The fact is: most of us will enter and leave this world without making much of a mark beyond the circle of our immediate friends and family. In light of this, it is startling to drive to a nondescript street in Springfield, Ohio — the city where my brother lives with his family — and wander around the backyard of 1905 Russel Avenue, the former home of Ben Hartman, who died in 1944, and see the mark this foundry worker made, which has now outlasted the span of his lifetime by several decades.
Laid off from his job in 1932, Ben Hartman began fiddling with building things from cement and small stones in his backyard to keep busy. Even after he went back to work in 1937, he kept building and building and building, extending his scope from the original project of a cement fishing pond to creating dozens of structures and little figures with patriotism, religion, historical events and historical places as his themes. After Ben Hartman died his wife Mary tended the rock garden, which also included extensive flower beds, for the next 53 years. Mary encouraged visitors to stroll along Ben’s concrete paths — many of which he embedded with messages spelled out in small stones — just outside her back door. Mary passed away in 1997 and the rock garden began to fall into disrepair until 2008, when the amazing Kohler Foundation stepped in and restored the gardens, transferring ownership to the non-profit Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden, now responsible for maintaining the site.
One of the many great aspects of the Kohler Foundation’s restoration is that they kept the spirit of the garden intact, offering interpretive materials for anyone who wants them, but avoiding the sense that this is some sort of rarified museum experience and clobbering the viewer with the site’s significance. The Hartman Rock Garden is true folk art, which by definition means it exists outside of the Academy, and what a relief that is, at least in this case.
The Garden gives the same feeling to a visitor today that it offered to someone strolling through the site decades ago: the strange, almost eerie sensation of stumbling onto a tiny plot in a random place that somehow manages to contain a world of beauty, sadness and moral certainty — an entire world created by a single man, one rock at a time.
I visited the Hartman Rock Garden after a snowfall, which gave everything a monochromatic quality, heightening the almost universal grayness of the world in winter. In another season the garden, like the world itself, is a much more colorful place, and I plan to view it again in a different light altogether. For more extensive information on the Hartman Rock Garden, photos of Ben Hartman and more, check out the garden’s website, hartmanrockgarden.org