Virgin Mary grotto, hot tub, and hut in Eagle River, WI

This past summer I was very lucky to have encountered the beautiful work of Debra Ketchum Jircik and her husband Greg Jircik on their property in Eagle River, WI. They were inspired by Howard Finster, Fred Smith, and other folk and outsider artists. Debra is a native of Milwaukee and has worked in a variety of mediums throughout her artistic career. Her current creative focus is in paper making and her practice reflects her interest in minimizing her environmental impact.  You can find out more about her and view her work on her website

Bathtub grotto updates

Doing some major catching up here! I finally have a real studio space at Dubuque's new maker space, Key City Creative Center , and while major life changes have gotten in the way of me being able to put in major time (yet), I have been able to make a good chunk of progress on some of the tubs. I also recently sold one to The Smokestack in Dubuque which is on display in their new "pocket garden". The interior of the tub still needs to be finished, and as per request of the owners, I will be filling the interior with broken mirror pieces, and pennies will cover the archway of the tub. 

Visit with family of Catherine Bastian - Dubuque area "ham can" grotto artist

A few weeks ago on my way driving back from a bathtub-grotto demonstration at the Antique Spectacular Show in Cedar Falls I spotted a stunning construction on the front lawn of an old farm house of Highway 20 while passing through the tiny town of Earlville, Iowa. Somehow I had driven past this house countless times over the past 5 years or so and never noticed it until now. I left a note in the mailbox asking for more information about the grotto and eventually received calls back from the creator's niece and nephew.  They informed me that their aunt Catherine had created 7 large grottoes like the one I saw in addition to 900 small grottoes made from cans of ham!  This was thrilling news to me because I had purchased a ham-can grotto from Goodwill years ago and despite my best efforts had been unable to find any clues about it's origins. In fact, the little grotto was a major catalyst for my project in the first place, and helped me to connect with my project partner, Tracy, who also owned a ham can grotto. (note: I have been unable to find any of the additional large grottoes, and they may not still be in existence. ) I hope to follow up with the family and potentially do a filmed interview.

The challenges of working with extremely heavy materials

I must admit- when I first embarked on this project I had no experience working with concrete, mortar, or bathtubs. I had never picked up a bag of mortar or cement. I had certainly never tried lifting a cast iron bathtub. If i had known how heavy they were, I might have been chickened out.  This is almost embarrassing to write, but I had originally envisioned myself working on the concrete and cast iron grottoes in my second floor apartment studio.  How naive... I thought- what could be so heavy that two grown men can't carry it out? They've carried sofas out!

Oh....How wrong I was...

I thought I would be able to start working on my bathtubs right away- but it became clear as soon as we collected the bathtubs that they were not going upstairs- and since I would be adding hundreds more pounds of weight- it was necessary that I find out where they are going to go before I created a potentially unmovable 700? pound sculpture. I'm used to working on things spontaneously- by myself- wherever I want. This project is very different and I needed to be strategic- I wanted to avoid using my funds to move these objects more often then necessary.

I had always envisioned the bathtub grottoes in Washington Park. It's centrally located downtown between the historical post office and the Dubuque Museum of Art. Washington Park hosts tons of public events throughout the year, including one of Dubuque's biggest arts events, DubuqueFest. I thought maybe this could be a live, public event during DubuqueFest- what better way to ensure tons of visibility and public interaction? Fair-goers could learn about grottoes, donate their own materials to be used in one, and watch one being built- and maybe even help build it. I thought the Dubuque Museum of Art might be a great partner for this project so I approached them with idea and they agreed ! Exciting.

"Washington Park Gazebo Dubuque" by Dirk Hansen - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons


Typically bathtub shrines are buried halfway, vertically, into the ground- but we wanted to avoid the trouble of digging giant holes in public property- especially since at this point we don't officially have permission to keep the bathtubs there past DubuqueFest (I am in the process of applying for a permit to display them for at least a few months after the event).

So my next issue was figuring out how to create some kind of stand for the bathtubs- I was eventually connected with woodworker Tim Hitzler, who also happens to be my neighbor. He agreed to help build wooden stands so the bathtubs could be held upright. In fact, in the process of me writing this blog post Tim texted to me to tell me that the first stand for the first bathtub stand is completed! I am going to be headed over there tomorrow morning to experiment grottifying a chunk of bathtub...wish me luck! I will be posting more details on the materials I decided to use and how everything goes. I'll probably bring my GoPro over to take a time-lapse.

Madeline Buol Grotto

My mind is totally blown by Dubuque grotto-maker Madeline Buol's work which I just discovered back in October while researching online (I've never heard anyone in Dubuque mention her). Previously located on Garfield St in Dubuque, the works are currently part of collection of The Kohler Foundation in Wisconsin. Discoveries like these are part of the reason I embarked on this project. Amazing and inspiring.

You can read more about the preservation of site here. And see more pictures on my site Grotto Sites page here.

"Mary XYZ" Grotto in Galena

Back in October I got to visit the mythed "Mary XYZ" basement grotto, which is inside the basement of a privately owned home in Galena, Illinois. (Thank you to the home's current owners who were kind enough to let me snoop around) !  The grotto was built by a woman named Olivia Perrault, probably in the 1930s. She lived from 1876-1952. The details of her story are somewhat hazy-  the owners believe that she wanted to become a nun, but her father would not allow it. There may have been some type of heartbreak involved- whatever the case may be, she was spotted in her later years walking the streets of Galena dressed as a nun, and may have had a disconcerting impression on others… Somewhere along the line, she was dubbed "Mary XYZ"...which is how I first heard about her through a local antique store owner. This is not a flashy grotto, but contains many unexpected surprises- a colorful handmade flowerpot, a glass dog head- a piece from the World’s Fair (although we couldn’t find it during my visit). The grotto contains many ledges and gracefully arranged upturned seashells that I imagine were used as votive candle holders, and it's easy to imagine the grotto at night, only lit by the atmospheric flicker of candlelight, being used a meditative prayer chamber.


My favorite spot was a windowsill containing a collection of marbles surrounded by many small pieces of weathered glass points. The more I look at the scene, the more lifelike it becomes- the little glass points become little people in robes, gathered around a body of water (the marbles) The strange stone orbs jutting out from the sides of the windowsill peer over them. I might be reading too much into it, but for me it's the most captivating area.

Now that I’ve seen the grotto I’m only more curious- did she make it all by herself? How often did she spend time there?  Was she praying for something in particular? Perhaps some more information will come to light. And yes, in case you were wondering- the practically-minded owners of the house are currently using the space as an exercise room! They've owned the home for just over 3 years and the grotto was only incidental to their decision to purchase it. So while not exactly grotto fanatics, they are planning on keeping the grotto in tact and may even be adding some additions of their own. Head over to the Mary XYZ Grotto Page to see the rest of the photos!