Small town museums have a kind of life cycle. Especially if they’re the product of one person’s particular vision. Their cause is a noble one. They start slowly and accumulate over time. They might relocate once or twice. They hum along in glorious obscurity. And some locals never go in, no matter how bizarre or one-of-a-kind it is.
And when a small town museum isn’t open for Memorial day, you can probably assume the owner’s died.
I had driven all the way to Spooner to see the Museum of Woodcarving, even though I didn’t know much about it. I had found it on the internet, and it looked like it was some kind of religious shrine. I thought it was worth a look. But when I got there, it was closed. Nobody in town seemed to know why - everybody just speculated.
I heard she went to Florida and never came back, a librarian told me. No, she went to Florida all right, like she always does, a bartender explained. She just got sick when she did get back.
Well, I heard she’s in a home in Hayward, a woman at a second hand store suggested. Either way, that museum she ran for her husband’s uncle? That place hasn’t been open for a year.
Before I drove back to Duluth, I left my phone number with a few different people, stuck a note on the front door, and hoped for the best.
And a few days later, it worked. A woman gave me a phone call and invited me to drive back down to see the museum, while her and a few friends cleaned out the lobby. The museum is in receivership, she explained. The owner isn’t well. I’m in charge of clearing out the building and figuring out what’s junk and what’s not.
I’m no folk art scholar, but I know a visionary artist environment when I see one. The vibe was pretty straightforward - it just felt like a 1950’s high school shop teacher was told by God to reconstruct the most medieval parts of the bible in a pole barn with a dropped ceiling and carpet.
But not a benevolent or kind God. More of a medieval, mythic, malevolent God. The same God that spoke to Hieronymus Bosch. Very old testament. A little sick.
Anyhow, the man who carved everything died a long time ago. His nephew took care of it for a long time, then when he passed on, his wife took it over. Now that she’s too sick to care for it, nobody’s left in the line of succession. Like all of our stuff, it eventually gets put up to auction, and sold to whoever shows up first.
The receiver, a woman named Bonnie, was very nice to me and let me take as many pictures as I wanted. And while she doesn’t really know how to appraise the artwork she’s stumbled into, she knows it’s not junk. She wants to find somebody to purchase the whole collection in one big lot, before she has to part it out and sell the building. She’s worried about this coming winter, when they’ll be left in the building without heat. All that freezing and thawing doesn’t do good things to your looks, not matter how blessed you are.
The definite centerpiece of the museum is the crucifixion. It’s held behind a velvet rope, and is almost a ready-made album cover for a metal band.
So, I guess you could buy the whole thing. Maybe somebody reading this knows a person or a foundation who would want to buy and care for it all. Most likely, though, it’ll all be parted out, and sold to whoever gets to their favorite piece first.
It’ll be sad to see it auctioned off to punks from the cities and weirdos from the backwoods, who all drive to Spooner to get a piece of the action. Some of the sculptures will no doubt be kept indoors, in good condition, while some will probably be used in nativity scenes on the lawn of a church. Some of the devils might be used as halloween decorations in somebody’s yard. Propped up on the side of the road by a fireworks stand. Some will be varnished, shellacked, sandblasted, or even embellished with paint. They’ll start to get sunbleached and weather-beaten. They’ll become birdhouses. They’ll sink back into the ground that grew the trees that birthed them.
Maybe, as they rot, Joe Barta will be looking down from heaven, aghast at our ignorance. He’ll turn to God, who’s standing behind him. I tried to show them, he’ll say.
God will rest his hand on his shoulder and comfort him. My plan is a lot weirder than you think, Joe.