by Tim Gilmore, 6/12/2015
To step through the gate into Andy Ward King’s Garden of Colors on Riverside’s Forbes Street is to enter the “AndiVERSE” of “Gr00vyLånd,” carved from his own wise whimsy. When you pass The Touchstone, a large round stone bearing greetings and instructions to touch it, you’re welcomed into a landscape swarming with verbal and visual puns.
For the Garden of Colors is also a garden of texts, of wonderfully nonsensical instructions scrawled on signs, planks of fencing, bricks on the ground. Most of the garden’s posted rules were only ever written to be broken. Try, for example, to resist snapping a picture of the door across which is scrawled, “Top Secret Test Door No Photos Allowed.”
“There’s only one rule here,” Andy says, then bows his head and extends his arm to the sign that states it: “No Sad.”
A decade ago, Andy began to have tremors in his left index finger. The tremors got worse and the doctors put him through a battery of tests. They thought he might have ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but he was finally diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
On his website, www.andywardking.com, he writes, “Seven years into my sentence, things got real bad – real fast. I had to have my wife’s help to do the simplest of tasks. I could barely walk, I couldn’t get out of bed — I was a stand-up bass player who couldn’t stand up.”
When a new doctor helped him find the right combination of medications, he did 100 push-ups a day and walked for miles.
Then he traveled to Europe, Jamaica, and Manhattan, began writing and making music again, started tai chi and yoga, and created the Garden of Colors. Since he can’t sleep much these days, he often gets up at three in the morning and climbs up to his attic—he calls it the Tower of Power—to jam on his stand-up bass.
His rapid constant shuffling seems more like excited energy than a neurological symptom. It’s hard to imagine his wiry tattooed frame moving any other way. His speech is a stuttered staccato that he acknowledges frequently as difficult to understand.
But the overall effect of Andy in person is much like that of his garden: joie de vivre, constant inspiration, organic gardening and art, and unceasing creative tinkering with any object he encounters.
“Everything is art,” he says, and the garden is full of mobiles, sculptures, and chimes, and other found-objets-d’arte made of kitchen faucets, license plates, broken pieces of mirror, beads, wrenches, seashells, lanterns, plastic Hawaiian leis, old hats, and painted rocks and branches. In the top center of a ladder is a disc scrawled, “Ladder to Heaven.”
But I rescind “painted rocks” from the list. I should have said “urbanite.” Unfortunately, “real wild urbanite,” Andy says, the kind that talks but doesn’t listen, is too rare to find. Nevertheless, Andy’s painted these chunks of old concrete from deceased parking lots, parking stones, old walls, etc., and in praise of the Great Giraffe, his name for God, he even built a Christmas tree from colored urbanite.
He speaks of the garden in musical terms, talking rhythms and grooves, and wants people to think of it as a place of healing. Every Friday morning at 10:30 a couple dozen musicians, neighbors and friends show up for a garden coffee klatch and jam session.
Back fence panels bear representations of his family: a giant lush watermelon on the vine, painted by his son Donovan, a heart that grows around a key, screams coitus, and represents Andy’s wife, Kathleen. By the front yard sunflowers, I meet Donovan, wearing overalls, an ax over his shoulder, singing Monty Python’s “I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay.”
Beneath a tent canopy and before a black-painted fence and the words AndiVERSE and Gr00vyLånd reclines a platform covered in an Arabic carpet and with a round silk pillow.
Andy paints on washboards, old window casements, and fence lattice. He shows me BoTai Panda, a Rust-Oleum painting on a washing machine lid, the muse for his upcoming album of the same name, which blends bluegrass, rock n’ roll, and electronica.
The paths through the garden wind around beds of kale, tomatoes, and watermelon, around strangely painted statues of St. Francis and a beaded fat
Buddha. We exit one path by a tall canvas he perpetually paints over—Elvis has recently been resurfaced with a burger and fries—and he points to a one-way
arrow pointing along the path against the way we came. “It’s important to know which way you’re going,” he says and shakes his finger.
When we stand at The Moon Hammock, he explains to me how a “gravity bubble” would work and rise to the moon, and though this hammock will be the first one on the moon, when I ask him if he’d like to be in it, he shakes his head and says, “No, no, no, I’m too old.”
Andy’s rapid speech brims over with wisdom and irony and whimsy, often interchangeably, so you have to back up and change scales in order to know how to take what he’s saying. One moment, he’s Lewis Carroll and the next, he’s Sri Ramakrishna, until you realize they’re the same character.
Beside The Moon Hammock is The No Holes Golf Course (“You can’t win, but you can’t lose!”) and a sign that identifies it as “Future Home of the Pooka Memorial Golf Course.” It’s named for the shapeshifter of Irish mythology that visits farmers and fishermen and brings them good luck, if they’re lucky. And if they’re not, their luck’s not. The Pooka often takes the shape of a goat or a rabbit, but if you see a human being with a rabbit’s ears and tail, you’re probably dealing with a pooka.
You can flip “Yes” and “No” and “Past” and “Future” signs around against the fence, front to back, to claim your orientation for the day. If you feel No to the Future in the morning, you can flip your stance to Yes just after noon.
Tucked in by the Moon Hammock and the Pooka Memorial Golf Course is the grave of Andy’s beloved dog Cocoa. When Andy speaks of Cocoa, it’s clear he misses him greatly. Though Cocoa no longer jumps the six-foot fence into neighbors’ yards, he still inhabits the garden, because his grave too has become art.
Andy remembers an expression his father used to use, “Don’t throw dirt on my grave,” and bends down to pick leaves and acorns from the ground atop Cocoa.
The grave is covered with pebbles, with a footstone of blue and yellow urbanite and the name “COCOA,” and a headstone post that twirls up into a globe, which, as we stand there, seems perfectly capped by one of the billions of Florida’s anoles.
You know you’re standing by The Wise Ol’ Tree because there’s a sign that identifies it as “Wise Ol’ Tree,” but you also know it just because it’s a tree.
“Trees are the smartest living things on the planet,” Andy says, “You just have to listen, though it can take years, or decades, for them to say one word.”
All the trees on the planet, he says, comprise one single organism, which reminds me of biologist James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, wherein Lovelock sees all life on the planet as one organism that constantly seeks balance.
“The trees are emissaries,” Andy says. “The trees are our liaisons.”