I have to take my hat off to this guy. There are people in this world who dream and talk– then there are guys like Randy Polumbo who are actually living the dream, and walking the talk. His life may not speak to those of us that dream of master-planned communities, designer goods, & fancy friends– but if you’re someone that can appreciate beauty formed from an artist’s careful eye, a crafter’s honest hand, and a reverence for history, humanity and the planet that came before us– then this may speak to you.
Why keep consuming, creating demand for more disposable products, and adding to our planet’s endless landfills when there are plenty of reusable resources all around us? I need to get off my soapbox and be more like Randy– who bought and expanded a home out of what most people would consider trash.
“In Joshua Tree,” Ms. Magnuson said, “everything gets reconstituted. It’s certainly a place where the concept of outsider art is in, and Randy polishes it to a high sheen.”
Mr. Polumbo arrived in 2004 for a one-month artist’s residency at a ranger’s station in the Joshua Tree National Park. He had been making art out of found items, wind-up mechanisms that he turned into puckish and lovely whirligigs and gizmos.
In the park, he said, “I got interested in how Native Americans made stuff with just sand and fire.” He began casting glass, from bottles and telegraph insulators he found in the desert, into natural shapes: corn, for example, or insect shapes like a mosquito hawk or a cockroach. (Roaches have been a persistent theme for Mr. Polumbo: in the 1980s, when he was attending the Cooper Union, he said, he liked to catch the roaches in his apartment on Avenue D and gold-leaf them.)
Mr. Polumbo also got hooked on the area. After he finished his residency, he bought a couple of acres in nearby Burns Canyon, where he fashioned a house out of shipping containers and a restored 1937 trailer. His daughter, Nico LeMoal Polumbo, now 11, called it “Boring Land” until she met a snake or two and tried out the giant porch swing he’d hung from two beams.
He soon fell in love with a local artist and musician, Shari Elf, with whom he started a gallery, Art Queen, on Twentynine Palms Highway. (On April 11, a show of Ms. Magnuson’s work — 30 pieces made in 30 days — opens there.) He completed another residency at the national park, and began to commute at least once a month from Manhattan. He was not in town, however, in early July 2006, when a wildfire destroyed 61,000 acres in San Bernardino County, including his container-house compound in Burns Canyon. “The name should have tipped me off,” he said.
In 2007, Mr. Polumbo bought this property — 2 1/2 acres and a tiny rock cabin — for $120,000, at the height of the market. From the front porch, he noted the constant breeze and the presence of a huge cactus that looked like either a prop in a Road Runner cartoon or a giant phallus, depending on your point of view. “Given the nature of my work, it seemed like an omen,” he said.
The shack had been hand-built as a weekend place by “a crazy-in-love couple” named Bob and Lu Ferry, Mr. Polumbo said, according to the seller, a grandchild. Pennies embedded in the mortar recorded their progress from 1938 to 1942. A bronze plaque stamped with the words “A Place in the Sun Ferryhaven” stolen by a neighbor, was returned after Mr. Polumbo moved in. “When we met, he said, ‘You’re pretty cool — you should have it back,’ ” Mr. Polumbo recalled.
In all likelihood, the house is an early example of a “jackrabbit homestead,” the collective name for a hand-built or prefabricated cabin erected on a five-acre plot sold by the government for a nominal fee between 1938 and the 1960s, as a result of the Small Tract Act of 1938. (Kim Stringfellow, an artist and associate professor at San Diego State University who is working on a cultural history of the homesteads, explained that the act was part of an effort “to dispose of so-called useless land,” and that the structures provided shade for the area’s ubiquitous jackrabbits, “who liked to lounge around them,” hence the name.)
When he bought the place, Mr. Polumbo planned only to install a septic system and fix some holes, he said, “to make a crash pad of the most rustic variety.” But he started sketching and lugging stuff around, and shipping things out from New York, and the project began growing.
To snatch some northern light, he built an 18-foot-high addition with a clerestory. In it is the kitchen, the living room and his bedroom, along with a loft level that serves as a guest room. The new bits have something of a “Lost in Space” vibe, which largely derives from a serpentine room divider and a sofa made of rocks and mortar, upholstered in a midcentury textile.
“I had very specific rules,” Mr. Polumbo said, “to use nothing new except steel — it’s already a recycled material. And no paint and no Sheetrock.”
A few weeks ago, Scott Monteith, the local artist, was painstakingly washing the dust off the blooms in “The Garden and Grotto of Manifest Destiny,” an installation of Mr. Polumbo’s that features glowing festoons of Easter-egg-colored rubber toys set inside a 1980s-era military vehicle. If you don’t get too close, its “blossoms” look like a fantastic Martian garden. (It is fitted with 6,000 L.E.D.’s, and powered by solar panels.) The “Grotto” has been a hard-working art piece: it traveled to the Burning Man festival in August and to Art Basel Miami Beach in December. Now it is powering Mr. Polumbo’s house through an extension cord.
The architect Lee Mindel, who described Mr. Polumbo’s contracting as “three-dimensional sculpture,” observed that under his “buttoned-up, churchlike demeanor is the most wonderfully demented, obsessive and thorough mind.”
Recently, Mr. Polumbo’s mother, Sarah Zacks, a former bookstore owner, was visiting from her home in Providence, R.I. Ms. Zacks was knitting her son a pair of socks in desert colors and remembering his earliest creations: boats made of the wax from Mini Babybel cheeses and twigs.
“He could do anything,” she said.