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Suburban Burning Man: A weird, art-encrusted cottage on an ordinary street

A. Clarke Bedford sits on the front steps of his art-encrusted house in Hyattsville, Md., known as “Vanadu.” (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

His front door slowly creaked open and a woman walked into his living room with four of her friends closely behind her.

“Are you open?” she asked A. Clarke Bedford, who was sitting in that living room of his, drinking coffee, still in his pajamas.

“And I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ ” said Bedford, 71, because he understands that this is life once you’ve been listed as a Maryland State Oddity.

Bedford’s modest 1914 clapboard cottage just outside the District in Hyattsville is a tiny wonder on an otherwise ordinary strip of American suburbia.

It’s a house totally encrusted with metal, glass and tossed objects painted, molded, bolted, twisted, sawed and drilled into art, like a coral reef that has grown more complex, sculptural and fantastical over the years. It’s Burning Man done by a man who has never been to Burning Man.

The rise of Burning Man

“I’m sort of a homebody,” he said.

I think Bedford wants to play curmudgeon. He spent decades in the machinery of America’s official art world. He was a conservator at the Hirshhorn Museum, where he worked meticulously on some of humankind’s modern masterpieces — Mondrians and de Koonings, Mirós and Homers.

He preserved them and restored them, a master of staying within the narrow confines of other people’s work.

Meanwhile, he was raising a family and working on some of his own art, mostly vintage-style photographs that are delightful and absurd. A row of Kewpie dolls styled to look like Egyptian Abu Simbel rock temples. A Victorian-era vampire dressed as a ballerina, Nosferatutu. The Washington Post reviewed one of his shows in 1994:

“It takes great technical and historical knowledge to pull off this feat. Bedford obviously has both. For example, his shadow-drenched ‘Humpty Dumpty at Notre Dame,’ in which an eggheaded statue replaces the usual brooding gargoyle, caricatures Charles Nègre’s seminal 1850s series on the architectural details of Notre Dame.”

Twenty-five years later, he has the beard and the paint-splattered clothing and the profanity and the touch of snark. But he’s really too funny and generous to be intimidating.

When you walk into his living room, as those guests did, it’s hard to focus on any one thing. It’s hard to speak, even. There is a Venus of Willendorf, clowns, skulls, antlers, horned helmets and rusty saw blades, then doll arms and doll heads, figurines, vases and teapots bolted to the ceiling like stalactites, giving you a slight sense of vertigo. It’s weird, absurd and amusing.

Much of Bedford’s philosophy can be embodied in a yellow chicken cookie jar on display.

“It’s realism on top, see,” he says as he shows off the ceramic lid with a perfect, proud chicken head, the comb, the wattles, the puffed breast. “And then down here, it’s this cubist thing.”

And indeed, the country kitsch chicken’s lower half is all cubist brutalism with a touch of Picasso’s take on the chicken butt.

Meow Wolf is coming to the nation’s capital! Wait, Meow what?

I can try to describe what Bedford does. Outsider art, folk art, dadaism, steampunk, Victorian modernism all with an upcycling ethos?

It’s hard to describe. He drove one of his art cars in a recent parade. Everyone loved it, but what was it?

The city of Hyattsville awarded him the “Best Appearing Individual” a year ago. The vague plaque is proudly displayed by a creepy clown and a skull-on-a-spike sculpture.

How about this — it’s just fun. Like the cubist chicken butt.

His work looks like an old city skyline or a dystopian robot from far away, but when you get closer, your eyes untangle that it’s a baby-doll arm, an antler, a teapot, a Bundt pan, a gear, Victrola parts and a globe. Ha!

It’s a hoot to look at.

“It’s possibly the most altruistic thing I’ve done,” Bedford said.

The house is phase two.

It began with cars. A single car, his temperamental Saab, which he ripped apart and retrofitted with bumpers from a Model A. There. That was better.

And then he couldn’t stop. He has six cars now — the Saab, as well as a van, a bus, a Volkswagen Beetle, a Volvo and a Chevy Caprice wagon. All of them are drivable. Not practical, though. When he recently sawed into his thumb and had to drive himself to the hospital, he had to consider which car would fit into the parking garage. None of them, really.

“But I made a collapsing spire on the Bug, so I took that one. I folded it down,” he said of the Beetle. “It’s a stick shift, though, so I was bleeding and shifting and trying to get myself there.”

When Bedford drives around town in the art cars, he can see the reactions — the smiles, the laughs, the waves, the quick snaps.

“It’s like being a beautiful person,” he said.

I had the privilege of watching his artistic expression bloom because one of Bedford’s neighbors is a friend of my son’s.

The kid lives in the 3800 block of Nicholson Street, just a couple of doors down from Bedford. And when I first started dropping my son off for play dates around 2010, we always stopped to look at the art car during pickup. Back then, Bedford was still working at the museum. Over the years, we saw that he added a little sculpture near the fire hydrant, then he added another car. He and his wife divorced, his children moved out. And in 2013, when he retired, kaboom! The art exploded.

There’s the fence around his house and the front yard, side yards and backyard. His porch, his living room, the ceilings and walls, the spare bedroom, the kitchen and bathroom, the stairwell.

The backyard has huge, kinetic sculptures that move with the wind. He had a ladder propped against the outside’s second story, because he’s starting to run out of room and has to work upward.

“Sometimes I dream of just putting it all in a container and moving somewhere off the grid, where I can just keep going and going,” he said. “But then, it’s context, right? It’s all about context being here.”

Bingo. It’s the beauty of finding this incredible supernova burst of creativity on a street with construction workers, journalists, lawyers, recent immigrants and yapping dogs. It’s the fireworks of an artist’s mind in an unremarkable suburb of the nation’s capital.

He’s in an area zoned for an art district. And his neighbors seem to have no quarrel with his growing display.

So the artist relentlessly created, moving inside and out with the weather.

I asked him what he’ll do when he runs out of room.

And he slides his finger over his throat.

I am horrified.

“Nah, I’ll probably just have to go smaller and smaller,” he said, then laughed and laughed.

Twitter: @petulad

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