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In the Labyrinth of Richart's Ruins

At Harrison Avenue East and M Street in Centralia, bizarre black-and-white spires rise from behind the fence of a peculiar corner lot. The structures are—to drastically understate it—quite distinctive in this modest working class neighborhood. Are they a Martian city? A colossal Rube Goldberg contraption? Hell erupting through the Earth?

In fact, they're the homespun handiwork of the property's owner, Richard Tracy, a self-styled art educator with plenty of time to spare and unconventional ideas about what constitutes art. Tracy converted his property into a personal folk art paradise using a multitude of junk scraps that include glass, wire, bike parts, reflectors and lots and lots of polystyrene (better known by its trademarked name, Styrofoam).

Tracy's property is known as the Centralia Art Yard, or—more popularly—Richart's Ruins. (Richart being an alternate spelling of his first name that Tracy adopted.) This place is legendary among folk artists and oddity-seeking day trippers. It's even insured by Lloyd's of London; Tracy had to resort to the world-famous specialty insurer.

This apprehension is typical of certain others who look at Tracy with more confusion than appreciation. Many of his neighbors seem to harbor a cynical opinion of him. They see him as the local eccentric, the old man who began creating this his “art” at age 50 during a stay in a psychiatric ward. Who, after his release, spent the next 20-plus years destroying his yard and imperiling neighborhood property values.

In other words, they just don't get it! “In 20 years, the neighbors have never come over,” Tracy laments with more than a hint of frustration.

But this shunning is made up for by the many out-of-towners who drop by to admire his yard. On the purported last day of his loosely followed May-to-September “open yard” season, I was one of those visitors, and he agreed to give me a guided tour.

As we walked among polystyrene monoliths, makeshift scrap-metal frames, plywood art walls, and countless indescribable flights of fancy, Tracy's conversations were as erratic and meandering as the narrow, maze-like confines of his yard. As with his art, much of Tracy's gab has to be interpreted in a grand-scheme context, rather than trying to understand each seemingly random thought.

He mentioned his endeavors in art education here at his house, where on occasion he mentors up to five students for 55 minutes, for $5 each. I asked him about his much-reported obsession with the number five. As it turns out, it's not so much an obsession as a conscious ploy to reinforce his eccentric reputation. “I was selling some of my stuff in Portland [Oregon] and somebody asked about my work. I said that I never spend more than five hours on any project, or sell anything for more than $5. And he said, 'Oh, that's interesting, this number five thing you have.' I hadn't noticed it before! If he hadn't said that, I might've missed it!”

He guided me to some of his own favorite art. He pointed out a display of several bicycle helmets, all adorned with various knick-knacks. Crafting these became a tradition when participants in the annual Seattle-to-Portland bike race began stopping by en route. Tracy wears one for the day and then “retires” it (i.e., puts it on display next to the others and hopes that no one breaks them).

Then there's the piece with a World War II-era striker frame. At one time it was used to turn over injured soldiers while keeping them stretched out. Now a mummy-like mannequin lies within it, integrated aesthetically with a polystyrene-and-plywood backdrop.

On another plywood wall, a chime box is cleverly disguised as one of many polystyrene blocks attached to it. “My wife rings it from inside the house if I'm out here and she happens to need anything,” he explained.

Then there's the art-covered camping trailer Tracy naps in with his dogs, when the rigors of creating art wear him out.

Perhaps his most prized possession is in the very back of the yard: a polystyrene sculpture that he keeps behind Plexiglas. A 10-year-old girl, a one-time student of his, created it.

Why all this polystyrene? It's the perfect medium for outdoor crafts. As frustrated environmentalists will attest, it takes forever to degrade. It blocks moisture, yet mildew can grow on it. Tracy loves the implied concept: man and nature collaborating to create art. In fact, he considers nature the ultimate art, as evidenced by his examination of a stray blade of grass at the base of one of his pieces. “Now this is real art!” he exclaimed enthusiastically, admiring its texture.

The more time I spent in Tracy's universe considering his chaotic visions and listening to his unusual perspectives on art, life and human nature, the more his eccentricities seemed to melt away into an appealing logic. Unlike his neighbors, I got it: at his core, the man is all about uncompromising, full-steam-ahead self-expression. At the end of my visit, as I waved a sincerely appreciative goodbye from my car, the world beyond Richart's Ruins seemed a bit more drab than I remembered.

Weird Washington


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