If last December you had walked down Hampden’s West 34th Street, past the giant candy canes, Teddy-bear soldiers, lit-up archways, and singing and dancing dolls, you would have eventually come to Sharon Whalen’s sloping front yard. There, at 712 West 34th, you would have found a metallic Santa crab—with gold-painted wrenches for appendages—sitting atop a giant sleigh, which appeared to be pulled by eight smaller crabs.
Obviously not store bought, the crab is more sculptural than decorative. Conceived and constructed by Whalen’s neighbor Jim Pollock, it injects an artist’s sensibility into the over-the-top Christmas kitsch lining the block. The “Miracle on 34th Street,” as it’s been dubbed, would not be as astonishing if it were all commercial decorations and no original art, nor if it were all original art and no traditional lights and figures. It’s the combination of the two that makes the block so special.
“We as a city need more art,” Pollock says. “We need to see art on a daily basis. It’s a softening of the streets…. If people would take a chance and put art in their front yards and not worry about some critic’s criteria, we’d live in a much more interesting place. We’re taught that we have to please our boss, please our mate, but if people would go outside conformity and say, ‘I don’t care what anybody says; this is who I am,’ that’s a powerful gift to give yourself and your community.”
Last year, Pollock’s own display included a bare Christmas tree frame from which dangled 10 more of his small golden crabs, two Natty Boh beer can angels, four Old Bay Seasoning boxes, and a handful of colored lights. Above his porch, 10 of his white, pencil-steel snowflakes were affixed to the red-brick facade. Four snowmen—each made from white-painted bicycle rims, stacked large, medium, and small—stood on the porch roof while two snow angels hung from the porch’s ceiling.
Pollock also created one of 34th Street’s best-known holiday landmarks: the Hubcap Christmas Tree. A crowd favorite, it’s a towering, eight-foot assemblage of battered hubcaps wired together in a pine-tree shape and decorated with flashing colored lights. It’s topped off with a yellow, plastic stegosaurus where you’d expect a golden star.
Pollock, 42, is a trained artist who graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art and has exhibited in galleries, but he doesn’t buy the notion that a credential or résumé separates artists from ordinary folks. With that in mind, he mentions his neighbors, Bob Hosier and Al Morgan, who own the block’s most brightly lit houses.
“Bob and Al use the traditional Christmas decorations that I grew up with as a kid,” Pollock says, “but what makes them folk artists is their determination to push beyond the usual limits. They want to create something different from anyone else; they want to make their homes look the best they can, so they add something new, something different every year. That’s what artists do.
“What I like is that everyone on the street is doing something different. Across from my house is a tree decorated with giant gold ornaments. Right next door is a front yard filled with new-folk-art reindeer. Next to that is a house that’s all blue with angels, because they’ve lost some family members. Next to that are the hand-painted Whos from Dr. Seuss’s Whoville. Next door lives a portrait painter who has painted Bethlehem landscapes for a crèche. Everyone’s expressing themselves rather than trying to fit a pattern.”
Pollock grew up in Southern Maryland’s Waldorf, out where the new subdivisions met the woods. As a youngster, he would roam through the forest looking for deer antlers and unusual branches to carve. Eventually, his sculptures won him a scholarship to MICA. After graduation in 1989, Pollock and three college friends moved into the 700 block of 34th Street.
The week before Thanksgiving, they noticed many of their neighbors hanging Christmas decorations, so they decided to get in on the fun. Being 1980s punk rockers, they strung some lights in the shape of a giant X on their rowhouse.
No one seemed to mind. The “live and let live” vibe of the block appealed to Pollock so much that, even though he’d moved out of his rental in 1992, he came back and bought the same house in 1993.
That’s when he really got caught up in the block’s obsession with Christmas decorations. “I hunted the alleys of Hampden to find materials for my art,” he says. “I’d find these busted-up, thrown-away bicycles and tricycles, and when I took off the rims and put them side-by-side, it became obvious to me that they were snowmen.”
“It’s not critics who build nations. Artists do. And we can all be artists if we want.”
He was so excited that he kept grabbing more rims and welding them into different postures—some were riding a sleigh, some were blowing trumpets, some were grabbing snowflakes out of the air. Pollock stuck them in his front yard and his neighbors loved them. His next-door neighbor traded cases of cat food for one.
At one point, a neighbor suggested that Pollock open his house to exhibit and sell his artwork over the holidays. He warmed to the suggestion, threw out all the beer cans and pizza boxes in his front room, and painted the walls. He and a friend, fellow sculptor Jeffrey Harris, set up their work and opened the door. “We had 1,100 people come through that first year, 1996,” says Pollock. “It was more people than had ever seen our art before.”
Every year since then, Pollock has propped a hand-painted sign that reads, “Open House—Discover Two Artists,” against the Hubcap Tree. Last year, the entire front half of his first floor had been turned into a gallery. Stenciled snowflakes were painted onto the floor. On the walls hung Pollock’s non-holiday sculptures: weathered shovels with deer antlers blossoming from the top, a mask made from bent and welded wrenches, and dancing banjo players made from drill bits and coal-stove handles. Pollock himself, wearing a red, Santa-like hat, stood inside the front door, greeting each visitor with a grin.
Last year, he was open for 31 days and counted 25,400 people through the door.
Pollock has been working exclusively with metal—mostly from cast-off and recycled items—since 1994, when vandals burned down a shed housing his work. After losing 70 percent of his artwork, which, at the time, was made mostly of wood and fabric, he turned to a fireproof material. It was all metal, all the time. It wasn’t long before Pollock was spending his days finishing bronze casts for his job at Hampden’s New Arts Foundry and welding rusting pieces of junk into strange figures at night.
“My mom’s from the hills of West Virginia,” he says, “and my father’s from the hills of Pennsylvania. I subscribe to the old hill saying, ‘Use it up, wear it out; make do or do without.’ I’m a pack rat. I’m not willing to throw away anything that might be useful . . . Instead of adding to the trash, I’m trying to give the trash a second life.
“When people look at my art, they get that: I’m taking something old and making it new in their eyes because I’m using it in a new way. For example, if I pick up the handles from old coal stoves and say, ‘Those look like legs with feet on them,’ I’m on my way to a figure. I add an old pulley for a hip and drill bits for the arms. But I only let the materials suggest the forms; I don’t want to change the materials so much that people don’t recognize them. That’s where the pleasure comes in, that you can tell that it’s a coal-stove handle as well as a leg and foot.”
In Eric and Janice Willison’s 2005 documentary film, Metal and Man: The Art of Jim Pollock, Pollock demonstrates how he transforms discarded trash into sculpture. In one scene, he cuts down a 55-gallon oil drum with a disc saw until it resembles an insect’s thorax. He takes rusted, curly wire strands from an old fence and fashions them into wings. Then, he pulls two doorknobs off his own house, paints them with fingernail polish, and sticks them in the insect’s head. Suddenly, he’s got a giant cicada that he can hang from the ceiling for his open house.
He was similarly resourceful while creating his signature piece. On January 7, 1996, a historic snowstorm hit Baltimore and left behind a giant pothole on Keswick Avenue, just around the corner from Pollock’s house. For the rest of the winter, passing cars would slam into that pothole, and unloosed hubcaps would roll to the curb. Little did those drivers know that they were helping give birth to the Hubcap Tree.
Pollock and his neighbors collected the orphaned silver saucers and by November, they had a big enough stash that Pollock wired them together into a three-foot tree. A few years later—as friends, neighbors, and strangers donated more hubcaps—the tree had grown to six feet; by last December, it was eight feet tall. Pollock thinks it might grow a bit taller yet.
“The second year I had the Hubcap Tree up, these people came and said, ‘We come every year to have our picture taken in front of the Hubcap Tree,’” Pollock recalls. “I said, ‘But it’s only been up two years.’ That shows how hungry people are for traditions, especially secular, non-denominational traditions. It’s hard to unite a country that’s multi-cultural, but if we celebrated each other’s traditions instead of fighting over them, we’d be partying all the time.”
Pollock and his neighbors work hard to maintain the tradition and have, for the most part, resisted commercializing it. “People always want to know who organizes it and pays for it all,” says Bob Hosier. “It’s 22 individuals who design their own homes and pay their own electric bills. We don’t get a break from BG&E. We’ve had businesses who wanted to sponsor us, but if you had a sign out front that said, ‘Brought to you by…,’ it would take something away from it. It’s not a business; it’s not a show; it’s not an attraction. It’s a home that’s decorated for the holidays. Everyone is always asking me how much I spend on my electric bill, but I won’t say, because this isn’t about money. Everything else is about money, but this is about Christmas.”
Still, some folks treat the “Miracle on 34th Street” as something of an elaborate joke. Amongst the crowds last December, you could hear snarky twentysomethings poking fun at the tackiness of the displays. You could hear lovers of contemporary art sniffing at the unbridled garishness of the decorations.
“There are critics,” Pollock acknowledges. “There are people who call it the ‘Hub-Crap Tree.’ But it’s not other people’s opinions that matter; it’s your own opinion that matters. It’s not critics who build cities and nations. Artists do. And we can all be artists if we want.”