Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Some of you longtime readers may recall when I originally encountered Violet Hobaugh fours years ago (almost to the day!) - out near Palmyra, PA. (I won't retell the entire tale, but if you are interested do check the old blog posts above or looking through the set I made on flickr here which includes some local media clippings and photos I have not made public.)

rot spray
rot spray © Laura Kicey


When I heard in December that she had passed away, I was saddened to hear it, knowing I would never be able to meet and speak to a woman who had made such an impression on me, and really also my work. I had been closely following her life by way of stories passed on to me by locals I knew who had met her, random commenters here and on flickr, and through occasional news items on her. She always seemed such an immortal character, who had seen and experienced it all and carried on no matter what.

on the fence
on the fence © Laura Kicey

It felt like the next logical step after her passing would be for me to revisit her property - nearly 3 years since my last visit - and document it before it was either razed or severely vandalized. I had always seen it in winter in past, so what struck me first was how the property was transformed by the flowering trees and lush ivy that covered just about everything, never had it seemed so very alive.

the uneasy chair
the uneasy chair © Laura Kicey

While being able to walk around freely I did discover some signs I had never seen before, I was surprised by how much of what I was familiar with was now completely obscured by the ivy and what wasn't covered with ivy was now significantly faded. In a strange way, it felt to me like the anxieties and accusations that once consumed her life and thoughts had peacefully ebbed away at the end. I was surprised to see that the site was almost completely undisturbed, though a few signs she had once had propped up were now missing.

reclaimed © Laura Kicey

lawless © Laura Kicey

fear to tread
fear to tread © Laura Kicey

vandlisom © Laura Kicey

snow white
snow white © Laura Kicey

When Goldberg and I first pulled up behind the main house, I immediately noticed her pile of rusted vehicles, the front cabin of a tractor trailer, a small car, and several tractors. Around each of the tractor tires, she had painted permutations of the word 'vandalism/vandalisem/vandlisom'. In the backseat of the car and the trunk/hatchback area there were cushions, pillows and tattered blankets, covered with mouse droppings, where it appeared she may have slept. I suspect that during the two years she was living in her treehouse, she may have slept in the car on especially cold nights so that she could remain close by and ever-vigilant.

back seat bed
back seat bed © Laura Kicey

dos equis
dos equis © Laura Kicey

pledged © Laura Kicey

The one door that appeared as though it would lead into the house was marked with "REWARD FUND PLEDGED" and a tiny illegible metal sign. None of the doors allowed us entry, but I think it was for the best. Having lived a long time without electricity and running water, I imagined the smell would have been fairly intense and there were not many windows to let in any light either. Sitting on the front porch among the piles of mail, coffee cups, and tiny cartons of 1% milk, there were many plastic buckets that smelled as though they were used as makeshift commodes, and a wooden stick that was clearly used to mix the ubiquitous red paint.

messages © Laura Kicey

By the front door on the porch there was a tiny hand written sign that said LEAVE MESSAGE CAN'T HEAR KNOCKING ON DOOR. On the wall on other side of the door, the ever-disturbing message scrawled in huge letters "PREMEDITATED MURDER HELP". It was quite affecting to finally see it up close, as never before.

dormer © Laura Kicey

XX © Laura Kicey

wind man
wind man © Laura Kicey

tree house
tree house © Laura Kicey

collapse © Laura Kicey

It appeared as though the bend in the road where PennDOT once attempted to take down Violet's tree to widen the road, had finally taken its vehicular toll on her property- something had hit the corner of her garage with quite a bit of force. What remained was a pile of cinderblocks, each of which bore fragments of words I had photographed long ago.

writer's blocks
writer's blocks © Laura Kicey

The backside of the same building which I had never seen, had a narrative that did not appear anywhere else on her property, where she seems to declare a betrayal by her husband:


persecutes prostitutes
persecutes prostitutes © Laura Kicey

The third side of this same building appeared to have at one time had a word painted on each individual cinderblock, but was now faded beyond legibility.

quieted © Laura Kicey

The wall facing the road was essentially unchanged, listing items for sale and reward amounts for different crimes with a bit of graffiti that had been there for years.

I had been concerned that we would be harassed or chased off, but there was only one guy who slowed as he drove by us while we standing on the street looking at the buildings and he shouted "It's really something, isn't it?!!" And it was.

sam hoover

All the buildings seemed like they were on the verge of being completely swallowed by all the thick ivy. Recalling how panicked and alarmed I felt the first time I saw this place, it did my heart good to see quince and magnolia growing over Violet's 'grave'. May she rest in peace.

magnolia © Laura Kicey

The light of God surrounds me. The love of God enfolds me. The power of God protects me. Where I am God is. That's my prayer.

-Violet Hobaugh, from one of her past interviews

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Anonymous changoblanco said...

A wonderful tribute and touching conclusion to a compelling essay.
How wonderful to see it all with new eyes. I hope she is resting now with a quite mind.

5:36 PM, April 13, 2010  
Blogger helveticaneue said...

Thank you very much. I truly hope she has found some peace.

7:13 PM, April 13, 2010  
Blogger ElisaHH said...

What an awesome account of her work and property. You can feel the emotion in the pictures. Someone can not fake this type of restlessness. Sad, but amazing! Thanks for sharing.

11:15 AM, April 29, 2010  
Blogger helveticaneue said...

Thank you Elisa!

1:37 PM, April 30, 2010  
Blogger Sara said...

I know who owns the property and I don't think you'd be kicked off of the property, though I can't say that with absolute certainty so just be careful! Violet was my great grandmother and I saw the first post that you did a long time ago, and now looking at this second post I am amazed at your work and how it brought light to this whole situation and to her life. I imagine the inside to look something of the show Hoarders from what my grandmother has described. It is very sad but she was a very troubled woman. Your work is just awesome.

5:03 PM, June 03, 2010  
Blogger helveticaneue said...

Sara - thank you so much for reading and your kind words. I've received quite a range of comments about the photographs I've taken on your great grandmother's property - from fascinated to furious - so hearing from someone *so* close to Violet makes me feel... I'm not sure there is one right word to describe it - relieved, perhaps, that you aren't horrified? I am glad I was able to return and make something to remember her, even though I never knew her - it probably seems a bit bizarre seeing it this way - but she had quite a profound effect on me. There are elements in what she made on her property that feel so familiar to me in the creative process, when words and ideas just flow out so intensely and connections are made in ways beyond my understanding. It is both a scary and amazing thing to bear witness to, what the mind is capable of.

As with all of the places I visit after people have left them, I took great care to not disturb or move anything while I was there, leaving everything as I found it.

thank you again for looking and I am glad you enjoy my other work as well!

9:45 PM, June 03, 2010  

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