Warren Strong was weeding in the backyard of his deceased mother's home in Fair Oaks this month when he found a small, brightly colored torso poking out of the ground. A few feet away, he found the head.
Strong bent down to clear away the dirt. Unearthing both objects, he stood the torso upright and placed the head on correctly. The clay woman stood 21 inches tall, her body painted in bands of teal, white, blue and red.
He found two more subterranean sculptures soon after.
"I put away my heavy boots and gloves," Strong said, "and treated the entire area like an archaeological site."
Several weeks earlier, on July 18, his mother, Barbara Strong, had died at age 81. An accomplished artist, she had received awards and sold her works in a local gallery.
The discovery of her clay sculptures buried in her backyard was startling to her family and friends.
Using a garden trowel, Strong said, he repeatedly poked the dirt until he heard "a clink."
Over the ensuing weeks, he would hear more than a dozen clinks each of them signaling a new artifact ready for excavation.
"What a thrill," Strong said, "to connect with my mother like this."
Eric Strong, Warren's brother, likened the discoveries to "finding Mayan ruins."
Their mother was born in Louisville, Ky., and attended the University of Louisville and University of Cincinnati. She earned an art education credential from UCLA, and she taught art at Bella Vista High School and adult education classes.
According to Warren Strong, the first person to recognize his mother's talent was her grandfather, T.C. Gaines, then president of the Bank of Middleton in Middleton, Ky. Barbara painted his portrait in 1944, and Gaines liked the painting enough to hang it in the bank for nearly 20 years.
Barbara was 14 at the time.
Her family said she was accomplished in various media wax casting, metal sculpture, woodblock prints, painting, watercolor, wood carving, papier-mache and clay the last the medium of all the pieces found buried in her yard.
Blue Moon Gallery owner Carol Brewer said she is interested in featuring the backyard bounty in a show, though friends and family are still discussing what to do with the work.
"I guess some pieces will be showcased," Warren Strong said, "but I'd like to leave some in the ground, as much as possible."
Brewer said she believes the artist was burying her artwork so she could age them, a process she said sculptors use.
"Some artists want to have the earth work on the ceramics; they want to live with their pieces," Brewer said. "Barbara wasn't insane; she was just aging her art naturally."
Giving a different possible explanation, Warren Strong surmised some pieces may have been buried because they were broken or damaged. The art that remains intact is a mystery, though.
"I think the only person who knows why those pieces are buried back there has passed," he said.
Warren Strong said he considers himself very fortunate. "We were allowed a chance to find part of my mother's legacy and preserve it for future generations."