Everyone's a critic

The city doesn't buy a homeowner's claim that a junked car is art

Rhae Lumpkin's property is a mess. The house looks to have been built in chunks -- one painted white, one painted red, and one rendered in unfinished cedar. On the porch, a large industrial spool serves as a table. An old rusted still, a piece of found art, sits in the front yard. Several logs have been arranged to form a sort of low fence along one side of the property. The grass grows only where it wishes, untamed.

"They want the yards out here to all be manicured," the self-described inventor says. By "they" he is referring to "the mayor and all his buddies" in Forest Hills, the upscale residential area behind which Lumpkin's less posh neighborhood is located. And, by extension, "they" refers to the city's code compliance department.

Lumpkin, 57, has had his share of problems with code inspectors. He has been cited for numerous violations and believes he's being picked on. To him, his property shows his tendencies as an artist and naturalist; to the city, it shows his tendencies as a perpetual code violator. He is trying to fight the department because, he says, "If I don't fight 'em, nobody will."

A July 1998 notice of violation cited him for improperly storing lumber, having high weeds and grass, leaving rubbish in his yard, and keeping junk motor vehicles. To an onlooker, the violations may seem cut-and-dried, but not to Lumpkin. The lumber is his fence; it's a naturalist's approach to landscaping, he says. As for the grass, he explains he's lucky to be able to keep any alive because of his property's location in an "ancient riverbed." The frequent flooding won't allow him to grow St. Augustine grass, as he believes "they" would like him to. (He says that the city annexed his neighborhood against its will in 1952, "sort of like the Nazis," and that it now uses the area as a kind of holding tank to protect the local golf course from flooding.) The still, the bolt, and other pieces that Lumpkin finds interesting -- well, the city does not.

But one of Lumpkin's biggest problems with code compliance is his vehicles. On February 4, he found a red tag, a warning that one of his trucks would soon be seized. But according to Lumpkin, the tag wasn't on the truck, in plain sight, as it was supposed to be. The inspector had put the sticker on, sneaked into the bushes to take the photo required by the department, peeled the sticker off, and tossed it onto the ground, he claims. "The leaves were all crushed down over here, and the tag was lying right over there," he says. The inspector on the case, Alphie Guillory, denies the allegation. "I tagged the vehicle and gave him proper notice according to regulations," he says.

The code violation in question was a 1954 green-and-white Chevrolet truck. Lumpkin says the truck was a rare model, with a one-piece windshield, though the vehicle's rarity hardly seems relevant when you consider its condition. By all appearances, it hadn't run in some time. It was rusty. It was missing glass. The hood was disconnected from the rest of the vehicle and lay on the ground. By city code standards, it was clearly a "junk motor vehicle." But there was one very noticeable thing about this truck, something that set it apart from most hunks of metal towed away by the city. That hunk of junk was art -- according to Lumpkin, anyway.

The artist took a picture of his work-in-progress before March 15, when the city "hooked onto it and drug it off." In the photo, rising from where the front end of the truck used to be, is what looks like a bird. A big flightless bird, perhaps some extinct breed, with a long beak, small wings, and clumsy-looking feet. Made exclusively from car parts (its body is an engine block, its feet oil pans), the creature is poised as though it's about to cannibalize the rest of the vehicle. Perhaps it should have; maybe then it would have become 100 percent sculpture and been able to stay at its home in Lumpkin's yard. As it is, though, it's an unfortunate victim attached to a code-violating truck, and is now the property of the city.

Lumpkin had had the bird for several years. It used to be freestanding, before he decided that it went well with the truck -- which happened to be after the time the city instructed him to "discontinue the salvage or reclamation of inoperable vehicles," but before the red tag was affixed. Lumpkin tied the bird to the truck with a cable, and had planned on making it the centerpiece of an "outdoor studio" where he could construct other works, hopefully code-compliant ones.

"They all think they're art critics," Lumpkin says of code compliance. Department representatives, however, say they're not critics at all. Division manager Larry Holland says that after a person is informed that a vehicle is going to be seized, that person has the responsibility to fix the vehicle, move it, or accept that it will be towed away. When asked whether the presence of a giant metal bird would make a difference in a vehicle's fate, Holland chuckles. Not if it's gone through the process and been declared a junk motor vehicle, he says. As far as salvaging the art part of it, Holland says the department is "not going to take things off the vehicle or out of the vehicle." If Lumpkin wanted to retrieve the bird, he says, he had ample opportunity to do so.

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