In the summer of 2015, Colleen Neff of the Berkeley Path Wanderers, and a good friend of Quirky Berkeley, alerted me to the presence of a small village in a front yard on Amador Avenue in North Berkeley. I tried to contact the owner but had no luck, so I didn’t know the back story. All I knew that it was a charming little installation that I have termed a “small world.”
This summer, a series of Quirky Berkeley connections led me to learn that Debra Pughe made this village during an informal Fairy Camp she held with neighborhood children whom she calls her Urban Scouts. I met her and saw that the small world village in the front is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to quirk at Amador.
For part of the year, Pughe and her husband, Jon Winet, live in Iowa, where he teaches at the University of Iowa. Pughe was director of exhibitions for the Fine Arts museums of San Francisco (the de Young Museum and California Palace of the Legion of Honor) for 12 years. She helped produce major exhibitions along with small scholarly shows, and managed the permanent collection galleries. She also worked for seven years at the Lawrence Hall of Science.
Much of Pughe’s time in Berkeley is spent with the Urban Scouts. They play. They dress up. They make things with her. They dress in mermaid-tail slankets (blankets with sleeves). They pick and bag lemons and take them to neighbors. They have tea. They assemble hygiene packets that will be given to the homeless at the Berkeley Free Clinic. They now now making British fascinators, a form of formal headwear worn as an alternative to the hat, usually a large decorative design attached to a band or clip.
Her backyard is dedicated to childhood imagination.
This is the Clubhouse and open-air Farmers’ Market. Building and painting it, Pughe was inspired by photographs of homes in disappearing rural Central Europe. She drew from Suzanne Slesin’s Mittel Europa: Rediscovering the Style and Design of Central Europe and Bert Teunissen’s Domestic Landscapes.
This is the Pirate Cove, behind a Meyer lemon tree. The green bin contains buried treasure.
The pièce de résistance is Fairyland at the top of the backyard.
Pughe and her Urban Scouts made this papier mâché castle. Pughe made the tree with her artist friend Alice Rubenstein.
Brio train track runs all around Fairyland, around the castle and through the tree.
They also made this popsicle-stick carousel, which merrily goes around. This was made from some little plastic animals given to Pughe by her artist friend Brad Evans – among them a dinosaur, a blue horse, and a red pony.
There are hundreds of artificial flowers and dozens of little tableaux in Fairyland. Rigid adherence to scale is not an issue.
Inside the house, Pughe’s creativity lights things up.
This is the Fairy Bakery. You might notice that the fairies use bottle caps for the pie crust.
This is a “death quilt” that Pughe bought in Iowa. When a man dies, pieces are cut from his clothing and stitched into a quilt. The clothing used is often a wool suit.
In Iowa, Pughe has created the Miniature Museum of Natural History and Laboratory, a 1:12 scale-set of displays housed in suitcases that can easily be set up to resemble a small museum from the 19th century. She has several miniature dioramas here, these 1:144 scale.
One last piece of quirky creativity: the Amador Atom.
Pughe writes the following about the building of the Amador Atom: “I built my own humble funkadelic vehicle with a nine-year-old neighbor. We made it from a toilet seat and pair of crutches — and then, because some adults wanted to sit on it, made it extra sturdy and used wheelbarrow wheels. It has Flintstone power (it rolls downhill) and lever brakes (from a Boy Scout manual), with a golf umbrella for a hood, and rope that unspools off the back to tow a skateboarder like a water skier. It has a million design flaws which we hid with red and black paint (!), and then afterwards we found this cool car in the UK called the Ariel Atom (six are made a year by a small company) which has a crutches-side panel too (!) 😉 So we called it the Amador Atom — it sits under a dustcover in the garage and I’ve been trying to find a cool dad who wants to add a motor for their kid if you know of anyone who fits the bill.”
When I first posted about the small-world village in the front yard, I didn’t know that it was only the tip of the iceberg. Now that I have seen the Clubhouse and Pirate Cove and Fairyland and Fairy Bakery and Death Quilt and miniature lab and miniature cabinet of curiosities, I know that I have still only seen the tip of the iceberg of Pughe’s quirky creativity.
And… I haven’t even touched on the quirk that husband Jon Winet produces.
Iowa can have Pughe and Winet for the academic year, but they are ours. They belong to, and define, Quirky Berkeley.
Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,000 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-plus-year resident muses on what it all means. Longer and more idiosyncratic versions of this post may be seen at Quirky Berkeley, here and here.