You Just Ain't Normal, Bob
There's this one guy in a black pickup truck who drives by Bobby McNeal's house on Freemason Street at the foot of Sharp's Ridge every few months, rolls down his window and hollers:
But that doesn't deter Bobby, who gets visited by lots of people who appreciate the unusual nature of his yard art. There are curious passers-by who stop and try to buy his stuff, people with cameras and tripods, a call from a representative of Southern Living, and simply like-minded spirits who just want to look around.
He bears a marked resemblance to the collection of bearded trolls in his living room as he throws back his head and laughs while he tells the story. Here is a partial inventory of the objets d'art in his front yard, many of them acquired on "alley shopping" expeditions with his wife, Angela Howard:
Railroad lights on either side of the driveway. A huge cast-iron kettle full of petunias. An iron bedstead partially buried in the topsoil marking the borders of a flower (get it?) bed. A rock garden adorned with gigantic masonry finials. A wringer washer full of flowers. The Buddha, Jesus, and Mary-in-a-bathtub shrines. The kerosene tank cow. A massive airport fire extinguisher mounted on big iron wheels. Ancient push mowers, wagon wheels, and a hand plow.
And that's just what you can see from the street, so it's no wonder people passing by the house throw on their brakes, back up, and stop to gape. No wonder they circle the block and drive back around real slow.
If McNeal is out front, he makes a point to smile and wave.
"I like the fact that people seem to enjoy it," he says.
"I've had people tell me I'm an artist. I call what I do 'image art,' cause it comes out of my imagination. I can picture it, but I can't tell nobody what it's going to be like when it's done."
There's this one big obstacle in the way of his making a living with his creations: "My problem is, when I get something the way I want it, I don't want to sell it."
Bobby is a 42-year-old Chicago native who moved down South two decades ago and worked long hours in the restaurant business until the day his best friend Mark died of colon cancer in the back room of Bobby's house. It had been a long struggle, and he had moved Mark in because he didn't want his friend dying alone in a hospital. Mark's death changed Bobby's life forever, and made him take a vow:
"I decided life was too short to work for somebody else."
He figured he'd not go back to a regular job unless he ran out of money, and so far, that hasn't happened. Now he does remodeling and sells used furniture and whatever found treasures he can bear to part with. He defrays expenses by having a couple of paying tenants. Angela works as a bookkeeper for a local restaurant chain.
People who drive by don't know the half of what Bobby's got there. Out back, he is building Angela a lily pond surrounded by a trellis that he plans to train wisteria to grow on. Hanging from the trellis are glass panels etched with swans. They used to be a shower stall, and he is looking for a couple more to match them. The pool is an old whirlpool tub somebody threw out.
On the driveway side of the house sits an old sink that has been turned into a planter and filled with red geraniums.
"I got tired of having people tell me I had everything but the kitchen sink," Bobby says as he rounds the corner.
Inside the house, he stands in his mauve and teal living room and recites the history of everything there. Even the furniture has a story. The plush couches were picked up from a relative, and the full-sized suit of armor standing guard by the door set him back $100. The adjacent hall leading to his garage workshop is paneled with barn wood he got for free and installed himself, and the collection of toys displayed there were his own childhood playthings. There, clustered around the fireplace is the troll tribe he bartered for, and he poses next to the life-sized one to underscore the resemblance.
"The only thing I pay full price for is my steins," he says, motioning to the cabinet crammed full of the ornate drinking vessels. "I never did like to just have one of anything, you know what I mean?"
The sunroom on the west side of the house used to be a side porch, but now has a brick floor he installed himself, and windows he salvaged out of a remodeling job. It is a light-filled space that cost him $600 to remodel and furnish. In the corner sits an antique barber chair that a friend brought him from Indiana as a gift.
"I always did want me a barber chair and a barber pole."
The master bedroom is turquoise and an unusual shade of green that matches a plate Angela spotted at Waccamaw one day before they were married. Bobby came back later and shelled out a dollar for the plate, took it to Home Depot, had the color analyzed and got them to mix up some paint to match it. Then he went home and painted the room the color of the plate.
"People think he's kind of rough and gruff from the outside, but they just don't know how sweet and loving he really is," Angela says.
But actually, except for the guy in the truck, the only time anyone has ever said anything critical about his creations to Bob's face was when the guy next door accused him of dragging down the neighborhood.
"He said 'You got a cow in your front yard. You got bathtubs in your front yard. Bob, you just ain't normal.'"
He delivers the story with a belly laugh that confirms all suspicions that normal is not what he's working on.
And actually, neither is art. To Bobby McNeal, recycling is the thing. After that, art happens.
July 20, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 29
© 2000 Metro Pulse