SEBASTOPOL – Florence Avenue is one of those lovely and modest, in the word's best sense, neighborhoods where anyone in his right mind would yearn to reside.
It spans no more than 550 yards, curving and undulating only slightly, with trees and gardens framing handsome houses, and nothing so gauche as a McMansion to spoil the understated aesthetic.
Normally, you would not peg a place like this as a lure for visiting art lovers.
Yet, there they are on a weekday afternoon, four people roaming the sidewalks on both sides of the street, cameras cocked to one eye, getting just the right angle to capture the sublime beauty and cultivated quirkiness of the 20 pieces of scrap-metal art statues gracing front yards up and down the blocks.
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There's the brilliantly red-haired, 7-foot-long, 6-foot-high mermaid, whose scales were once applesauce lids, reclining on the grass at 444 Florence.
There's the rabbit at 432, running late and checking his pocket watch, while his feet, made from old Electrolux vacuum cleaner bodies, are in midstride.
And, slightly farther south at 382, there are myriad installations, most notably a motorcycle-riding oil drum moose, 20 feet tall if it's an inch, with antlers made from reclaimed shovel heads and a messenger bag crafted from a dented tin box. It bears a cryptic inscription: "The Legend of Kootney Joe."
This last piece adorns the front yard of the couple responsible for turning this neighborhood into a de facto art gallery.
Sixteen years ago, husband-and-wife artists Patrick Amiot and Brigitte Laurent, natives of Montreal, moved to Sonoma County's version of Berkeley because it seemed to have the right sensibilities. At least, Amiot sure hoped so when, shortly after closing escrow and moving to Florence Avenue, he installed a 14-foot scrap-metal fisherman, painted with vibrant primary colors by Laurent, right in the middle of his front lawn. (Amiot does the sculpting; Laurent the painting.)
The reaction, he recalls, was immediate and vociferous. Not the NIMBY rant of the suburbs, it was more YIMFY – Yes In My Front Yard.
Neighbors loved the concept and, since Amiot was working like a maniac on numerous pieces at the time, trying to establish himself in the Northern California art scene, he gladly installed some of his pieces in neighboring yards.
"At first, it wasn't so obvious for all these people to put artwork in front of their house," said Amiot, who now works out of a studio on Highway 116 instead of at home.
"It was new and it wasn't a given everyone would approve. Their front yards would become exhibit areas, and if someone wanted to buy it I'd sell it and replace it."
Soon, though, the concept took on a life of its own. Amiot started sculpting pieces that fit the interest or personality of the Florence Avenue homeowner. This took considerable time and money, considering he was doing it gratis under the caveat that if some art collector wanted to buy the work, the neighbor would have to part with it.
Looking back, Amiot said, it was a great way to get to know his neighbors, something of a bonding experience.
"Each neighbor took a little work to find their soft spot," he said. "(One neighbor) is an A's fan, so I did a ballplayer for her. I did a little profile of each neighbor and eventually found the piece that was appropriate for them. Some of them had two or three until it was just the right one."
It didn't take long for people outside the neighborhood to take notice. Amiot's creations today grace more than 200 locations in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa. Some are public-art commissions, some stand in front of businesses as eye-catchers, some just are there.
With renown came attention – and people. Soon, Florence Avenue became a roadside attraction, even if the road is hardly near any highway. Strangers routinely stroll the 'hood, guys like Tom Fulton of Truckee and his buddy Ed Grant of San Jose, who brought cameras and a sense of curiosity after watching a report of Florence Avenue by the late public television entertainer Huell Howser.
"We were headed to the (Sonoma) coast, so we had to stop," Fulton said. "This is great that this is a city where people don't go to town hall to try to get you to take down your artwork because it's diminishing their property values. You've got that everywhere else in the world."
"I just hope we're not bothering the people," Grant added.
Since it was a weekday afternoon, when many were at work, probably not.
But the owner of the home with the rabbit, Anne Lowings, said she's proud to display art in her yard.
"Actually, we love the looky-loos," Lowings said. "I work a lot in the front yard, in the garden, and I'm happy to talk to anybody about the sculpture. It brings people together. It makes you smile."
The Lowingses actually inherited the rabbit when they moved in three years ago. It was one of Amiot's original pieces and was starting to show some weathering from years on display. Still, Anne was immediately smitten.
"My husband always likes to say that we bought the white rabbit and the house came with it," she said. "When we moved in, the paint wasn't holding up so well. So Patrick came by, introduced himself and he said he'd have it redone for us. We didn't ask or anything.
"And it was quite a job to move it, too, really something to see this big rabbit being wheeled down the street. We just love this neighborhood. Most people who move here never leave here. But, you know, some people don't want them, don't like them. I guess it's not for everyone's tastes."
True, there are a dozen or so houses sans sculptures. It could be because they don't want them or just that Amiot is so busy now with commissions, including building the world's first all-recycled, solar-powered merry-go-round for a city outside of Toronto.
On both counts, Amiot is almost apologetic. He laments that, because of his commissioned work, he hasn't paid enough attention to the Florence Avenue pieces, many of which are at least a decade old but most not showing much wear and tear. He also feels sheepishly responsible for the crowds that sometimes assemble on the street when residents would just like to go on with their lives unobserved.
For a few years, when his two daughters were teen- agers, Amiot indulged in his artistic whimsy and hosted a ravelike Halloween spectacle in front of his house. One year, it drew more than 3,000 people. He's since put the kibosh on that. Even artistic-minded neighbors have limits, apparently. (Side note: None of the Florence sculptures has ever been vandalized, not even amid the Halloween revelry.)
"It got out of control, for a few years (of Halloween)," he said with a head shake. "Now, I try to skip town Halloween. It's horrible now. There's this reputation.
"I just take my car, barricade my house and pack up, so my neighbors can't point the finger at me for causing all these people. All of my neighbors ran out of candy by 6:30. One year I bought $1,000 worth of candy and shared it with my neighbors because I felt so responsible somehow."
So what caused the Halloween stir?
"I shouldn't be talking about this, but we used to do this giant event where my house had this giant sculpture of Elvis. It was completely over the top. My kids were 14 and 15 then, and for them, having hundreds of people on the street with them cheering and dancing was an incredible rush."
Another way of making amends – even though Lowings said no one she knows on the street is irked – is that Amiot has now given all the pieces to the owners of the houses. No longer are they in jeopardy of being sold off to some smitten art browser. Amiot said that if people want one of the Florence Avenue pieces, he'll reproduce it using the same materials and Laurent's same color scheme.
"I mean, I should give it to them," he said. "Well, it's been 10 years."
He paused, laughed.
"Even if I wanted to take them away now, people'd probably get out their shotguns and stop me," he said jokingly. "I owe them a lot. It's really because of them that I've been able to make such a great living. I sell more than I can do. And if it wasn't for all these generous people who opened their front yards, that probably wouldn't have happened."
Joe Szuece, owner of Renga Arts, a studio space and sculpture gallery in Sebastopol, once told Laurent what a "brilliant marketing move it was to put pieces in people's yards."
Laurent's reply: "That wasn't a marketing move. That was desperation. They (the sculptures) were filling up our yard and house and I had to get them off the street."
"Patrick's brought the whole town together, in a way," Szuece said. "Florence Avenue was just the start."
But Florence may be finished as a space for new works. Amiot and Laurent have started working on bigger pieces, such as the merry-go-round, and have little time for more quirky characters such as the boat captain at 403, the four juggling Zucchini brothers made from trash cans at 348 or the firetruck at 413.
That's a shame for Celine Passage, who bought the house at 450 Florence two years ago. It is one of the dwellings sans sculpture, and Passage pines for one.
"I'm not optimistic," she said. "He is famous now, after all."
THE SCULPTURES OF PATRICK AMIOT
Florence Avenue Project: 20 front-yard sculptures erected over the past 10 years. Park your car at the south end, near Bodega Avenue, and walk the quarter-mile stretch of the street.
Directions from Sacramento: Take Interstate 80 west to Highway 37 toward San Rafael. Turn onto Highway 101 north and travel eight miles. Exit at Highway 116 west. Turn left onto Bodega Avenue. After 0.3 miles, turn right on Florence Avenue.