You can see it from the road, spelled out in foot-high ceramic letters on the side of the old red barn – a Tibetan Buddhist prayer, “May happiness and well-being arise in all sentient beings, equal to the sky.”
The striking signage often makes passersby stop for a closer look. Russ Vogt is used to it. “We’ll hear a car just all of a sudden slow down, back up, and come into the driveway,” says the painter and sculptor, who lives and works on the 10-acre former farm in Plymouth, Minnesota, with his wife, Suzanne Rooney.
Once on the property, visitors find themselves in a wonderland: an acre and a half of gardens, dotted with more than 200 of Vogt’s totem-like ceramic forms and fanciful mosaic animals. In the warm seasons, the sculptures live in harmony among the flowers and vegetables; in winter, they pop out of the snow. The couple calls it their art farm.
Vogt started placing his pieces around the grounds about eight years ago, with no particular rhyme or reason. He has a master’s degree in painting, but relies heavily on intuition in his work, and has long admired the fantastical worlds created by so-called outsider artists. “They just have that primitive quality, a sort of from-the-gut feel about them,” he says. “I always wanted to do something like that, a whole environment.”
The farm has been a magical venue for many a gathering over the years – an equinox party, the weddings of two of their children (Rooney’s from her first marriage), performances by a local theater troupe. “We love sharing the energy of the place,” says Rooney, adding that its evolution has been “a pretty spontaneous thing. We don’t think too much – we just do it.”
A sometime potter, Rooney does the landscaping around her husband’s works, favoring easy-care, drought-tolerant perennials like black-eyed Susans, purple coneflower, and Stella de Oro daylilies. “I play with the height of plants and rocks, just run with it. It’s fun,” she says. “Nothing is ever fixed here. It’s very flexible.”
That’s just as well. Because of encroaching development, Vogt and Rooney recently decided to sell the property and have already found a new home – another rural spot, with great creative potential – on the other side of the Twin Cities. They’ll bring the art with them, along with the prayer and a welcoming spirit. They say they’re ready to let the old place go, with love.
“It’s going to be an adjustment for both of us, but change is good, too,” Vogt says. He’s excited to dream up a new outdoor setting for the sculptures. “It’s like rearranging the living room – you know, all of a sudden you see everything differently.”
Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor.