August 29, 2012
I was recently contacted by Lisa Wagstaff, owner of the cutest mailbox in Doraville. She wanted to tell me about her cousin, Thor; and show me some of the other art he’d created for her.
Lisa has lived in Doraville’s Oakcliff neighborhood for the past 10 years. During that time, Thor has often stayed with her – sometimes for years at a time.
Even though he is currently in the Pacific Northwest, Thor has left a part of himself at Lisa’s house and in Doraville. Lisa was nice enough to show me some of Thor’s murals, which are unlike anything I’ve seen before. The most impressive ones were in her two (relatively small) bathrooms – and what is really impressive is the way they take you away to another place and really open up the small rooms.
The downstairs half-bath was the first room Lisa showed me. When she opened the door, I suddenly found myself on a mountaintop with waterfalls and clouds above me.
Even more impressive to me was the full upstairs bathroom, which is a whole underwater world. There’s a richness of texture here that is a delight. When Lisa was showing me the mural, I kept exclaiming, because I would find some delightful detail. Really, this was my favorite room in her house.
Of course, what Thor is best known for – in his professional life and in the neighborhood – are his chainsaw sculptures. Lisa told me that when she first moved to Doraville, she wanted to meet neighbors, but didn’t know how. Once her cousin came to town, though, he’d be creating something in the front yard, and people would stop their cars and ask him about what he was doing. Soon he’d have a small crowd gathering in the front yard – enjoying the show!
Thor actually became very well known in Oakcliff. When storms came through town and the city would have to deal with fallen trees, the Mayor would even have logs dropped off in the yard for him. In an e-mail, Thor told me that a tree had fallen at a neighbor’s house. Thor went over and started talking to some of the people who were standing around, when a guy looked at him and said, “Can I help you?”
Thor said, “Yeah, I want the logs there.”
He said, “OK, where do you want them?”
Thor said, “My front yard, 2 doors down.”
The guy said, “You can’t have logs in your front yard!”
Thor told him, “Well I already do!”
The guy asked Thor to show him, so they went over to Lisa’s yard, looking at the creation he was working on. The gentleman was so impressed that he said, “We’ll have them dropped off for you the next day!”
After the guy left, Thor asked his neighbor who he was, and was told, “That’s the Mayor!”
As far as he knows, Thor is the only person the city ever approved to have logs left in his front yard.
While people were watching Thor work, they’d talk to him, to Lisa and to each other. Suddenly, Lisa found that she was a part of a community, and that she and her neighbors had bonded through his art. Even when Thor was traveling the world or practicing his work somewhere else – those bonds remained and remain to this day.
And when the Oakcliff neighborhood was in danger of having a huge garbage processing plant placed almost right inside its borders, Thor used his skills to help citizens fight back. Here’s what Susan Crawford remembers:
When our entire neighborhood was in jeopardy a few years ago, the mailbox artist, among many others in the Oakcliff area, volunteered to help. An enormous garbage processing plant – a dump – was petitioning the DeKalb County Commissioners for a zoning change, and the county had already voted in their favor the first time around. Thor was kind enough to paint several decorative, attention-getting posters in record time. Many residents showed up to speak at the second meeting, where Thor’s signs were prominently displayed, both in the courthouse and on TV. They were a colorful and impacting eleventh-hour influence on the commissioners, who reconsidered their first vote and ultimately decided in favor of the Oakcliff area residents.
After not being sure how to make friends with her neighbors, Lisa now knows people up and down the street. They invite each other to parties, or call each other if they see something suspicious, or stop by each others’ homes to shoot the breeze. They genuinely like each other and like hanging out with each other. It’s the community that Thor and his art helped build.