WILD AT HEART
Curated Works of Art Make This Garden Magical
By Barbara Canetti | Photos by Thanin Viriyaki
The large garden at Jay Wehnert and Victoria Harrison’s historic home in the Heights is more than just a yard. It is a part of their 1897 Victorian farmhouse and its vast collection of visionary art, artifacts, relics, found objects and vestiges of sustainable icons they have carefully selected.
“The yard is an extension of the house and our collections,” says Wehnert, author of the book Outsider Art in Texas: Lone Stars, which highlights many of the folk artists they collect. “We have added on and updated, but our overreaching principle is to maintain the original.”
The house was featured on the 2017 Weird Homes Tour® Houston, but Wehnert and Harrison are quick to note that their home and yard are not weird: They artfully and tastefully created a magical home and garden and a place to showcase serious artists and their crafts.
The couple’s three-lot plot – unusual for the Heights – is filled with towering oaks and pebbled pathways through flowers, citrus, vegetables, fruits and greenery. The first large artform visitors see is a tall metal sculpture by Polly Smart, a modern contemporary artist from Champaign–Urbana, Illinois. In the back corner, where the original owner Sam Blackman’s blacksmith shop was located, is now a chicken coop for Mamie and Eleanor, two free range chickens who patrol the yard. The chickens ignore the dozen or so concrete chickens, though sometimes peck away in that area of the yard.
Likewise, visiting squirrels don’t think much of the concrete squirrels lining one of the flower beds, with cascading red flowers encircling them. A large faux wood birdcage in the center looks like it would be a great home for a parrot or cockatoo, but no one resides in this birdhouse.
A small pond had been Blackman’s watering hole in the early 20th century, but today is home to a handful of goldfish, some small snakes, frogs and lots of lily pads. Much of the greenery has been “rescued” from elsewhere and transplanted into the yard, giving it an untamed yet natural feel. Purple spiderworts line the path along with rocks and concrete bits to create perimeters for the beds, while Dancing Ladies await their red blooms in the summer. And the prolific four O’clock [Mirabilis jalapa] blooms vibrantly in the afternoons – at 4 o’clock.
In one garden a clump of sunflowers grows alongside curly leaf kale. Nearby is a grotto with a metal crucifix embedded in a wall of greenery, which Harrison described as the “power corner of the yard.” And against the fence are potatoes, avocado, squash, basil, jalapeno and mustard spinach growing adjacent to a trellis made from mattress springs, now a support for a sweet pea vine. A tall eucalyptus tree hovers overhead.
Perhaps the most interesting focal point of the yard is the collection of bird houses, most created in scrap aluminum by San Antonio artist Sam Mirelez. In his retirement Mirelez first built bird houses from wood and then metal, but neither withstood the outdoor elements. He turned to using scrap aluminum from house siding that local contractors gave him. He supplemented his creations – which all resemble architecturally interesting buildings or structures – with stone and tile and mounted the large bird houses on aluminum poles.
“Some are fantasy [buildings] and some are recreations [of buildings],” says Wehnert, pointing to the Eiffel Tower, and the more than dozen other constructions they have purchased.
Perhaps one of the most favored icons in the garden is a scarecrow, handcrafted by the blind African-American artist Hawkins Bolden of Memphis, who created totem pole scarecrows from discarded pots, pans, hubcaps, belts and rubber hoses.
Harrison says her goal for this garden was food, color and scent, and she planted night blooming jasmine, Ligustrum, pittosporum and olive trees to create a “natural wilderness with some order.”
“It is a thicket and the beds are not defined,” says Wehnert. “We organized the yard and over ten years we have made a slow and steady progress to make it sustainable for us and the chickens.”
Both Sam Mirelez and Hawkins Bolden have since died, but below are local resources for starting your own magical garden.
The Arbor Gate
15635 FM 2920, Tomball
Outsider Art In Texas: Lone Stars
713-523-0701 (arrives in 1-5 days)
Fountains and Statuary
Frazier’s Ornamental & Architectural Concrete, Inc.
23200 Highway 6, Hempstead
Houston Pond Society
JJ Potts Handcrafted Ceramics
Joshua's Native Plants & Garden Antiques, Inc.
502 West 18th
Lone Star Koi
Weird Homes Tour® Houston