Do you remember my friend, Bea, who runs the Junk Yard? Well, she called me recently.
"Wanna! You gotta come over and see what I've done with my new welder."
"Is this in the Junk Yard?" I asked.
"Oh, no. This is in my own back yard," she said. "I made this for myself. Just come around the side of the house and yoohoo. I will be out back."
She was her usual exuberant self when I got there. "Come on back here, hon. I'll pour us some lemonade and you can see my latest creation. Hot dog, I just love that welding machine. The man I bought it from just wouldn't believe any woman could use it. Why, I can weld rings around that ol' boy! "
"There you go!" she exclaimed after she had gotten my lemonade, and pointed dramatically toward a corner of her back yard. "My Bathtub Madonna!"
"Omigosh!" I exclaimed. "You made that?"
"You betcha! Saw one of them old discarded bathtubs turned up like that when I was on the East Coast once and been wanting to do something with one ever since."
"You welded her together, your Madonna?"
"Yep; well, welded and soldered. All that fancy metal work came from the bar in that fancy old hotel that closed when the copper mine shut down up in New Mexico."
"Oh, I love her headdress, or is it a halo? What is it made of?"
"Why, that's real old Mexican silver. I just curved it up and added some bits of solder here and there."
"And her face?"
"Well, that's one of the newel posts off the fancy circular iron staircase that was in that same old hotel. I bought a couple of them when I got the other stuff. One of these days I will figure out what to do with the other one."
"Oh, look; you have her holding a rose. How in the world did you do that?"
"Well, hon, it would be easier to show you than to explain. Next time I get out the welding and solder stuff I'll give you a call."
"Please do," I said.
I walked around the side of the shrine past the rabbit, surprised that he didn't hop away. "You thought he was real, didn't you?" Bea grinned.
"He's made out of cast iron; kinda old, too, I think. He came with some stuff that I bought from those two little old twin ladies when they moved from their big old house in Sunset Heights to the Good Samaritan place. He used to be a doorstop in their parlor."
"Oh yes," I said. "You don't actually see doorstops used much in their original way any more; modern doors stop where they are supposed to. We have a cast iron cat, though, that is actually needed for the bedroom door in our place in the mountains. It won't stay open without it."
"I like the way you located the tub right up against that vine that was already growing here," I said. "It's neat the way those tendrils kind of curl around the side. Now all you need is a chair or bench so that any visitor to your junk yard or your home, whatever their faith, can find a restful spot to meditate."
"Hmm," she mused. "There was an old wagon seat that came in with the last load of stuff. Maybe I could take that and ...."
As always, I had a fun visit with Bea. She's quite a character. I never tire of seeing what new something she makes out of something old, and you never know what you'll find when you stop by. I definitely plan to visit her junk yard again this fall. And maybe she'll have that wagon seat bench ready beside the Madonna!
In one of our email exchanges my friend Charlene in Canberra mentioned that she was planning to make a memorial grotto for her mother. She said she hoped it would be more tasteful than a bathtub madonna. I had never heard of such a thing. Until then the only private shrines to Mary that I had seen were made of rock, stone and cement. They are quite common in the older sections of El Paso, which is heavily Catholic (I am not, by the way). Matter of fact, there is one in the yard of a house just up the street from us.
I was so intrigued with the concept that I Googled and found pictures of Mary shrines made using discarded bathtubs. Apparently they are more familiar in the Eastern part of the United States, mostly German Catholic in origin. Often the interior of the bathtub is painted blue, and sometimes there are animals around them because Mary is associated with animals.
W. Marie, owner of the online miniatures group THE CAMP and affectionately known as Den Mother, announced a summer 2009 Creating Contest for the group, where we were to take broken bits and odds and ends and make something new out of them. I had gathered up all kinds of broken and mismatched stuff from my stash for ideas but just couldn't think of anything. I remembered that I had a really scruffy old bathtub, so I got it out to join the rest of the junk and thought vaguely that I might make a miniature version of the bathtub madonna.
Nothing happened in my mind for the longest time, because I kept trying to use a wooden figure (see the red and blue piece below) and a piece of wood for the halo and I couldn't visualize making anything worthwhile. Also, we had one of the hottest summers I can recall, and my creative efforts were nil because even with the blinds drawn and a fan blowing on my face it was too hot for me to even sit at my work desk.
In disgust and embarrassment, I finally wrote Den Mother the day before the deadline that I hated to disappoint her after making a commitment to enter the contest, but I just couldn't come up with anything. She stated that she had faith in me, that she knew I would come through, and said she had already extended the deadline a few days for everyone and surely that would be enough time for me to come up with something, too. In fact, she nagged insistently.
Well. So, I promised I would try and went out to my work area for one more look.
In the 80s I purchased several pretty larger filigree pieces from a woman named Amy, who had a tiny little gift and secondhand shop in a strip mall. They were too big for most mini purposes but I figured I could use them for something some day and they were a great buy. I had gotten out a couple of those pieces, thinking I might cut them apart for something.
I desultorily shuffled once again among the broken chair legs and cabinet doors and metal stuff and buttons and cracked china and brooches and odds and ends and suddenly I just quivered as my eye and my fingertips went bing, bing, bing, bing, from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4. There were the elements for the Bathtub Madonna!
Finally, after all these years, there was a use for one of those filigree pieces; #2 above, which became her dress. #3 is a gold brass half ball shank button that came off the cuff of one of my blouses many years ago, and #4 is half of an earring that I have held onto for about as long.
I decided I better make sure everything was going to fit in the bathtub.
I propped it up to see how the filigree would fit and to get an idea of how to fasten it in place on its base, a round styrofoam disk that I had purchased some time ago at a local Dollar Tree. I decided I would need to bury the faucet section in the base, just as it would have been buried in the ground in real life.
I first cut out an opening that would allow the tub to sit upright and then coated the base with my usual dirt and grass mixture (Bea's so busy with her junk yard that she doesn't have time for a really lush lawn). I decided to wait on painting the tub, which was pretty battered, until after I was through test fitting the figure and planning further landscaping, etc.
I bent the filigree sides for the Madonna's skirt so that it would fit within the bathtub, and to line it I used the metal pull-off top from a can of coffee (I save one of EVERYTHING lol). I first folded it to fit within the filigree as her skirt lining.
Then I removed it carefully and cut slits at the neckline so that I could make the folds of her sleeves.
I used a paint brush handle to bend the metal forward to form the sleeves, but then decided that I would let those just be the folds of her robe because I wanted to have her holding something in her hands and didn't like the way the metal creased as I tried to bend her arms at the elbows.
So for her hands I cut two petals from a flattened bell cap and glued them to extend to the center. I don't remember where I got the metal rose; it was in my findings stash.
To keep the skirt firmly against the filigree I used some foam packing peanuts to wedge it in place.
To make her head I inserted some toothpick pieces inside the shank of the half round button and poked the stick into the top of her dress.
Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photo as I molded the metal around her head to form the hood of her robe. You can glimpse a bit of it here.
I used a combination of Tacky and Super Glue to glue all the parts together, and set her aside to dry before I added the halo last (first cutting away the back half of the earring and the post).
Here I am making the path that leads to the shrine, giving it a slight curve, which I think always looks more pleasing than a straight path jutting off the edge of the base. I used fine model railroad ballast and tinted my glue with a bit of brown paint so if any showed within the stones it wouldn't look so obvious. On the right you see a line of glue where I will be placing the larger stones to edge the path. A sprinkling of the grass mixture over the stones will fill in between them for a natural look.
When I was finally through with all the planning and fittings with the tub, I gave it two coats of glossy white paint. I left it overnight, worried sick that it wouldn't dry well enough for me to finish everything in the short amount of time I had left. Sure enough, in my haste to put the second coat on, the paint ran a bit along the sides...
... which is why I added this plant to help conceal them. Frankly, I like this touch and probably would have added it anyway.
Fortunately, the paint dried sufficiently over night for me to glue the Madonna in place and add the finishing touches - all of which I had already planned - the final day to meet the extended deadline.
As I added each new element - the rose bushes, the flower bed border and the vining bush at the back - I "buried" the edges by sprinkling on more of the grass and/or dirt mixture, including between the stones.
As a final touch I added the rabbit and then I took the After picture for the contest and got it and the Before picture in on time. Whew!
Thanks for the idea, Charlene, and I hope your memorial grotto for your mother is more tasteful than my Bathtub Madonna. And thank you, Den Mother, for "kicking my butt" as you delicately phrased it.
And thanks also to all those members of CAMP who voted for my Bathtub Madonna. She won First Place in the contest among some very fine entries and I am very pleased!
NOTES 2: Among the emails I have received since putting this on my website, I received the following from Erin Duffy:
"Your bathtub Madonna brought back many memories for me. My Italian-Catholic Grandfather made a couple of them for family members' backyards. He covered them in cobblestones. When we sold his house, I wanted to move it to my house, but it was too heavy even for a commercial contractor to lift out of the ground.
By the way, in Upstate NY, these shrines are affectionately called "Mary on the Half-Shell".
And this email came from Dana Perkins:
"I will verify that "Bathtub Madonnas" are common in our area. I live in the heavily Catholic area of Biddeford and Saco, Maine.
I remember riding home with a Catholic friend one time, and he said "Let's count the virgins on the way home!" Me, a non-Catholic, didn't understand what he meant. I said, "How are you going to count the virgins? Are you going to stop and ask them?"
He laughed, and explained he was talking about the "Virgin Mary" grottos, most of which have a full color statue of Mary set inside a bathtub standing on one end, partially buried into the ground like the mini one shown on Wanna's site. The tub isn't meant to be recognized as such; it's just a way to provide protection and a visual frame around the statue of Mary.
To me, it's a similar idea to what was commonly called "exploded lawn tires", which are "garden urns" and planters made from tires that have been cut, turned inside out, and painted white so they look like large urns. In other words, take something that's "junk" and try to turn it into something decorative or useful. Which is what I guess miniaturists do all the time, anyway!
Another common idea is to take an old bed frame, set it up on your lawn, and fill it with flowers. It's a "flower bed"...
The garden planters made from old toilets are a bit embarrassing to me, and frankly, they leave me feeling a bit "flushed"...
Isn't that neat?