On most nice days in Sebastopol, a small, mellow city in California Wine Country, the Florence Avenue oglers are easy to spot. They move slowly, on foot or in cars, the better to study 26 large, chortle-inducing, recycled junk sculptures rising from assorted front yards.
A frazzled waitress races across an inverted mug, arms loaded with breakfast plates and a coffee pot. A leering turquoise caterpillar tokes on a hookah that started life as a Moroccan brass lamp. Elsewhere, a seductive mermaid lies sideways on a tail of multihued blue scales made from countless applesauce can lids.
This mad cavalcade of 3-D cartoonery stretches along the quiet, hilly residential street where lovely Victorians, bungalows and cottages incongruously meet recycled industrial and domestic detritus.
Think water heaters, eggbeaters, electric meters, winery vats, hubcaps, watering cans, chandeliers, oil drums, toaster ovens, shovel heads and shock absorbers.
In a world rocked by war, disease and toxic politics, not to mention raging wildfires that mercifully spared Sebastopol last year, the eco-wacko statuary offers welcome relief.
Behind the whimsy are a pair of Canadian-born artists — self-described “junk sculptor” Patrick Amiot, 58, and his wife, Brigitte Laurent, 56. They’ve collaborated for decades on works ranging in size from delicate tabletop figurines to imposing outdoor installations.
In 1986, they created a 100-square-foot mural celebrating British Columbia for the Expo in Vancouver. In 2016, they finished a $1 million, solar powered, Canada-centric carousel for the city of Markham, Ontario, near Toronto.
But Sebastopol is home. Since arriving with their daughters in 1997, they have created 300 public and private pieces in and around the city, including a 12-inch Florence Avenue angel and a 12-foot fisherman beached on their lawn to lure art buyers.
Amiot does the design and fabrication, Laurent applies sublimely ridiculous paint jobs and daughter Mathilde, 27, helps with welding. Heeding a different muse, daughter Ursule, 25, is a chef in Oregon. All four became dual citizens of Canada and the United States in 2014.
“I’m like the immigrant who comes here and the sky’s the limit. You paint your house, you paint your car, you paint everything,” he said. When things go really well, he buys real estate.
At Amiot’s sprawling “Rat Dale Country Club” on Gravenstein Highway, he works, displays salvaged treasures, stashes tons of junk organized by a paid “librarian” and leases cheap space to artists and start-ups. He also has an arts building in nearby Santa Rosa, Calif., and a Toronto art dealer who sells the couple’s pricier work.
Success hardly came overnight. Early penury almost forced the family from Sebastopol to Costa Rica to open a pizza joint. To train for the move, they offered free practice pies made in an oven created from junk. Their Florence Avenue neighbors liked the food and loved the work. They stayed put and prospered.
“I owe everything to this street,” Amiot said. “They bought my art, and that was my born-again thing, being part of a tightknit culture” like the one the family had in Canada.
His first front-yard statue, the aforementioned angler, went up without a city permit. No one complained, although no one bought it, either. On Sept. 10, 2001, Amiot replaced it with a version of the Statue of Liberty. After the next day’s terrorist attacks, he added a sign: “In memory of the all the innocents who died on 9/11 . . .”
“A woman came over and hugged me. People left flowers and notes as a patriotic thing. It became a shrine,” Amiot said. After Lady Liberty was bought and sent to Reno, Nev., simultaneous successors appeared: Godzilla, made from a Volkswagen hood; a cheesy used-car dealer; a flag-waving astronaut; and a silver chaise longue resembling a giant toothpaste tube. (Street pieces start at $2,000).
Neighbors gladly showcased loaners. When those sold, Amiot installed new ones. In 2013, the grateful artists gave the statues to their pro bono gallerists. The couple also donates works to local schools and nonprofit organizations.
Last fall, after parts of Santa Rosa were leveled by blazes, he put a towering firefighter on his property to honor first responders. A large “thank you” is written across a fuel tank topped by a fireman and his red truck. “We all came pretty close to burning. We all know somebody who lost everything, and if it wasn’t for these thousands of firemen. . .” Amiot says, his voice dropping. “I do a lot of sculptures, but that one is maybe the most powerful.”
Amiot and Laurent also do a brisk trade in quirky commercial pieces. A spiky porcupine touts Sebastopol Community Acupuncture on Gravenstein Highway and a bespectacled pooch reads in an easy chair at Copperfield’s Books on Main Street.
But Florence Avenue remains the prime Amiot/Laurent gallery. On a bright summer afternoon, tourists Denise and Steve Teixeira of San Jose were charmed. “It’s beautiful, and it’s free,” Denise said.
Several years back, Amiot put up a gate to keep fans from barging into the house, which — no surprise! — boasts highly trippy interiors. Brigitte painted the dining-room floor neon green with a maniacal yellow sun. He built a four-poster bed using tall, spent acetylene tanks as uprights, as well as a chair from half a bathtub.
But there is more to Sebastopol than junk art. Just 40 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, the city of 7,500 exudes a laid-back, aging-hippie vibe. It’s a perfect detour for those on the mindful, wineful circuit of Sonoma and Napa counties.
Nuke free, of course, and politically and socially liberal, Sebastopol became home to emigres after San Francisco’s 1967 “summer of love” counterculture invasion.
“I was pregnant and wanted to get out of there and raise my son in the country. It was more about the back-to-the-land movement than art back then. It was about digging in the dirt and being close to nature,” said Abby Bard, my longtime friend and fellow District native, who had spent 10 years in San Francisco communes before settling down five miles outside Sebastopol. In 1996, she came “into town” and bought a century-old Florence Avenue Victorian home where she works as weaver, writer and gardener.
“There was a lot of craft — fiber and clay — when I got here but Patrick really brought the art,” she said of her neighbor. Many of her friends are creative. They sew, paint, blow glass, make jewelry, teach yoga and dance.
The foodie scene is booming, from ambitious cafes and restaurants to the Barlow, a 13-acre market district whose local vendors sell flowers, clothing, art, soap, cheese and home goods. Beer is brewed, spirits are distilled and wine is made on the premises.
Nothing, however, quite captures Sebastopol’s zeitgeist like the free Wednesday night “Peacetown Concert” series in Ives Park, where you can’t go wrong wearing tie-dye. Hundreds of locals and tourists bring blankets, chairs, kids and dogs to groove on the music and savor their own picnics or food truck fare.
In 2016, the city honored Amiot for decades of good deeds, particularly the donated, movable “traffic cat” that police haul to dangerous intersections because its eyes light up to warn speeding drivers. One of the many officials saluted Amiot’s great embrace of “Sebstopol-ness, whatever that is.”
“We call our move here an irrational leap of faith,” the artist explains later. “It’s important to give back to the people around us. After 20 years, I owe this town so much more than they think. They were so open-minded. It was my dream of what America was. We could take a risk and play.”
Groer is a writer based in the District. Find her on Twitter: @anniegroer.
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6751 Sebastopol Ave.
Close to the Barlow, Laguna Wetlands Preserve, and downtown shopping and dining. The hotel’s Coffee Catz cafe is a local favorite. Room from $189, suites from $329 during peak seasons.
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1101 Gravenstein Hwy.
Located three miles east of town, the rooms, studios and king suite feature airy, open floor plans. Rooms range from $150 to $310.
6948 Sebastopol Ave. (off Sebastopol Plaza)
Ramen Gaijin loosely means Japanese noodles in broth made by foreigners — to wit, two American chefs. Lunch is ramen only, with gluten-free and vegan options. At night, half the charming eatery offers creative izakaya, or small plates. Extensive local wine, beer and spirits lists available. Izakaya runs between $3.50 and $15; ramen bowls, $17.
7385 Healdsburg Ave.
This noted Cal-Ital restaurant has been around for 20 years. Lunch and dinner are lovely, but try the creative weekday breakfast fare, including eggs, pizza, smoked trout on sourdough or a steaming, macrobiotic bowl of grain plus protein and sauce (served at every meal). Breakfast mains from $9.50.
and Curry House
969 Gravenstein Hwy.
Organic Indian and Nepali food a mile from town. Start with veggie momo — dumplings stuffed with spiced eggplant, scallion, spinach and tofu — before moving on to fine entree choices. Starters run from $4 to $12; mains $13 to $17.
550 Gravenstein Hwy.
The gourmet food and wine store on the north side of town sells tasty prepared food and many local wines. But the real draw is the barbecued ribs, which are smoked and sold in the parking lot on weekends — $12 for a half-rack of baby backs, $20 for a full rack.
Sebastopol Bike Center
6731 Sebastopol Ave.
Rent wheels at this shop next to the Joe Rodota Riding and Biking Trail. Guided and self-directed wine country bike tours are also available. Pay $35 a day for casual cruisers, $65 for road bikes, $100 for electric models.
Ives Park, 7400 Willow St.
For more than 25 years, the nonprofit Mr. Music Foundation, created by music teacher and performer Jim Corbett, has provided free musical opportunities for the community, including the Peacetown summer series. Corbett, who plays flute and guitar, exhorts the crowds to make their world a kinder, more musical place. Free shows from 5 to 8 p.m. every Wednesday, July 4 through Sept. 12.
The Barlow Culinary and Arts Center
6770 McKinley St.
You can find great shopping, eating and drinking by local Sonoma County artisans in this large complex. Dozens of vendors sell items such as fresh flowers and cheeses, Tibetan art and South American yerba mate.
Sebastopol Center for the Arts
282 S. High St.
Enjoy juried exhibits, a documentary film fest and the twice-yearly Art Trails tours of local studios. Local artists’ jewelry, ceramics, cards, paintings, wood, metalwork and fiber creations are for sale in the center’s gift shop.