We all have memories of our childhood. Our friends. Our family and home. And those special moments and places that we couldn’t forget if we tried, and probably help structure who we have become.
For some there was magic and I was one of the lucky ones growing up in Bedford, Ohio. It is a small, quaint little historic town on the edge of Cleveland first settled in 1813. Our house on Washington Street was just one block up from Broadway, the main street through town. We lived in a small house where our backyard bordered the backyard of Richard Sedlin, an artist who lived in one of the oldest houses in town built in 1832. A large brick structure, known as the Hezekiah Dunham house. While the house was historic and amazing it was his backyard that I will always remember.
His yard, secluded by a couple of wooden fences, contained a traditional but unkempt English garden. It was full of beautiful flowering bushes and shrubs. There were large trees whose branches covered the garden making a ceiling for his wonderland. As you walked through it, it was as though you were walking on virtual paths hinted at by the placement of this greenery. But it wasn’t the mystery of this old garden itself that held the magic. It was Mr. Sedlin’s art. He was a painter, woodcarver, poet, and sculptor and his garden was full of images and sculptures of all kinds of creatures, real and imagined. They hung from the trees, peeked out from around shrubs, and would seem to pop out from the most unexpected places.
Mr. Sedlin was an artist that was infused with fantasy. He worked in whimsy. Nymphs, Pan, gnomes, elves, satyrs, anthropomorphic animals, and Pookas. Pookas must have been his favorite. Gnome-like little creatures that were as whimsical as they were frightening. They were everywhere. In his painting and hiding in his garden. Walk by a tree and lookup. There would be a Pooka of some sort looking down on you. Or maybe it was Pan. A 10-year-old little boy and his younger sister, we were instantly transported into a fairy tale when we would walk out of our back yard and into his. The real world would disappear and we were in a wonderland of wood nymphs, elves, and Pookas.
Mr. Sedlin seemed to be fascinated by the “Tree Of Life” which he painted and carved in various forms. Most of them were a tree whose trunks and branches were made up of human bodies wrapped around each other. And he had an affinity for Pan and various women of fantasy. In many of his works, these women of wonderland were being wooed or threatened by creatures that could have been lovers or demons. It was hard to tell. And it didn’t matter. It was a life and a place not of this world. And often dark in this sweet man’s whimsical way. Pan could be downright scary if he was real. And in this wonderland of fantasy, everything held the possibility of being real. Especially for two little kids.
It was the early 1950s and Bedford, like the rest of the country, had become very conservative. There were ways to do things and ways you shouldn’t. It seemed everybody was afraid of the Commies and anything that wasn’t part of the straight and narrow. At the time, I don’t think many people in Bedford, much less the neighborhood, had seen this magic garden or if they had just thought of it as, “not Bedford” and left it alone. It was hard to believe, but we were kids and ready to believe in wood-nymphs, Pan and Pookas.
One day I will never forget, Mr.Sedlin and a photographer friend brought their own “wood nymph” to photograph and paint. And as good wood-nymphs will do, she took off her clothes to be their model. The neighborhood ladies were abuzz when one of them had seen the event unfold. How she saw all of this I never figured out. It was a very secluded garden. But I remember a little boy spending a lot of his days in the garden hoping to catch a glimpse of Mr. Sedlin’s real wood-nymph.
Across the street from Mr. Sedlin’s house on Broadway was the city park. A beautiful little place that, each year, would host the Lion’s Club Carnival, the Easter egg hunt, and all of those great, small-town events. At the back of the park, there was an old WWI tank with open hatches. We would play on it and in it the whole time I was growing up. So for me, it would be a trip out of my back yard, through Mr. Sedlin’s garden, across Broadway, and into the tank. From one fantasy to another. What more could a little boy ask for with the possible exception of his own little wood nymph?
The park now houses the Bedford Historical Society which, with much pride, I give some of its success to my mother who helped with it in the early days. And from the park, Mr. Sedlin’s big brick house stood guard, Pookas, nymphs and all. Sadly after Mr. Sedlin passed some kids vandalized the garden and someone, I believe the Historical Society, did what it could to save what was left of his carvings. My mother was able to get one of them, a squirrel which now graces our living room and, like his friends the Pookas, keeps watching over us, our spirits, and the wood-nymphs that might be hiding in our garden. So thank you Mr. Sedlin for giving me a piece of my childhood that few could have experienced. One that has been with me all of my life. A life of fantasy.
As I walk through our own garden of trees on moss-covered paths, I can’t help but wonder how much of it was the work of Richard Sedlin. At least he was a good part of the inspiration. The little rock walls and frog pool, the gracefully unkempt look of the trees, and the wildflower garden. If Jan, my own little wood-nymph, comes into the house telling me Pan was sitting in a tree trying to woo her with a song I won’t do like other husbands and laugh. I’ll just ask her what tree he was sitting in and open a bottle of wine.