Art Is Everything, Everywhere, All the Time
Back in 2011 when I visited artist Wally Warren at this home, a roadside art attraction in rural Ripley just west of Dexter, the white snow made the brilliant works of art in his yard and festooning his home even brighter. There were whirligigs, totems, small boats with wine bottle cork bumpers, arches, and, most of all, TV satellite dishes painted bold colors and arrayed like ornamental shields.
When I visited Warren in August of 2023, the wild colors seemed to have been tamed by a decade of sun and rain, snow and ice. Even his ruddy house seemed to have faded a bit and the outdoor artworks were overgrown with weeds. That’s because in 2020 Wally Warren suffered a debilitating stroke that left his right side partially paralyzed and his speech reduced to four or five words—“Yes,” “No,” “Wow”, and “Jesus.”
Warren’s close friend Lisa Cummings has become his caretaker and she has done a bit of maintenance on the littered art yard, but mostly she’s kept busy attending to Wally. Friends describe Cummings as an angel of mercy, but she insists she enjoys caring for Warren.
“Wally is a lot of fun,” said Cummings, herself an artist.
Wally Warren has always been “a lot of fun” as an artist, one who turns virtually everything that comes to hand into joyful, witty works of art. The sides of his home are decorated with a display of painted metal dishes, wooden rainbows and a sign that reads, “Unintended Consequences,” the name of the avant-garde band he plays in.
Warren is a Maine man. He grew up in Lincoln and Bangor and graduated from the University of Maine. Attracted to the paper mill in Lincoln and the railyards in Bangor, Warren started making model cities out of scrap wood when he was only thirteen. He has been at it ever since.
There are bird houses on red and yellow striped poles all over the yard. The one cabin he built on the four acres he purchased in 1970 has turned into eight or more buildings, including a sauna, outhouse, workshop, and library. Several of the funky outbuildings are used to store the City of Dreams sculptures for which Warren is best known, whole tabletop dioramas assembled from electronic debris. And Warren’s fifty-year material transformation of his property also includes a man-made pond lined with stones and filled with frogs and catfish.
Warren lives in a hand-made funhouse of color. The ceiling of his sitting room is alive with the parti-colored tops of eighty-one helium cylinders. His fanciful ships rest on hand-painted shelves. He has made art of everything from license plates and fans to propellers, hubcaps, old shoes, and dental picks. Even the paint-splattered concrete floor of the living room has a happy chromatic chaos about it.
Unable to assemble his found art fantasies except to add a piece here and there now and then, since his stroke Warren has focused primarily on drawing, pen and ink and graphite drawings he executes with his left hand. Warren’s earliest left-handed line drawings depict fellow nursing home patients, some in wheelchairs. The narrow, nervous lines have a dynamism that is no doubt in part a product of the struggle to control his hand.
Warren has a collection of journals dating back at least to the 1970s that function as illustrated diaries. His sure-hand drawings of the past are accurate and accomplished, but there is something strangely appealing about his leftie drawings, almost as though there is a freedom that comes with disability.
“He was drawing a lot of people in nursing homes,” writes Lisa Cummings in an email, “and now I encourage him to draw by setting up tables and paper outside and keeping it around him. Mostly his interest is in wildlife and nature, he watches birds and trees a lot—very captivated.”
Cummings was amazed not long ago when Warren went outside on his own and cut off the top of a small tree because it was obscuring his view of the birds. He has also done a lot of drawings of Cummings’s cat Peso.
Though the color, diversity and complexity of the sculpture is largely missing, Warren’s spare drawings are nonetheless wonderfully expressive. In fact, even with his communications reduced to a handful of words and lines, Warren still manages to express a wide range of emotions with an excited “Ya-ya-ya-ya” accompanied by thumbs up gestures.
And then, of course, there is music.
“Wally and I like to sing together and back and forth on a whim in sounds, syllables, and rhythm to vent trapped frustrations, emotion and to bridge us into a closeness,” writes Lisa Cummings. “He also plays his trumpet very well, especially when Fang and Abby are around.”
Fellow artists James Fangboner and Abby Shahn from over in Solon have been making experimental music with Wally Warren as the Unintended Consequences for many years. Asked about playing the trumpet post-stroke, Warren takes his horn down off the wall and plays an upbeat one-handed tune.
“What blows my mind,” said Abby Shahn, “is that his creative impulse is as strong as ever.”
“Wally is so inspiring,” added Fangboner. “He has an amazing sense of color and he has super musical ideas. It’s still a joy to play with him.”
And that is the dominant aspect of Wally Warren’s art—play.
Down at the pond, he fetched one of his wine cork boats from the little library shack. Afraid he might fall in the water, my wife Carolyn took the vessel from him and floated it in the pond. Both Wally and Carolyn cheered the successful launch.
“Wally,” she said, “is a delight.”
All photos by Edgar Allen Beem.