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 circleoflifestudio.com
Traditionally one would bury a bathtub halfway into the ground before transforming it into a shrine and it would stay in same location permanently. Since our bathtubs grottoes will be moving to a second location after they are transformed, we are building sturdy wooden stands for the tubs so they can be moved without any major excavation. Thankfully I found a local woodworker, Tim Hitzler of Dubuque Reclaimed Woodworks, who was ready to take on the task of building wooden standsto help with the project. On New Years Day my friend Jeff Downs lopped off the end of the first bathtub to make it easier to install onto the wooden base. I took a time-lapse of the bathtub chop.
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!