New book spotlights Hartman Rock Garden

The idea behind a new book of Hartman Rock Garden photos is for the pages — each doubling as postcards — to be torn out and mailed off.

In turn, that would further raise awareness of the rock garden, an 80-year-old work of folk-art hidden in a residential neighborhood in Springfield’s southwest corner.

But who could rip out such pretty pictures?

Local photographer Rod Hatfield, who compiled the book, “Rock Star Garden: 20 Gracious Postcards From the Hartman Rock Garden,” jokingly encourages people to buy two copies.

“Ideally, they’d keep one as a compendium and use one to send to family and friends,” explained Hatfield, who’s served as the garden’s caretaker and artist-in-residence since its 2009 restoration.

Hatfield provides a gnome’s eye view of a place that, judging from the photos alone, can only be described as enchanted.

“The place looks great any time of year,” he said. “But in the summer, when the flowers pop, the place literally comes alive.”

For years, though, the rock garden, which can be found in the 1900 block of Russell Avenue, crumbled away.

But, even as it deteriorated, people still visited, with out-of-towners most often discovering it via the website Admission to the garden, which consumes an entire yard, is free.

In 2008, the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation — which rescues large-scale sculptural work by so-called outsider artists and then bestows the work back on the community as a gift — bought the property and restored the Depression-era handiwork of Springfield’s H.G. “Ben” Hartman.

Hartman lost his job in 1932 as an iron molder, and set out to relieve his boredom by constructing stone and concrete replicas of the White House, Independence Hall and other landmarks.

He also built a 12-foot-tall stone castle, and populated the entire yard with gnomes and other homemade lawn ornaments in the form of such figures of the day as Joe Louis and Mae West.

Today, the nonprofit group Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden — made up of the Springfield and Turner foundations and the Springfield Museum of Art — cares for the property.

The Turner Foundation also published the new book.

Proceeds from the book, which retails for $9.95 and can be found at the Champion City Guide and Supply store downtown, will benefit the friends group.

Hatfield admittedly has taken thousands of photos of the garden.

“Stuff still reveals itself,” he said. “Just when you think you know every nook and cranny of that place, something says, ‘Hey, man, look at me.’”

For Hatfield, who also travels the globe photographing car shows for the MSN website, deciding what to keep and what to leave out was painstaking.

“They’re all good friends of mine,” he said, “these little statues.”

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