Uncorking the Muses
The Bottle Chapel at Airlie Gardens: A Tribute to Minnie Evans
Wrightsville Beach Magazine, Wilmington, NC
By Marimar McNaughton
By all counts, it was a labor of love. The Bottle Chapel and sculpture garden - the dazzling jewel in the crown of Airlie Gardens that honors renowned visionary artist Minnie Evans, gatekeeper of Airlie - was created over a yearlong period by seven area artists and one gardener, as a temple to the memory of Evans and her lasting inspiration. The shrine is made from 5,000 recycled bottles, chicken wire and cement, embellished with handmade works of copper, clay and glass tile.
The Bottle Chapel at Airlie Gardens: A Tribute to Minnie Evans, a 32-page book released this month, is dedicated to those artists who collaborated on the enchanting installation: designer and lead artist Virginia Wright-Frierson, Karen Crouch, Dumay Gorham, Brooks Koff, Hiroshi Sueyoshi, Barbara Sullivan, Tejuola Turner and Michael Van Hout.
The book is a precious memento of their creative process. It was written by Fred Wharton, a native of Great Britain and husband of UNCW Chancellor Rosemary DePaolo. He taught Elizabethan drama at Glasgow University in Scotland and then at Augusta College in Georgia, where he chaired the English department and was a member of Airlie Gardens Guild. Wharton's text discloses the brief history of the group project and balances profiles of the artists and the unique contribution of each to the whole.
Like many new to the Wilmington area, Wharton was drawn to the garden. "I became fascinated with the original artist, Minnie Evans. This project that Ginny Wright-Frierson put together was such a collaboration," Wharton says. "To get eight artists working together with one vision is truly an achievement."
Wharton dove into the archives at Cameron Art Museum to familiarize himself with Evans' oeuvre and interviewed the Bottle Chapel artists in their studios or by telephone.
Over a six-year period, Wright-Frierson, a painter, muralist and illustrator of children's books, had created a bottle house prototype in her own backyard that was inspired by the outsider art of Grandma Prisbrey, a visionary artist from California. Wright-Frierson's original idea was to produce a stained glass chapel at Airlie inspired by Evans' designs, "and the symmetry of her work and her bright colors and have light pouring through it," she says.
The Airlie Garden site, however, is a magnet for electrical storms and hurricanes. Wright-Frierson revisited her bottle house at home, which had withstood the elements for 15 years, and thought, "I could do the same thing in this framework of heavy, treated wood, wire and mortar mix."
Slaving through the heat of the summer and suffering the raw chill of winter, she built the chapel walls.
"She was quite a soldier," Wharton says.
Wright-Frierson not only crafted the original vision for the chapel, she invited seven other artists to collaborate with her and "all of them seemed really honored to do this," she says.
"I could have chosen dozens who were influenced by Minnie Evans," Wright-Frierson says, "[each of whom] could have added something wonderful to this whole garden."
Hiroshi Sueyoshi, resident potter at Cameron Art Museum, was the first she asked.
"I respect him so much as an artist and I knew he could add an element to the garden that would just be essential," Wright-Frierson says.
Sueyoshi created the entrance to the Bottle Chapel sculpture garden - a likeness of Evans at the Airlie gatehouse where she created most of her paintings, and a fountain carved with images from Evans' paintings.
"Tejuola Turner was one of the first that occurred to me. She's our only African-American artist and is somewhat of a visionary artist herself. She's known most for doing incredible gourd carvings that are in the collection of the Cameron Museum," Wright-Frierson says.
Turner, working outside her medium, created four benches embellished with symbols found in Evans' work.
"One of the hardest workers of all was Brooks Koff," Wright-Frierson says. Koff coordinated a mosaic project with area schoolchildren: They made a stepping stone for every year of Minnie Evansâ€™ life. Koff introduced the students to Evans' work, and hand cut and glued each of their designs. When completed, the 95 tiles weighed 35 pounds each.
The Bottle Chapel was the first big public project for sculptor Karen Crouch, who created the life-size tree planted inside the sanctuary.
"She, probably more than anyone, steeped herself in Minnie Evans' inspiration," Wright-Frierson says.
Working continuously, Dumay Gorham was the first to finish a pair of angels.
Michael Van Hout's bronze dove sculptures actually attracted a tropical dove to the chapel after it was dedicated in 2004.
"That was just a miracle," Wright-Frierson says. She believes the bird represents Evans' spirit. "We had hundreds of bird watchers come to take pictures. It lived there for two months."
Barbara Sullivan selected plant materials that supported the artistic illusions created by the others. But none worked as tirelessly as Wright-Frierson herself, who reported to the site daily accompanied by her dog. One day, a storm brewed up a batch of wind, with bolts of lightning and rumbling thunder. As the wind blew through the chapel, the bottles started to sing, producing what Wright-Frierson describes as "organ music with thousands of different pitches."
Susan Taylor Block, Airlie Gardens historian, was a frequent visitor to the gardens during the construction process and scripted a seamless introduction to the book.
"I went to the dedication and walked through with people all around me and listened to their comments," Block says. Working from the image of a circle within a spiral, a poem poured out of her. Of Arcs and Artists: The Bottle Chapel of Airlie, is the book's touching epilogue.
Illustrated with photographs by Arrow Ross, published by The Publishing Laboratory of the University of North Carolina Wilmington's Department of Creative Writing, and distributed by John F. Blair Publishers, the book, Block says, is a celebration of not just Minnie Evans, but of her spirit that lives on and "would inspire an artist of Ginny's caliber to think up this whole entire project and to orchestrate all of the other artists. It's just an amazing thing all around.” -- Marimar McNaughton