WILLIS — Artist Charlie Brouwer calls his homestead and sculpture park “Out There” because of its location on a dirt road off another dirt road in Floyd County.
“Should we go work out there tonight?” he’d ask his wife, Glenda, years ago when they both lived and worked in Radford while fixing up the dilapidated house in the countryside. It was a long commute from Radford University, where Brouwer was an art professor, but something about the place called him, he said.
Brouwer felt the name fit on several levels. Believing art can point us toward thoughts, feelings and meaning beyond our immediate experience, he liked thinking of his studio and 9-acre sculpture trail as “Out There,” the home of his subliminal muses. His contemplative work is about transcending the real world to a higher, truer, more hopeful plane. Brouwer sees the beauty in the ordinary — nature, family and home — and calls attention to this through his wooden sculptures. Visitors are welcome to make an appointment to see the 25-plus installations on his Out There walking trail.
“We’ve hosted school classes, artists, Red Hat ladies and a men’s meditation group,” Brouwer said. “Glenda’s women’s group was out here last month. They each picked a sculpture and sat there for an hour. Then they got together and talked about their experiences.”
Visitors’ first glimpse of Out There from the road reveals an oversized grand piano sitting in a hayfield. Like other Brouwer wooden sculptures, “Wouldn’t It Be Grand?” seems both incongruous and at home in nature.
“I made it because some nice people in Botetourt County gave me two truckloads of very old lumber, mostly oak,” Brouwer said. “I created it for an Atlanta gallery exhibition I did seven years ago.”
The field is dotted with other works — a giant ladderback chair, the shell of a tiny house, a male figure pushing a lawn mower and a configuration of standing ladders. The ladders have been important symbolic pieces in his work ever since orchardist friend Frank Levering gave him 100 worn-out wooden ladders to use in installations. The lawn mower guy is one of Brouwer’s oldest outdoor pieces, dating from 1991 when he still used treated wood.
“I really didn’t like treated wood. I didn’t like the chemicals,” Brouwer said. “When I moved out here, a man I called ‘the Prophet Elijah’ showed me another way. Elijah lived across the road; he was in his 80s and he was always lending me the things I needed. He showed me a locust tree and said locust posts would last outdoors for 100 years.”
From then on, Brouwer built his outdoor sculptures of black locusts, many harvested from his land and cut at a local sawmill. The figures are assembled from many pieces of wood, which he joins together with deck screws, slowly building up the structure like a sort of 3-D collage.
“I’m not a carver; I’m a constructionist,” he said. “I add to the sculpture as I work. If something doesn’t work, I unscrew it and change it. I start with an idea — usually several — and I don’t pay too much attention to surface details. I go with a feeling, a chutzpah, a sense that this work as a whole has legs — or not.”
Brouwer poses for his own human figures, noting the placement of his legs, the balance. A prominent installation in the forest, “Happy Wanderers,” is modeled after Brouwer and his grandson on a hike around the property. The child lags behind, taking in the woods in his own way.
“This piece has been exhibited in Michigan, Florida, Tennessee and several places in Virginia. I’ve made more money doing temporary installations than if I’d sold it,” Brower said.
Many of Brouwer’s statues have traveled around the country before settling in at Out There. Some still leave for stints at far-flung galleries and exhibitions. The “Long Road Home,” a house with legs, will soon move to Peoria, Illinois. Other installations, such as the “Sanctuary” arches, “Bridge of Sighs over the River of Life” and “The Lonesome Whippoorwill” boxcar tribute to Hank Williams, were made for a specific spot in Brouwer’s forest. “Peace” was formed from sections of a tree toppled there by the derecho years ago. A homemade ladder in the center of the installation twists upward like rising smoke.
“Disputes among those seated in the circle are drawn upward by the ladder and disappear. A family visiting the trail tried out the ‘Peace’ sculpture by sitting around it and freely expressing themselves. They happily reported that the negative comments were carried right up the ladder. They understood the idea and were having fun with it,” Brouwer said.
Brouwer built the framework of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden cabin with the same dimensions, furniture and orientation to the light as the writer’s actual cabin. The artist says he even spent a night on the sculpted bed with its wooden pillow and heard coyotes howling in the distance.
Although most of his works are made of rot-resistant locust, Brouwer knows their lives are finite. Some will outlive him; some won’t. When he built the grand piano of oak, he didn’t expect it to last very long. Pieces are starting to rot; wasps fly out of cracks. Soon Brouwer and his son-in-law will move the piano to its “cemetery plot” surrounded by a picket fence.
“I think it will be interesting to see it in various stages of decay,” Brouwer said. “Maybe it will become ‘Grand Ruins.’”
To contact Brouwer about visiting Out There, call 250-2966 or see www.charliebrouwer.com.