Houlton officials midway through cleanup of artist’s property

Posted Jan. 16, 2011, at 3:27 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:38 a.m.

HOULTON, Maine — Early on Friday evening, Town Manager Doug Hazlett flipped through pictures taken during the cleanup of the 314 Military St. property of Jerry Cardone, a Houlton artist.

An aerial view of the 10-acre property displayed a plot of land so plugged with material that Hazlett said Cardone could not drive his truck onto it. Piles of old wood, cars and scrap metal mingled with hills of plastic buckets and old refrigerator drawers. Cardone’s home and a number of outbuildings on the property also were visible, along with Cardone’s artwork.

Aroostook County Superior Court Justice E. Allen Hunter ruled on Nov. 15, 2010, that the property constituted an automobile graveyard and a junkyard under state statute, and was a “public nuisance” under Houlton code.

He ordered that the property be cleaned up, which the town has been coordinating for the past two weeks. Crews are approximately half-done and plan to resume their effort in the spring.

While a number of people have complained about Cardone’s property for years, others are against the court-ordered cleanup. Hazlett said that he has heard some complaints since the cleanup began.

“There are some people who will always believe that we are in there destroying his artwork,” Hazlett acknowledged. “But that is not true. We aren’t in there with bulldozers, we aren’t harming any of his artwork. We are picking through the piles so that we don’t harm any of his pieces. We are meeting him halfway, and he is cooperating with us.”

Over the past 18 years, Cardone — who is known to some locals as “The Dinosaur Man” — has displayed wood carvings and scrap metal constructions of dinosaurs, aliens, palm trees, totem poles and other pop-culture pieces in his yard. The towering sculptures include Santa, Bigfoot and a rooftop gazebo in the shape of a flying saucer.

Some of the pieces are lined up in front of an aging 5-foot-tall wooden fence that has collapsed in some spots and that partially encloses the property that stretches about 200 yards along Route 2 in a residential part of town.

Photos of his work have been taken by Portland photographer Tonee Harbert and were included in a 2007 exhibit at the University of Southern Maine titled “Off the Grid: Maine Vernacular Environments.” Later that year, the Blue Moon Gallery in Houlton exhibited Harbert’s photos of Cardone’s work.

With that coverage has come criticism. Residents have complained for several years to town officials and in letters to the editor of the weekly newspaper that the pieces in front of the fence threatened to spill out onto the roadway and that the yard was cluttered with trash that was an eyesore. Aside from the sculptures, photographs showed that the yard was full of piles of wood, scrap metal and other materials Cardone collected over the years. There are also animals on the property, including rabbits and cats, with some animals in cages, though the cats mainly roam free.

Hazlett said Friday that the town first expressed concern about Cardone’s property 10 years ago and took Cardone to court about six years ago. Officials went through several hearings and mediation with him. During the mediation hearings, Hazlett said, Cardone told the court that he would clean up the property on his own.

He never did.

Last August, Hunter walked through Cardone’s property and issued his ruling in mid-November. He noted that Cardone had no town or state permits allowing him to operate such an establishment and that the property violated a town ordinance prohibiting illegal junkyards and was a “public nuisance.”

The court gave Cardone until Dec. 15 to clean up the property. Neighbors helped Cardone remove 12 junked cars and other trash, but it was not enough to satisfy the town or the court order.

For the past two weeks, crews have been on the property, burning as much of the wood and other such material as possible until, Hazlett said, the smoke became too great and they were afraid it would affect neighbors. Hazlett said that during the cleanup, workers uncovered artwork that Cardone had buried or concealed beneath piles of logs and metal.

According to court records, Hunter issued a sweeping order, mandating that everything on the property be cleaned up with the exception of one unregistered automobile. Hazlett said that it was the town that decided to allow Cardone to keep the artwork he already has created on a secure place on the property.

“We didn’t want to go in there and just throw it all away,” he said. “We met him halfway. During the cleanup, we have been very careful of his artwork. We haven’t gone into any of his buildings. In some cases, there are some pieces that he has created that he has piled stuff around that is hard to get out. In those cases, we’ve left it alone. We’ve left it as a little island in the yard.”

Hazlett said that most people think that the entire property is full of items similar to the work that lines the fence.

But the photographs showed that the 10 acres were mostly full of materials that Cardone had collected over the years. Cardone admitted to the judge that 95 percent of the raw material that he has on the site and that he uses for sculptures is unusable because of decay.

“We are not complaining about the art, we are complaining about the junk,” Hazlett said. “There are rats and vermin in there, and it is a huge fire hazard with all of the wood and other materials. If this place caught fire, we’d never be able to fight it. It is a huge safety hazard for us and for his neighbors.”

Multiple attempts to reach Cardone over the weekend were unsuccessful, but he acknowledged during an interview last week that people have complained about his property, and his art, over the years. He said that he ignores those complaints.

“I make my art for God,” he said. “I was plucked out of heaven and put down on Earth to create my artwork. I know people don’t like it, but God ordered me to make it.”

Cardone calls his property the “7 Wonders of God Creatures.” Some websites that are devoted to roadside attractions have featured his property. In interviews for one site, Cardone claimed that he once was abducted by aliens and that he has to make some of his artwork “look like junk” so people won’t steal it.

During last week’s interview, he denied that he had a problem with hoarding.

“I know I can use everything I gather,” he said. “Everything has a purpose.”

Town councilors authorized the use of up to $25,000 from the town’s loan repayment reserve fund to cover costs of cleaning up the property. If the cost of the cleanup goes beyond $25,000, Hazlett said he believes the town could recoup the excess from any future sale of the property.

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