Bernadine Lodge thinks she probably inherited the gift from her grandfather, a master stone carver who chiseled bas-reliefs on French castles.
But the muse first stirred during the Great Depression when she read fairy tales to her young daughter. Long after her child slept, those visions still danced in her head.
Eventually, as the images grew brighter, their whispers more incessant, Lodge decided to make her inner world come alive.
Slowly, painstakingly, with wet cement, chicken wire, pastel paints and a wry, folk-art touch, she transformed her front yard in Eagle Rock into a fairy-tale land that teemed with hundreds of legendary characters.
Dragons, Maidens and Heroes
From her nimble fingers sprang liveried mice riding pumpkins, fire-breathing dragons battling stalwart knights, Jack scurrying up a 10-foot beanstalk, Rapunzel letting down blond tresses. There were the mythical push-me pull-you beast, marching wooden-faced toy soldiers, turret-bound maidens. And from a gingerbread house on the corner, a wicked witch waited while Hansel and Gretel tripped obliviously down the path to candied doom.
It took 12 years, and, she estimates, cost $4,000. Each day, while her husband was at work, the cement sculptor went off to the paint stores, junkyards and thrift shops of Eagle Rock to rummage for pieces of metal and bits of colored glass.
To those peering over the wood fence that hid her creations from the street, it seemed as though a wizard's spell had suddenly stilled a vibrant world, freeze-framing it for the neighborhood children's squeals of delight.
But time passed, and today the gardens are held in thrall by a more malevolent wizard--one who chokes the yard with 3-foot-high weeds and cracks the once-pristine concrete figures. He is the wizard of neglect and old age, of dreams that flicker and may soon be extinguished.
And Bernadine Lodge, now 87 and living in a nursing home two miles away, worries and wonders what is to become of the storybook land she crafted so carefully more than a quarter-century ago.
"You see, it doesn't belong to me anymore. I sold it," Lodge said. She is a tiny, frail woman whose finely boned face is framed by white tendrils. Her blue eyes sparkle when she reminisces about her garden.
Earlier this year, she left the Eagle Rock duplex at the prodding of her family, who worried about an elderly lady living alone and climbing up two stories to her lodgings. She had called the place home since the mid-1930s.
'Just Too Elderly'
"It was hard to give it up. But my daughter thought I was too old," Lodge said.
Her daughter, Glendale resident Connie Geise, confirmed this.
"That's a fairly lonesome kind of life. She was just too elderly to be there by herself," Geise said.
Geise also said that she found her mother's concrete passion a bit odd, even resented it somewhat.
"My mom always imagined that she lived in a fantasy land instead of a real world," Geise said. "She devoted all her time to that instead of anything else. . . . I'm sorry to say she didn't share that enthusiasm for me and her relatives. "
Last year, the house was sold--statues included--to Neil O'Blenness, a contractor from the San Fernando Valley.
Fell Under Their Spell
O'Blenness said he fell under the spell of the garden's denizens the minute he saw them. The contractor first stumbled upon the work two years ago, when he stopped at a nearby garage sale and noticed some 3-foot concrete sunflowers with pastel faces lying alongside Lodge's driveway.
He also noticed the house was for sale, and stopped to chat with a spry elderly lady pulling weeds in a 50-by-50-foot garden filled with stone figures.
"She said to me, 'You know, I'd give you half of these statues if you'd help me find somewhere to put them,' " O'Blenness recalled.
At that time, Lodge was getting ready to enter the nursing home and worrying about the fate of her folk art.
And not without reason. O'Blenness said Lodge's daughter planned to have the statues junked.
Appalled at the Plan
"She was going to sledgehammer them, to pay $500 to have them hauled away," O'Blenness said.
Appalled, he offered to take control of the statues and eventually decided to buy the house as well, which he rents out.
"I think they're a real neat thing," O'Blenness said of the statues. "She did it for the children of L.A. so they could see fairy tales."
O'Blenness wants to restore the statues and find them a good home, but so far, he's had no takers.
"I don't want to see them go to waste," O'Blenness said. "Whatever I've got to do, I just don't want to see them trashed."
Easy to Repair
Sprucing up the collection wouldn't take a magic wand, he said. With some help, he could patch up the cracks with a new coat of concrete and repaint each statue. O'Blenness estimates there are 900 altogether, including hundreds crammed into a dungeon-like basement.
Lodge had several chances to give away her collection over the years but says that pride held her back. In the 1960s, a San Fernando Valley hospital with a large pediatrics department--Lodge can't remember which one--offered to build a children's garden and place her statues there. Other people have asked to buy individual characters, but Lodge thought they should remain together.
The folk artist dearly wanted to install at least one favorite figure in her room at the nursing home, but her daughter nixed the idea.
"She said, 'They don't belong to you anymore,' " Lodge recalled.
Geise explained that she feared her mother would become depressed if she stared at the fantasy figures each day. She said Lodge keeps a color photo album of her fairy-tale land in her room and can flip through it when she feels lonely.
Instead, the one-time sculptor has tried to re-create the fairy tale atmosphere in her new home, albeit with a feeble set of props. Toy animals adorn the bed and tables: mice in gingham outfits, wooden reindeer and pandas. There are also numerous photos of her family.
But despite the calculated homeyness, Lodge gets lonely for Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee and the Owl and the Pussycat--some of her favorite statues.
'A Wonderful Thing'
"I miss them, yes, I sure do," she said wistfully. "I miss taking the children through the fairy-tale land. It was a wonderful, rewarding thing."
Once a week now, her daughter visits and they go to lunch. And sometimes, if she's lucky, Lodge says she talks Geise into swinging past by the old Spanish colonial duplex where she once wrought her magic.
They are bittersweet visits, says the little lady with the big imagination.
"It makes me sad."