flamingo in the Garden: American Yard Art and the Vernacular Landscape.

"Homes are our primary asset, and there are so many values connected with our homes. We talk about them as `the American dream,'" she said.

In the land of big dreams and wide-open land, plenty of room exists for creating art and filling spaces, she said, unlike in other cultures, where yards may not exist.

"Yard art is a very prominent part of the American landscape," Sheehy said.

People have always used lawn art to convey a message, said Jay Graham of Graham Landscape Architecture in Annapolis. In the past, it was to boast of their knowledge of classic design or literature with Greek columns and stone statues.

But today, he said, "people don't want to appear pretentious." Instead, they pick architectural artifacts and other subtle decor to reflect who they are.

"Very few people want to shock anymore," he said.

Lawn decor does say a lot about people and their homes, Sheehy agreed. In most areas, yard art usually accompanies other painstaking attention to detail and is a "sign that people really care about their homes and are involved in their upkeep," she said.

Stan and Margie Hunkovic have surrounded their Timonium home with a little love nest, padding their wildflower garden in the front yard with trinkets that reflect their 46 years together, Stan Hunkovic, 67, said.

The garden, capped by a vine-covered trellis, is spotlighted at night not only to create a cozy spot to snuggle on the bench there but also to highlight the couple's treasures.

His wife, for example, adores donkeys, so he surprised her with a miniature donkey cart one year for her birthday. A Dutch girl and boy, arms entwined, represent their love for each other, he said. And then there's the sign for Hunkovic, a hobby fisherman, that says he lives there with the "catch of his life."

"People walk by and say, `My, how nice,'" Hunkovic said. "But it's mainly pretty much just for us."

According to Sheehy, yard art dates to the elaborate garden statuary of European aristocracy, and filtered down to the United States after the Civil War, when wrought-iron products were mass-produced and more accessible to wealthier families. The trend took off after the 1876 World's Fair in Philadelphia, when Americans got to see the world's newest manufactured goods and trendiest decorative arts.

By the early 20th century, iron artwork lost favor to cheaper cement statues. But post-World War II plastic production kicked off a whole new trend of cheap, bright decorations that suddenly became available to working- and middle-class Americans.

And in 1957, the pink flamingo was born by a young designer named Don Featherstone. His original mold is used today, Sheehy said.

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