Tucked away along an industrial stretch of Sun Valley pockmarked with warehouses, railroad tracks and vast parking lots is a collection of Old West sculptures that is prized by a clique of art lovers from around the world.
The admirers include the State of California, which honored the lifetime artworks of John Ehn by registering his collection as Historical Landmark No. 939. Visionary art curators also appreciate the work, which was feted recently at the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara. The exhibit, titled “Divine Disorder,” ended just in time for some of Ehn’s pieces to be shipped to the Oakland Museum for an upcoming display.
A nomination to the National Register of Historic Places might also be in the cards for Ehn’s collective works. Ehn was 84 when he died in 1981.
The fuss over Ehn’s work is noteworthy because some people might argue that it is not art. To the uninitiated, the artist’s creations do not look as if they belong in a museum.
Ehn’s work is not fine art, but folk art. Such works are often eccentric, rough-edged and misunderstood--the Edsel of the art world.
But fiercely loyal supporters defend the work of Ehn and other folk artists. “Someplace in your stomach, you know it’s wonderful,” said Seymour Rosen, director of SPACES, a national folk art organization based in Los Angeles.
When not on tour, Ehn’s artworks can be found at the Old Trappers Lodge. That’s the name Ehn gave to his Sun Valley property, where he ran a motel and rented low-income apartments until his death. Ehn, who was a professional trapper in the Midwest and West before ill health brought him to Southern California, devoted the last 25 years of his life to building a whimsical tableau of the Old West in his front yard.
He started his avocation by making larger-than-life statues of pioneer figures, which he lifted from Mormon biblical history and folk tales and songs.
One concrete pioneer is kidnaping a scantily clad woman. Not far away, a peg-legged cowboy and a blood-splattered Indian are locked in battle, with weapons at their feet. Across the yard, a ‘49er miner shares a park bench with a lady gunslinger, whose orange petticoat is showing.
Ehn also created a Boot Hill. Under the shade of avocado trees he erected homemade tombstones and one authentic one, which he picked up at a swap meet after its owner discovered that an illness wasn’t terminal after all. The tombstones hold lurid descriptions of how imaginary souls--such as Dead Beat Dan and Iron Foot Eva--met the same fate as Cold Deck Kogan.
The tombstone for Kogan tells of his quick demise:
Cold Deck Kogan (1836-1886) held 5 aces
Cowboy Kid held a gun
Judge Slaughter held an inquest
At the rising of the sun verdict--suicide.
Some of Ehn’s artwork seems just plain silly. A sign above what appears to be a snake pit warns the curious of “baby rattles.” But there aren’t any snakes inside--just infants’ rattles. Next to that display is a sign for the “Pontiac Spring.” Inside the shallow well rests a spring taken from a Pontiac automobile.
Old West Mooseum
The rental office--the family still runs the business--serves as the Old West Mooseum. The outside doubles as a coatrack of sorts, where Ehn hung mementos of his days as a government trapper--snowshoes, fishing gear, cast iron pots and pans, stretched hides and a totem pole.
Inside, the office is choked with stuff like yellowed historical photographs, antlers, a stuffed moose, and open diaries--boards upon which he affixed memorabilia, including the horseshoe off the horse he rode as a trapper in Minnesota and the nipple from a baby bottle that was used by one of his children.
“He had ideas that were farfetched but, as anyone can tell you, most artists are considered eccentric. They don’t live by other people’s standards,” said Rosemarie Farish, Ehn’s youngest daughter, the apartment’s manager.
10 Honored by State
Old Trappers Lodge is one of about 300 folk art environments known to exist across the country. There are 40 known folk art environments in California; Old Trappers Lodge is one of 10 honored by the state with historic landmark designations.
The honor was bestowed in 1981 after SPACES convinced skeptical state officials that folk art is a legitimate art form that should be honored and preserved.
“It was difficult and kind of wonderful that the state Office of Historic Preservation had enough insight and liberalness . . . to consider something else besides things that are usually considered of historical importance,” Rosen said.
The most famous folk art example in the Los Angeles area is Watts Towers, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, followed by Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village in Simi Valley. Old Trappers Lodge is third.
Ehn, called “O.T.” by most folks, was the sort of fellow who would turn heads in an elevator. His sartorial fondness for Western gear and his long white hair and goatee made him a Buffalo Bill look-alike. He pierced one ear, brightened his smile with a gold and ruby tooth and wore 20 to 30 turquoise rings on his fingers at one time. He told tall tales that would have made Paul Bunyan envious and found time to operate a correspondence school for trappers.
Although Ehn was a nonconformist, he fit the definition of a folk artist. Folk art environments are typically constructed by people who get a notion to create after they retire. It would never occur to most of them that they are artists. They usually have no formal art training and create with unconventional materials, using primitive techniques.
These visionaries are driven by a compulsion that they often have a hard time explaining to family and friends, who can only scratch their heads and wonder what got into grandma or grandpa.
Ehn’s family never did figure out exactly why Ehn created Trappers Lodge.
“A lot of his thinking and reasoning why went to his reward with him,” Farish said.
Ehn’s artistic career began after a trip to Knott’s Berry Farm in 1951. He hired a sculptor there to create a giant concrete statue of himself. After observing the sculptor at work for three days, he figured he had mastered the technique. That first statue depicting Ehn as a somber pioneer sits in the corner of his yard overlooking San Fernando Road.
His artwork was influenced by his lifetime motto: “Waste Not Want Not.” Into his art he wove objects that others most likely would have stuffed in a desk drawer, tossed under a bed or thrown in a garbage disposal. He had been known to use jelly packages from restaurants, for instance.