Eclectic, or Eccentric, Outsider Art

The old dairy barn has history of its own
The plaque on the boulder, below, commemorates the Springs Fire Department’s first home — George Sid Miller Jr.’s dairy barn. An image of a Native American appears in one of its open doors. These assemblages of found objects testify to Thomas Whitehill’s particular alchemy.

What might be called a museum of outsider art, hidden on Hog Creek Road in Springs, was once a dairy barn, an Abstract Expressionist’s studio, and the original home of the Springs Fire Department. The monument is easy to miss.

Just off Fireplace Road, a plaque affixed to a boulder on the street side of the old building informs those who stop by that George Sid Miller Jr. gave the fledging department the use of his property. Two years later, however, after the department moved to Fort Pond Boulevard, it was purchased by Hedda Sterne, the only woman among 18 artists in the famous 1951 Life magazine photograph of “The Irascibles,” who included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko.

Ms. Sterne and her husband, Saul Steinberg, the extraordinary New Yorker magazine illustrator and cartoonist, spent summers in Springs, but by the time she bought the one-and-a-half acre property with the old Miller barn and enough land to put up a house, they had separated. She eventually sold the property to Joseph La Piana, an artist who found the barn in a state of disrepair. He reconstructed the roof, which had caved in, and added skylights. Today, it is owned by Thomas Whitehill, who bought it in 2006 and put his imprint on the site, turning the house, barn, and surrounding space into an eccentric installation of found and altered objects. 

“I found this place and fell in love,” said Mr. Whitehill, who does not have the résumé of a typical folk artist. A lawyer, he never practiced law, but instead worked for many years in legal publishing. When asked about his past, he said with a sly smile, “It’s all classified material.”

The house is simple and typical of the ’60s and ’70s, but a wall of glass facing the barn, a cathedral ceiling, and an open floor plan make the interior almost loft-like. “I did a lot to it,” Mr. Whitehill said. “There were no windows in the back, and the floors were green linoleum.” He rectified both problems.

That the interior feels uncluttered is all the more remarkable because of the eclectic objects that cover its walls. The furniture is minimal — a couch, a few tables, a low bed visible in the bedroom at the rear of the living room. A double bass serves as a partial divider between the rooms. But Mr. Whitehill said he rarely plays it. “More often I play an electric bass,” he said, gesturing to one mounted on the wall.

Mr. Whitehill finds the tools of his trade at yard sales, on the side of the road, at dumps, and is given many by friends who know what he likes. To catalog the contents of the house and the jammed workspace in the barn would require a book.

 In the kitchen, a three-foot-tall statue of a mermaid holding a tray is positioned next to a circular picture of Chairman Mao. Images of Buddha and Jesus abound, and a clear, tu bular lightbulb in the kitchen encases a small Star of David. The collection is nothing if not ecumenical.

On the rear deck are what Mr. Whitehill calls erections. They consist of invasive vines removed from trees and fashioned into organic sculptures. A cast-iron column stands alone at a distance from the house. When a large tree fell on the grounds, instead of cutting it up and taking it away, he decided he liked it “and started playing.” It is now festooned with colorful pennants and Japanese lanterns. “A friend of mine was a curator at a Japanese stroll garden that closed, and she gave me the lanterns and some paper umbrellas.”

Two-thirds of the building that was once a firehouse is enclosed. Mr. Whitehill and a friend removed the siding from the other third, creating wide, open space filled with myriad objects: a bass and a chair that have been painted in the style of Pollock’s drip paintings, an animal skull, half of an upside- down mannequin, statues of Indian dancers, elaborate wind chimes, and nested temple bells, to name just a few. As for his Asian objects, he said, “I just like them. It has nothing to do with Buddhism or anything else.”

A narrow concrete pool stands at one end of the barn with its water shared by goldfish and fallen leaves. “My granddaughter used to play in it when she was really little. Of course it was clean then.” An arched window that may have come from an elegant house lets light into the workspace. “A friend and I picked it up from the Sag Harbor dump,” he said.

Going inside, one finds little room for perambulation. There are more mannequins, a bust of Jesus wearing oversize polka-dotted glasses and an old chrome Packard ornament as a crown, and an image of Bob Dylan, who, along with the Beatles and Albert Einstein, Mr. Whitehill considers bona fide geniuses. “I mean, that’s a lot for a lifetime.”

He pointed to a drain in the concrete floor and said, “I’d be willing to bet that when Hedda Sterne lived here, Jackson Pollock peed in that.” More seriously, he said the late Jeffrey Potter’s book on Pollock, “To a Violent Grave,” was wonderful. “I made a little memorial to Pollock at the corner of Woodbine and Fireplace Road, where he had his fatal crash.”

Mr. Whitehill lives here year round. “In the winter I hibernate, basically, and in the summer I’m at the beach all day. I go to Georgica Beach. I’m sort of a fixture there.”

Mr. Whitehill’s way of working brings to mind the French word bricoleur, loosely translated as creating something from a diverse range of this and that that happens to be available. “I think that’s the fun of it. I always liked making things and collaging them. Then I started working with metal, blacksmithing, when I was in another life.” 

“At one point, I tried selling stuff, but it was such a drag to have the inhibition of that looking over your shoulder. They always make good gifts for people.” 

Whether Mr. Whitehill’s work with found objects is in the tradition of Picasso’s “Bull’s Head,” handlebars and a seat of a bicycle cast in bronze, which is in the Museum of Modern Art, or of what Marcel Duchamp called “Readymades” is unclear. Perhaps it is best to say his creations have not yet been discovered.

Simple furniture cedes the limelight to collectibles on the living room walls.
The drip-painted bass, above, is among the complex objects and often witty constructions in the barn, below.
An old industrial fan, above, is embellished with Japanese fans, tassels, and what have you. Below, a fallen tree was decorated rather than carted away.
The artist Hedda Sterne built the house after making the barn her studio.
Mr. Whitehill is seen at right; he found one side of a fanlight window at the Sag Harbor dump.