NoDa artist creates yard art garden from a palette of junk

If you live in NoDa, perhaps you've wondered what's going on at the house on the corner of 35th and Charles streets. This is the home of Linda Vista, and she has plans.

An assemblage artist, Vista started her career making collages and mixed-media pieces for corporate clients. She then moved on to more personal work, acquiring an impressive collection of junk from which she makes humorous constructions that address an array of political, feminist and other concerns. Now she is embarking on her biggest project: LindaLand, an outdoor environment that will eventually fill her entire yard.

"Bringing elements together has always been my strength," she said. "First it was two-dimensional, then three-dimensional and now it's the larger scale yard art environment. My house and my whole environment are my art."

LindaLand is still in its beginning phase and at this point mostly an idea; much of the sculpture that will get it started is inside the house. But you can see the beginnings in the small backyard, which is crowded with objects, including a shed Vista painted to look like mud cloth.

The front yard has less stuff, but smatterings of drama and idiosyncrasy are already there. The gate is a pair of heavily varnished salvaged doors. There is a 1950s-era metal chair upholstered in artificial turf, the first component of a lawn furniture set. Vista is now planning the hardscaping, which will include paths, dividers, grottos and dry-stack cairns.

Vista's route to her home and garden in Charlotte was a circuitous one. After graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in her hometown, she began to move. She spent 14 years in Los Angeles, where her career flourished, but a major earthquake prompted her to leave.

In 1999, she wound up in Charlotte.

"For many years, I made my living doing two-dimensional work. In Los Angeles in the '80s, corporations were the patrons of the arts. I was cranking out the art and it was flying away. I still have drawers of paper; I could whip something up with my eyes closed and it would be really good. But it just wasn't challenging anymore. I simply exhausted that medium.

"So I reclaimed my art for myself and decided not to sell it. For the first time in my art life I had the work around me, and if I wanted, I could go back years later and rework something."

After she abandoned her two-dimensional work and the galleries that sold it, gourds were among the many things that caught her attention. A touching example of her gourd work is Bird Mates. Simple in its construction, this quiet work consists of two gourds embellished with just enough found and salvaged objects to suggest a pair of ducks.

"I'm happy to show my work, but I like my work. I like having it around me. It's not a commodity."

Vista's materials sound like they belong to a hoarder: cardboard, cutesy garden ornaments, gutter guards, model railroad shrubbery, artificial turf, rubber reptiles, small appliances, zip-ties, gearshift knobs and other things she has found at junkyards, flea markets, dollar stores and the curb. Doing the garden has opened up a whole new aspect of shopping and junking, as she seeks out materials that can withstand the elements.

Vista is engaged in what she describes as "a process of adding and subtracting, looking and honing, heeding divine intuition and trusting surprises." Her work is meant to be viewed in the aggregate, which is reflected in the way she talks about it - she speaks in depth about concepts and plans, but her descriptions of individual pieces are concise, sometimes glib. But brevity is essential because there is so much here: crosses, ticklers, torches, chalices, keepsake boxes, memory jars, gourd sculpture, plaques, tabletop monuments. There is also a large cast of characters drawn from religion, art, mythology, legend, pop culture and whatever else seems to cross her path: Jesus, Darwin, Adam and Eve, Amy Winehouse, Santa, Tiger Woods, the Virgin Mary, King Midas, assorted saints, Gertrude Stein, Nike.

As we wandered around her studio, I was struck by a shadow puppetlike piece hanging on the wall: Little more than a piece of board with a small bright smile and tiny eyes, it is innocent and a little absurd. "Oh, that little guy? He's just a little whatnot. Just a piece of corrugated cardboard," said Vista. "Back in the '70s I was living in Tucson and didn't know anybody; then another artist introduced me to correspondence art and I began doing it with people like Ray Johnson. I received a piece from Futzy Nutzle that had a smile on a black silhouette. I always loved it. So I appropriated it a number of years later. That could be stuck in a planter."

Given the type of work she does, you might expect it to look like the final scene of Citizen Kane. But despite all the assemblages and constructions on the walls, shelves and floors, Vista's house is airy and tidy. "It will get more crowded, but it will always be somewhat organized," she said. "I like chaos, because therein lies fertility, but it can take over and be oppressive."

After years of keeping a low profile, Vista recently received a major vote of confidence when she was awarded a North Carolina Arts Council Artist Fellowship, which is given biennially to a handful of the state's visual artists. She used some of the money to travel to Wisconsin and visit art environments on the John Michael Kohler Arts Center's Wandering Wisconsin itinerary.

"Art environment" is the term the Kohler favors for what might also be called a yard art environment, art garden, folk art environment or any other number of disputed, slippery terms. It is usually applied to a yard that has been filled with sculpture or constructions or topiary or any combination thereof. Yard artists tend to lack formal training; in the past, some were unaware that they were even part of tradition, but in our era of ubiquitous information, that is less and less the case. Among the best-known environments, the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden in Bishopville, S.C., is the one closest to Charlotte.

The grant is also funding the initial phase of LindaLand. "Receiving the grant was definitely a booster rocket in getting the work to where it is. I had already been referring to my house/museum as LindaLand. Without the grant, I really don't know how, if or when that would have spilled into the yard."

"I love the idea of moving into the yard, of contributing to the streetscape. I can do public art and not have to sit in meetings or compromise. I can do whatever I want.

"And it's good for the neighborhood. This used to be the Arts District, but now it's not. I'm doing my environment and am encouraging another friend on 35th to do an idea that she has. Then I'm going to alert the neighborhood: The gauntlet is thrown. Who needs McAdenville? Let's have NoDa become known for outside-the-box yard stuff. We'll see."