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Saturday, July 31, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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One man's treasure-from-trash is a Centralia tourist attraction

Seattle Times staff reporter

"Richart" classes


For more information about "Richart's" informal classes, call 360-736-7990.

For information about Richart, the documentary, or to purchase a DVD, contact Vanessa Renwick at vanessa@odoka.org

CENTRALIA — Wheels spin. Steel spikes stab the sky, and bright plastic balls float above Richard Tracy's sprawling outdoor art gallery, where sculptures shaped like monsters, dogs and humans have been crafted from the most unlikely objects — tomato cages, Styrofoam blocks and roller skates.

Although many in this conservative blue-collar community consider Tracy's Flash Gordon-meets-Vincent Price style of art as an eyesore spread over three full lots, it's through his 20-year project that the former schoolteacher who prefers to be known as "Richart" is earning his city of 15,000 national recognition.

Over the past few years, his unrestrained collection has been added to Web sites about quirky roadside attractions, included in books on a similar theme and compared to Los Angeles' Watts Tower — once considered junk, now priceless folk art.

But what really extended Richart's — and Centralia's — visibility outside the Northwest was his starring role in a 23-minute independent film documentary, which since 2001 has played in well over 100 venues worldwide.

Today, the effusive 70-year-old with a penchant for gleaning art from trash and seeing unique worlds in glass reflections has done what the city hoped its carefully preserved downtown and picturesque countryside would do: lure visitors to Centralia.

The tourists come specifically to Richart's pretty neighborhood of craftsman houses and flower gardens, where those who live next door have grown accustomed to cars with out-of-state license plates and strangers of all types pouring in and out of his fenced fortress.

Down at City Hall, City Clerk Deena Bilodeaux said she answers calls from out-of-towners wanting to know how to get in touch "with that guy with the art house," and routinely gives out Richart's phone number and address.

Ask most anyone in the city and they'll know exactly the place you mean — the corner lot on Harrison Avenue and M Street.

And who doesn't have an anecdote about the eccentric guy seen eyeing the discards by your garbage can: a teacart, wheel-bases of chairs, roller skates? Sometimes he gets calls from people offering him material, like a 4-foot-wide Styrofoam mushroom.

Richart turned that down. He does have standards.

In 2001, experimental-film directors Vanessa Renwick and Dawn Smallman of Portland spent a year filming Richart after hearing about him from a friend who had seen the house.

"He is really incredibly talented as an artist," Renwick said. "He is able to see things in stuff we look at as crap."

Using his yard as a classroom, Richart teaches visitors about art and lets them create, using his materials and providing they follow his rules: No talking and arrive punctually for a 55-minute, $5 class.

When the film, titled "Richart," played at the Centralia Olympic Club in April, he and his wife, Pat Tracy, attended and sold the intricate collages he makes in his basement. About 150 people attended, many getting their first good look at the man behind the growing tourist attraction that's variously known as art yard, art farm and Richard's Ruins.

At the center of it all, largely hidden from view, is a turn-of-the-century house where Richart and Pat raised their two sons and now spend time with their three grandchildren.

Richart and his younger sister grew up in Yakima, brought up by their divorced mother. Passionate about art, he studied it at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, where he got a teaching certificate and met his wife.

Richart taught a few years in the Yakima, Sequim and Olympia school districts and finally took a job in Centralia, working in the hardware department of Yardbirds. The lone souvenir of the 30 years he spent at the defunct discount store is a giant, fake mynah bird, which he has in a corner of his yard.

About 35 years ago, Richart was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which led to a brief stay at Western State Hospital. It's a condition he manages, one he says has been both a challenge and an inspiration in his work.

Twenty years ago, he met Dick Elliott, creator of a colorful folk-art house in Ellensburg called Dick and Jane's Spot. That prompted Richart to begin his own life's work.

Elliott refers to Richart's yard as the "most important art site in the Northwest," saying "art without restraints is really rare."

Today, it reflects a sense of decay as rain, wind and sun wear down the Styrofoam and wood, rust metals and fade plastic. That only makes the pieces more interesting, Richart believes, seeing himself as a partner with nature.

"To create art, you have to be exposed," Richart said as he gave a tour of the yard. "It means to be vulnerable."

Suddenly he stopped, as he frequently does when art appears before him. "Look," he said with excitement, pointing out a simple reflection in the window of a nearby parked car.

If Richart see beauty all around him, the same can't be said of his neighbors. Over the years, he's invited them to tour his property but says they won't come.

Neighbor Alex Nunn objects mainly to the traffic.

"People drive down the street and people stop in the middle of the street," said Nunn, who has lived across from Richart since 1936. "I don't mind looking at the stuff as long as I don't have to get close to it."

Another neighbor built a 10-foot fence, higher than most city codes allow for such fixtures. But as far as City Hall is concerned, "it's legal if it surrounds me," Richart said.

When Beatrice Estrada moved in across the street, she thought she was moving across from a museum, not noticing the front door of a family home peeking through all those spires, signs and kinetic sculptures.

For the past 48 years, Richart's wife has good-naturedly accepted her husband's obsession.

Also a teacher, she said the interior of their home displays some of his pieces, but he leaves most outside — like a helmet topped with a spinning lawn aerator, made specially for when he rides from Centralia to Chehalis during the 8,000-cyclist Seattle-to-Portland bike ride, which passes his house every July.

He makes a new helmet each year for the entertainment of the riders because "Seattle people are way too serious when they come through here."

Richart enjoys creating and visiting with people who drop by. "Now that he's retired, it gives him a sense of direction," his wife said, though she admits he "does go a bit overboard with it."

He loves the time of day when the sun is high and the shapes around him are sharply defined.

"Look!" he said, as the sharp light of noon shined down on an old piece of wood. Where others may have seen a series of conks, or nothing much at all, Richart saw a necklace. "Isn't that beautiful!"

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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