By Martin J. Kidston
With an eye for detail and a limitless imagination, Bobby Yeoman wanders the Montana landscape, looking for the remnants left by Mother Nature and her changing seasons. A piece of twisted driftwood, the tangled roots of dried tumbleweed, the moss on a broken shingle: They are all incorporated into his work, and together look as natural as the day they took root.
Born and raised in Harlem, Yeoman has always been an artist at heart, but one could say that his work has been reduced in size. For Yeoman, constructing houses and corporate buildings by day may be one thing, but by night, his vision is the only thing big about his work.
Calling Yeoman a builder-of-small-things is a fitting title for the career carpenter and artist. His work, that of creating miniature, often comical settings, bears a healthy mix of precise construction, keen imagination and fictitious wonder. But whatever mix hides behind in his work, the finished product is nothing less than unique.
The material I find gives me the idea. It jumps out and says Im going to be a house and a barn it dictates what I make, Yeoman explained in his North-Side Havre garage. When Im sitting around and I look at a rock, or at the certain texture in a branch, they speak to me and I go with what they tell me.
Yeoman said his own work was inspired by some small-scale replicas he viewed at an art show back in the 80s. He liked the idea of miniatures so much he borrowed it, implemented his own twists, and created a highly unique genre of three-dimensional, interactive art. Now, built with such precision, Yeomans tiny-towns could easily pass as mini-stage sets for a monochromatic Hollywood flick. Add a dose of trick photography and one would appear eerily at home outside the Long Branch Saloon, or hiding out on the North 40 behind the wood pile.
As for The Treehouse (another piece of Yeomans work), the Swiss Family Robinson would be proud to call it home that is, if they could follow the tree house rules, which are scribed adjacent to the secret door in the crook of a weathered tree.
And the rules are: No fighting, no practical jokes, must have 5 or more, no spraying pop, no stealing or else, no pets, no adults, weekends are special.
Peering through the windows of The Tree House is like looking back on childhood, where the memories of youth send a reality check to the routine habits of adulthood. Inside, the walls are paneled in rough wood and adorned with super hero celebrities, while Robotrons and toy soldiers lie discarded on the floor. Theres the standard bubble gum baseball cards, the secret trunk and, like any good tree house, a Playboy, which sits open under the official tree house chair. Plug the arboreal home into the nearest socket and the lights glimmer on, transferring the piece into an instant night light.
From porch swings to outhouses to rickety, weathered fences, Yeomans work hides so many details that viewers stand entranced while studying the scenes. Its not unusual, Yeoman says, for people to scrutinize the accuracy and detail of his work.
Roofers will come in and look at my shingle layout because the detail is there, Yeoman said. And I never put people into my scenes, because you are the people, and if you stare at the settings long enough, you start to see yourself walking around in them.
Any visitor shrunk to scale in the Long Branch Saloon would likely stir the rabbits from the brush while moving headlong through the thickets. Towards the sugar shack, where the chatter stirs behind saloon doors, a deck of cards welcomes local yokels to a round of poker. Above, a lofty bedroom window lends insight to the ongoings of a lucky backwoods escapade. And for those urgent moments, Ma and Pa outhouses stand as sentinels to all-night relief, well within a mad dash from the poker table.
For Yeoman, who builds each piece according to what the materials tell him, the process is as fluent as the swing of a hammer. And for the veteran construction worker, working with his hands is nothing new.
Art has always been a big part of my life, and to me, being a construction worker for the past 30 years, building is my occupation, Yeoman said. Im the architect I dont know how to explain it. My subject matter is unlimited, as are my materials.
The materials are as much a part of Yeomans work as the meaning in the work itself. But if the work is fascinating and it is then how this storyteller finds the right pieces to his wordless fables may be the ultimate key to his success.
The branch on which the tree house sits, Yeoman said, floated up one day at the lake. As for the thick, trunk-like arm of the Long Branch Saloon, it was saved, as Yeoman put it, from a neighbors campfire, simply because it caught his attention. But no matter how the logs, stones and weeds are used, a work of art results and it seems easy for a man who likes to tell stories.
My family settled Harlem, Yeoman began, then they lost it in a poker game since then, Ive been working with my hands, nearly all my life now, but I dont want to be remembered as a carpenter and a concrete layer I want to be remembered as a painter and sculptor. I want to lay on my death bed and say, by god, Im going to die an artist.
Yeomans work may prove that hes long since achieved his artistic goals, even if he was born under the stars of an unlucky poker player.
To view Yeomans work, call 265-2915.