James McMahon, with some of the art he created in a clearing behind his house in the Palisades area of Northwest Washington. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

My girlfriend and I took a stroll in her Palisades neighborhood and she wanted to show me the “Glass Garden.” There’s a part of the woods near the Palisades Recreation Center where folks have created some random art with bike parts, broken mirrors, bamboo, etc. It’s like a local go-to outdoor art spot and seems people have done their own thing over a long time. How old is this? Was it started by some artistic entrepreneurs?

Thomas Burr, Washington

Some time in 1992, Dale Johnson started noticing an odd assemblage of items on the basement workbench of her husband, James McMahon: broken shards of mirrored glass, mainly.

“I was like, ‘I don’t know what this is. I’m not asking any questions,’ ” Dale told Answer Man.

Then one day, James said to Dale, “I want to show you something.”

James took her to the woods behind their house in the Palisades, the leafy, porch-rich neighborhood overlooking the Potomac in Northwest Washington.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my god. What’s going to happen out in the woods?’ ” Dale said. “Then I came upon this magical scene. I said, ‘You’ve been doing this all this time, and I never knew it.’

“It was pretty amazing.”

Bits of mirror hung from the branches of a tree. As they twisted in the breeze, they reflected shafts of light and fractals of greenery. The glittery tree was the first component of what has come to be known as “The Shrine.”

That’s the title of this assemblage of outsider art — well, outside art, anyway. James didn’t set out with that name in mind, but everyone else started calling it that, and it stuck. “The Shrine” is in a clearing on some city-owned land just south of the rec center at 5200 Sherier Pl. NW.

“This used to be the highlight,” James told Answer Man on a recent morning near the mirrored tree. “There were twice as many mirrors.”

In the 25 years since he started “The Shrine,” James has added to it. Hanging from horizontal fence posts are large wind chimes made from lengths of bamboo, bicycle frames, spatulas, plumbing pipes, rake tines, the heads of golf clubs and other bits of castoff metal.

A tumbled tree trunk has been carved like a totem pole. There’s an interesting chunk of wood suspended in a tripod made of bamboo stalks. The wood is shaped like a whale vertebra.

“Now people drop stuff off,” James said. “I did mirrors on the tree, and it grew.”

James trained as an economist. When he began “The Shrine,” he was working at the Congressional Research Service. Too many people, he thinks, believe that if they’re not trained to do something, they shouldn’t do it.

“You should be able to do art even if you’re not going to make any money,” he said. “The fact that people think they have to make a living is what leads people astray.”

His desire to create a meditative place in a busy urban environment led him outside.

“It’s a peaceful alcove,” said James, 60, who now helps his wife at the Watergate Gallery, a gallery and frame shop on Virginia Avenue NW that she’s owned for 30 years.

Others have put their mark on “The Shrine.” A while back, James came out and found that a tree in the center of the clearing had been festooned with dozens of bras — all sizes, all colors. A sign affixed to the tree read: “Go Free Bra Tree.

“A neighbor said, ‘I see your work has taken a different stance,’ ” James said. (He explained that it wasn’t him.)

Dale said she was sitting on her back porch once, looking at “The Shrine” across the grassy stretch that was once the trolley line to Glen Echo, when she saw 40 or 50 people walk into the clearing following a woman who was holding an umbrella. It was a tour group.

James said the character of “The Shrine” changes in the seasons. Winter after a snowfall is a good time to be back there. This summer has been tough on it. “Slimy,” is how James describes the weather. He knows the various installations could use some sprucing up, but days that have been hot, wet and full of mosquitoes have not been conducive to puttering among the trees.

“Things break down,” he said, meaning the flotsam and jetsam that make up “The Shrine.”

And then we build them up again.

Questions, please

Seen something in the Washington area that made you scratch your head? Let Answer Man get to the bottom of things. Send your query to answerman@washpost.com.

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