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Home is Where the Art is

           Patrick Meyers doesn't call himself an artist, but you might if you passed his house at 3149 Colfax around holiday time. Most of the year, Meyers's home on the corner of 32nd and Colfax in Minneapolis is indistinguishable from others in the neighborhood east of Lake Calhoun between Hennepin and Lyndale; the two-story cream stucco is remarkable only for its lavender and green trim. But since 1992, Meyers has been decorating his house with extravagant holiday light displays--commemorating Valentine's Day, Saint Patrick's, Easter, the Fourth of July, Halloween, and Christmas--that reclaim those degraded holidays through guerrilla art.

           This Easter, Meyers's house featured an illuminated rabbit family, a 6-foot carrot drawn in colored lights, several 2-foot-tall luminous chickens emerging from shells, and flood-lit, day-glo Easter baskets arranged along the banister of his porch. For Valentine's Day, he designed an enormous blinking arrow in white lights that shot toward a red heart.

           "I've almost seen people have car accidents," Meyers says with embarrassed delight, on a recent evening when I stop by to talk with him about his work. A tall, slender, soft-spoken man with a neat, round goatee and green eyes, Meyers grows animated when discussing his lights and the responses they arouse. Meyers, who has a degree in design and works as a landscaper and interior painter, is accustomed to strong reactions. He gets requests from strangers and neighbors who have developed an attachment to certain arrangements. By mid-June, he says, people were already asking him, "Are you going to decorate for the Fourth of July?"

           Heidi Mitchell, Meyers's friend and president of the neighborhood association, says that "hundreds of people drive by" to see the lights, and for two years running trick-or-treaters from the suburbs have come in by van: They pull up, pile out, visit Meyers's house, then pile back in and drive away without so much as glancing at the rest of the block. "The whole neighborhood's jealous," Mitchell says.

           "It's all due to corporate downsizing," Meyers jokes as we sit on his as-yet undecorated porch one fine summer evening in late June. Actually his decorating efforts predate his layoff slip in September 1992; they began in 1991, when he mounted a modest Halloween display featuring a big ghost and seven plastic pumpkins that hung from the balcony eaves with a blinking light in each. ("It had to be an odd number of pumpkins," Meyers confides. "Odd numbers are better for design. It's one of the first things they teach you in design school. Of course, I have completely forgotten the concept 'less is more.'") But the whole affair became a more serious preoccupation after he lost his job. With time on his hands, he began "thrifting"--visiting thrift stores and auctions and rummage sales collecting plastic pumpkins. His collection grew from seven pumpkins to some 100-150. Reactions to his lavish 1992 Halloween display spurred him on to more hubristic designs.

           It's hard to quantify a labor of love, and Meyers is unsure about the quantity of decorations he owns (though a rough estimate suggests some 3,000 lights alone), but he will say that they take up much of his attic, as well as a portion of the basement and a large closet. From the top of the ladder that leads into his attic one can glimpse boxes upon boxes of decorations stacked in the corners and in the middle of the floor, each labeled for its holiday. There are huge metal grids for light displays. In the far corner are stacks of boxes for Halloween; nearby a half-dozen large boxes marked for Easter are flanked by two giant plastic rabbits. I read one label: Jade and Purple Christmas Balls; another says St. Patrick's Day. Meyers holds up several new and unopened packages of lights--angels, chickens, Hershey's kisses. Beside the ladder, a stack of drawers is color-coded for each color of light, a technique Meyers hopes will simplify his decorating in future since "each holiday has its primary color scheme."

           When we meet, Meyers is still conceptualizing his Fourth of July display, which he expects will take him 12 hours to mount. He has purchased a dozen nylon banners with wavy stars and stripes, which he intends to drape from the porch and balcony like the old-fashioned decorations on a gazebo. Already he has spent three hours stringing the balcony's eaves with blue bulbs alternating with 6-inch star-shaped lights. He has stapled red cellophane along the balcony railing, which he hopes to illuminate, though he's not sure it will work. He thinks instead he may arrange a fireworks display in lights on the side of the house (a neighbor's suggestion), and arrange mini-flags along the perimeter of the porch by drilling holes in blocks of wood and then nailing the blocks to the banister to serve as a base for the flags, which will hang at a jaunty angle.

           "There are ideas rolling around in my head all the time," says Meyers, who is not content to mount the same display twice for any holiday. The idea of illuminating colored Easter baskets came to him mid-winter, in December or January, and he began to seek baskets in thrift stores. He disdains commonplace decorations--for example, he eschews figures of any kind at Christmas time, especially Santas. In place of the typical illuminated reindeer, sleigh, and snowmen, Meyers last year hung a light-encrusted wooden sled from the side of his house beside a 4-foot orb strung with lights.

           Ironically, he doesn't decorate the inside of his house at the holidays. Although he owns indoor decorations that match the turquoise and salmon color scheme of his living room--"I have an obsessive nature," he notes--he doesn't use them. "I spend too much time on the outside." Meyers has had requests to decorate other people's homes but so far no deals have been struck. "A lot of people enjoy the idea of lights but don't want to take the time to do it," he says. But he admits he could imagine decorating houses for the holidays as a part-time business, akin to Bachman's holiday landscaping.

           House decorations are making a comeback, Meyers believes: "More and more people I know who didn't do it, do it." But that's not why he does. "Most of the holidays are in the winter and winter is so boring here; it's a way to make people laugh and smile in a dreary place. And it's a wonderful way to meet people."

           Meyers grew up in a small town in southwestern Minnesota--the year he graduated, his high school was the smallest in the state--and he is used to neighborly familiarity. "It makes it easier for people to converse," Meyers says of the lights. "Growing up in a small town you waved at everybody and you knew everyone who went by. I try to keep a little bit of that small town."

           At neighborhood meetings people will say, "Oh, you're the person with the lights." Or, "Do you live across the street from that person who does all the lights?" Meyers worked with one woman who said she'd noticed his house for years. "She thought it was a grandmother's house," he says, because it looked like someone who did it for their children. "Let the people be my children," Meyers says with mock grandiosity. "The public are my children."

           In an era when transgression is chic and breaching formal boundaries is an almost sure-fire ticket to artistic enfranchisement, Meyers's unselfconscious effort to aestheticize the hackneyed holidays and offer up public art is enough to restore faith in the idea that generosity lies behind the creative impulse. Certainly he's not in it for the cash. In addition to the cost of decorations and time, Meyers spends about $40 to $50 in electricity just on his Christmas display. But there are other nonremunerative rewards. A photographer approached him once about documenting his work, and Meyers keeps his own photographic record of each display. Last year he won the Calhoun Area Resident Action Group contest for best holiday lighting, which won him a night for two at the Nicollet Island Inn. And he has a loyal--and growing--following.

           Although he's not in it for acclaim, Meyers does harbor an ambition to be featured on the KARE-11 news, which highlights the best holiday displays in the city. "There are people who do a much better job for Christmas," he says modestly--meaning that they have more decorations--but Meyers has tried to interest the television station in his Easter and Halloween displays to no avail. "I've called, I've called, and they haven't come," he laments. "They don't get the extent of this."

           Asked if the obsession has changed his life, Meyers smiles ruefully. "No," he says. "Damn it." Then he laughs. "It has brought me a little out of my shell."


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