Don Lambert was 12 when he began mowing lawns to earn money to buy a car. At 17, he finally bought it, and began doing lawn jobs of another kind, an act of vandalism he says twice landed him and his friends in Mayberry-like jails. "Once for doing doughnuts through a wooded park, and the other time for driving a whole city block through people's yards," the Miami artist recalls.
Twenty-three years later, Lambert is opening "Lawn Jobs," his solo exhibition at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood. The show, an investigation into America's obsession with yard work, includes assemblages, works on paper and large artificial-turf-on-plywood wall panels. Among them is "Swerve, Slalom, Brake. Rainbow," which depicts the striped patterns made by lawn-mowing enthusiasts and teenage drivers.
"I honestly had never thought much about the lawn, but on some subconscious level, I understood that I was being judged by my maintenance of it," Lambert says. "Even as a kid mowing my parents' yard, I wanted the neighbors to know we were good people. It was embarrassing when the lawn was unkept. Somehow, the two were connected in my psyche."
That connection resurfaced after Lambert, his wife and their newborn moved from Chicago to a Cincinnati suburb in 2005. "It was made quite clear that a well-kept lawn was a sign of good citizenship and by extension, of being a good American," he says. "It sounds stupid, but it's true. ... Neighbors would gossip about other neighbors who did not have the same goals of perceived perfection with their yards. They were talked about like they were 'bad' people."
Lambert began chatting with serious lawn devotees, keeping a detailed yard work maintenance log and visiting online lawn forums. He did, however, come to defy community rules by keeping his lawn immaculate in a more-subversive way. He grew his grass three inches above the five-inch limit, so it could hold more moisture and require less watering. He composted, and stopped raking leaves and bagging clippings in order to nourish his lawn. He let clover grow because it was good for the lawn and attracted bees. He even minimized mowing time by developing a geometric pattern that resulted in lawn striping, and then began imposing other patterns, more as a means of expression than efficiency.
When neighbors praised his lawn (and striped their own), he explained that it was less about ecology than it was about defying nonsensical rules that also restricted house colors and banned publicly visible vegetable gardens, fences and mailboxes that dared to be different.
Lambert's lawn chores became a well-researched conceptual pursuit. In 2009, after exhibiting related works at the Cincinnati Art Museum, he sold his mower, gave away his yard tools and created "Deere John," an artificial-turf-and-plywood Dear John letter to his lawn. He moved his family to Miami, where they live a lawn-mower-free life among native plants and fruit trees. His lawn has no grass.
Colleen Dougher operates the South Florida arts blog Arterpillar.
When: Opens 6-10 p.m. Friday and runs through April 14
Where: Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, 1650 Harrison St.
Cost: $10 Friday; $4-$7 thereafter
Contact: 954-921-3274 or ArtAndCultureCenter.org