Don’t have the funds to experience a magnificent Baroque-style fountain in Rome? Want to check out a towering artistic interpretation of Cthulhu (generally pronounced “Ka-THOO-loo”), the malevolent high priest of the elder gods from the writings of science-fiction author H.P. Lovecraft without the bother of attending a sci-fi convention?
Look no further than Ann Arbor’s Hollywood Park neighborhood. Off a dirt road, in an open lot surrounded by a canopy of trees, you’ll find the majestic ten-foot-tall Fountain of Minerva, intricately incorporating the composition of Rome’s Trevi and Triton fountains, the play of water plumes at Lake Como’s Villa d’Este, and the dynamic posture of the neoclassical Diane d’Anet at the Louvre.
Near the porch of the yellow brick suburban house next door, a nearly eight-foot statue of a bearded, three-hoofed, octopus-armed Cthulhu, squid-like tentacles protruding from his cloak, stands sentry on a platform, his faux patina nearly blending in with the nearby arborvitae. Poised and ready to pounce from his place on the porch, a small dragon with a hammerhead, serpentine neck, carved scales, and spinelike protrusions displays his fangs.
“They’re real crime deterrents,” jokes Kevin Nickerson, the owner of the home and its unusual art. “Cthulhu alone would scare the hell out of any intruder.” His wife, Jennifer, laughs and says that Cthulhu reminds her of the Davy Jones character in Pirates of the Caribbean.
How and why did these seemingly ordinary suburbanites, a software programmer and quality assurance technician, acquire a science-fiction deity, a dragon, and a monumental fountain as lawn ornaments, rather than a common birdbath or garden gnomes?
“We did it to piss off the neighbors,” deadpans Kevin. In truth, he and Jennifer genuinely like their neighbors, and their neighbors often express their appreciation for the Nickersons’ unusual art as they stroll by. Kevin notes that the occasional drivers in the bucolic neighborhood often come to a halt, then make queries and take photos.
Kevin met Tomak Julian Baksik, the creator of all three pieces, through the Society for Creative Anachronism. Mutual interests in science fiction and fantasy—and Kevin’s appreciation for Baksik’s art—cemented their friendship and inspired Kevin to buy the dragon and then to fund the creation and installation of Cthulhu in 2002.
Baksik studied physics and art at the U-M in the late 1980s. His abiding love for neoclassical art and sculpture didn’t fit in well there. “The art school and I parted ways after three years because of differing perspectives,” he recalls. “Their focus on contemporary progressive art—I think it’s ugly—clashed with my belief that art should be beautiful. I don’t like today’s art, and believe art has been going downhill for 400 years. Bernini is my hero.”
After leaving school, Baksik founded NetherCraft Statuary. Today, in a pole barn on his property in Southfield, he and his team create statuary, stained glass, bronze art pieces, and architectural panels and products in sci-fi and fantasy styles, including Steampunk, Panelstone, Haunting, and Egyptian Tomb.
He estimates the 200-pound Cthulhu, cast from a polyester fiberglass resin and assembled using epoxy, took nearly a year to create. “Tomak built the mold in his tiny kitchen,” recalls Kevin. “The way he kept slapping on plaster over the chicken wire reminded me of the mashed potatoes scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He called me and Jen at midnight to let us know that the mold was finished and invited us to help him break it up, since it was too big to get out of the kitchen.” Kevin struck the first sledgehammer blow, and the three completed the destruction in Baksik’s backyard.
Baksik took the finished Cthulhu to appearances at the sci-fi convention DragonCon in Atlanta, and then to Starwood, the nation’s largest pagan festival, before installing it at the Nickersons’. He later created a second Cthulhu that was unveiled at the World Steam Expo, a convention of Steampunk aficionados.
Baksik came back to the Nickersons when he wanted to make a monumental classical fountain. “Jen and I decided to do it on a whim. We do silly things,” says Kevin about their decision to fund the Fountain of Minerva. Baksik says the fountain’s design, construction, and assembly required two trips to Rome and more than 10,000 hours of hands-on work by a team of volunteers, including himself, Kevin, and Jennifer, over a two-year span.
Cast in a weather-resistant composition of acrylic, epoxy, and fiberglass, the fountain depicts a scene from the Trojan War: Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, furious at the mythological Greek hero Ajax, calls on Neptune, the god of water and sea, to raise a storm to smite the Aechean fleet. A sea nymph crouches at the ready nearby. Water spurts from the Medusa shield resting on Minerva’s left shoulder and hand and from the rocks and shells in the fountain’s base. The piece was displayed at Pennsic War, the annual American medieval camping event held by the Society for Creative Anachronism, and then at the Michigan Renaissance Festival, before its installation in Hollywood Park.
Now Baksik is looking for a patron to support the creation of a massive stone, bronze, and glass fountain inspired by the Richard Wagner opera Das Rheingold. “I’ve already made the model and perfected some innovative glass processes for it,” he says.
Is there room in the Nickersons’ back yard for yet another monumental water feature? “No,” chuckles Kevin. “I think we’ve got enough sculpture at this house.”