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Rock Garden Angel

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Marion Blake is stuck between a rock garden and a hard place.

An art history major at New York University, Blake was visiting Phoenix when someone took her to see the Grover Cleveland Thompson rock garden in 1979. "I couldn't believe such a place existed," gasps Blake, who bought the house on sight. But after 21 years of tending one of the Valley's premier examples of "outsider art" -- art created by unschooled visionaries using found materials -- Blake wants to move on.

But what will happen to the garden?

Fifty years after Thompson, a retired heavy-equipment operator, first began work on it, the fanciful creation still packs a visual wallop. For nearly 30 years, Thompson devoted himself to turning his front lawn into a folk art fantasia replete with concrete towers, grottoes and shrines embedded with broken Fiestaware, pop bottles and dime store bric-a-brac. In addition to a nine-foot replica of the Seattle Space Needle, the property includes seven fountains (all currently inoperative) and a fence studded with marbles, fridge magnets and dozens of faces cast from old Halloween masks. An original bucket from the pre-KFC Kentucky Fried Chicken hangs from the roof of a wishing well.

The fate of the garden, meanwhile, hangs in the balance.

"I'm getting up there [in age] and I've got many interests," says Blake, a retired schoolteacher. "It isn't that I love the garden less, but I'm reaching a time where if there are things I want to do, I have to do them."

If Blake's personal plans are sketchy (she vaguely talks of moving "somewhere" to pursue ceramics), details surrounding the garden's future are even hazier. After years of unsuccessful attempts to get local public funding to maintain the site, Blake says she's now looking outside the state for help.

To that end, Blake recently contacted the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation, an organization that has provided support to other at-risk folk art sites around the country. If a site is found worthy of preservation, the foundation generally purchases the property and does whatever restoration is necessary -- but only if a not-for-profit sponsor agrees to take over the site in perpetuity at the completion of the restoration.

According to Kohler Foundation director Terri Yoho, Blake's garden "merits our efforts and preservation." Still, Yoho adds that all talk about the Sunnyslope garden is in the "preliminary stage" and stresses that "at this point, we do not have a recipient identified."

This would appear to put Blake back to square one: Yoho identifies potential sponsors as "museums, municipalities and universities" -- the very entities that Blake has unsuccessfully contacted in the past.

If local history is any indication, Marion Blake has good reason to wonder about the future of her garden. In 1991, lawn artiste Louis Lee tried to sell his home at 4015 East McDonald -- a 1950s ranch house whose front yard he had transformed into an Asian fantasy garden. Despite the Phoenix Arts Commission's initial interest in acquiring the property ("These are the kinds of things that make Phoenix unique," said folk art scholar Gretchen Freeman. "They're little jewels, little landmarks that add personality to the city."), the house never sold; 10 years later, Lee, now in his late 80s, continues making new additions to the site.

But even if the worst-case scenario plays out (Blake's property and two adjoining lots are zoned for apartments), one observer suggests that thanks to Marion Blake's intervention, the garden enjoyed a far lengthier run than anyone could have expected.

"By the time the creator dies, the clock is already ticking," says Doug Kirby, co-author of Roadside America and a same-named Web site that chronicles offbeat tourist attractions such as Blake's. "Within three or four years, the place is being bulldozed. A lot of these places tend to be short-lived because the rest of the family usually doesn't share the creator's particular vision."

Meanwhile, Marion Blake hopes that something concrete comes to pass.

"It would be criminal for this to be destroyed," she says. "But I've put in my time here, I've knocked on all the doors and, as far as I know, there's no real substantial interest on the part of a museum."

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