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In the 1930s, an electric substation rose up at 3701 Grooms Street, intending to bring the new utility to all of North Austin. But by 2008, the substation was overhauled with equipment for a new smart electric grid, which placed its massive transmission structures outdoors and created a local eyesore. Neighborhood associations complained, and the City of Austin’s Art in Public Places organization decided to do something about it. They commissioned local artist Berthold Haas to cover the eyesore with a wall of whimsy.
With the help of the neighborhood, Berthold crafted the wall: a participatory masterpiece composed of molded cement, mirror balls, pieces of antique glass dishes, karst stones, aggregates, slag glass, shells, petrified wood, marbles, repurposed ceramic disk insulators, and old substation hardware.
Berthold's interpretation of 'whimsy' is unconventional, to say the least. His art is reminiscent of the kind of fairy tales you could find by the Brothers Grimm. A look into his past reveals where his sense of whimsy got its particular twist. Berthold grew up in the aftermath of WWII. His childhood reality was filled with streets littered with ammunition and cities destroyed by bombs (it was then that the idea of found things made an impression on the boy). However, like many children, he was sent out of the city to stay with his grandparents where he would be safe. He often escaped into his imagination to cope with his dreary day-to-day life. Little did he know that he would bring his inner worlds to life one day, right here in Texas.
Despite the grim reality of his own childhood, Berthold created this splendid adventure-land where local children can test their imaginations. He took elements from the post-war era and transformed them into a playful and hopeful space for Austin.
What is so interesting about this “pocket park” and its junk art, you may ask?
First, the concept of reusing and repurposing yesterday’s garbage, digging up seemingly innocuous objects, and breathing into them new life. This trend began with Pablo Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning. It is a concept that draws the public eye to questions of sustainability.
Second, if you’ve never heard of junk art, you may want to sign up! DIY projects and upcycling aren’t merely about saving money; they’re about saving our communities from becoming awash in garbage.
As you watch children play and old women picnic in this little Austin park, you might consider what you can upcycle next -- whether it’s using kitchen debris for compost, repurposing that old picture frame, or reusing plastic food containers for flower pots. Why not? As they say, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
After all, giving new ideas a chance to grow is what keeps Austin weird.
Cover photo credit: @iiskk via Instagram