In all likelihood, John Holmberg has never been called a patron of the arts. A 47-year-old heavy-equipment operator and flag-flying NASCAR fan, Holmberg fits more readily in the gearhead demo. But in the course of the last two weeks, the taciturn northeast Minneapolis resident has played the unlikely role of host and benefactor to some two dozen artists, musicians, and assorted weirdos who needed a place where they could assemble a fleet of scrap rafts for a high-concept voyage down the Mississippi River.
As it turned out, Holmberg had the perfect set up: a riverfront property with a big floating dock, tons of tools, and even a couple of houseboats where sleep-deprived workers could catch a nap. In New York art-collective circles, plans for the Miss Rockaway Armada have been circulating for nearly a year. Holmberg only learned about the project a month ago from neighbor Phil Harder, who heard about it from an artist friend. On a whim, Holmberg decided to let the artists use his property. He then watched, with growing wonder, bemusement, and a little envy, as the whole madcap venture took shape.
The affection Holmberg felt for the artists behind Miss Rockaway was mutual. "There is no other place like John's," Paul Cesewski (a.k.a. "Plumber Paul") said appreciatively a few days before the Armada set out. "It's like a magical redneck playland made of garbage. It's just fantastic. I can't believe I'm here."
For the past few years, Minneapolis had been the launching point for a number of quixotic expeditions down the Mississippi, some of which featured homemade plywood barges and barrel boats. But the Miss Rockaway Armada is of a whole different scale than its predecessors. The fleet consists of three plywood rafts and four auxiliary barrel boats which, when finally hitched together, extended about 80 feet in length. With a performance stage, a galley, a massive sculptural representation of a fish skeleton, and a pedal-powered Ferris Wheel, it is more evocative of Burning Man than Huck Finn. (In fact, the bicycle powered Ferris Wheel--constructed by the aforementioned Plumber Paul--was once an attraction at Burning Man, the alternative arts festival held each year in the Nevada desert.)
The majority of the materials used in its construction--mainly, sheets of plywood, two-by-fours, and plastic barrels--were scavenged from construction sites in Brooklyn, which is home to a sizeable contingent of the crew. The two diesel motors were extracted from Volkswagen Rabbits. They were converted to run on restaurant grease by a San Francisco musician who goes by the name Chicken John.
An ecologically friendly approach is one of the main goals of the Miss Rockaway gang, said crew member A'yen Tran, a 25 year-old singer and think tank director from Brooklyn. "Basically, it's made out of garbage," she explained, before adding: "But we're not just an eco raft and we're not just an art raft. We call ourselves a mobile cultural center." In the course of its long trip to St. Louis, the group plans to make various port calls, putting on musical performances (the band is called "The Nothing to Lose Navy"), know-your-rights workshops for teens, and maybe even a mini-bike precision dance routine.
The other goal, naturally, is to have a lot of fun. In that, the members of the crew seemed to be succeeding in spectacular form, despite the many false starts, delays, and assorted setbacks. The Miss Rockaway Armada finally departed Holmberg's place on the afternoon of August 9. As it passed through the upper lock at St. Anthony Falls, the voyagers hooted and hollered and cranked up their floating sound system, which was fashioned from tires, laundry hampers, and gym lockers.
On the Stone Arch Bridge, passersbys took in the spectacle with gape-jawed appreciation. One of the crewmembers shouted in exuberance, "Quit your jobs! Be like us!" An impromptu round of applause broke out.
That evening, Cory Parkos sat glumly on a bench at John Holmberg's dock on the waterfront in northeast. The Miss Rockaway crew was gone. Holmberg was gone, too; he'd followed the Armada--on a jet ski--for a final night of celebration in Minneapolis at the White Sands Beach, near Lake Street.
Parkos, a former mailman who retired on disability after losing his leg in a motorcycle wreck, had spent most of his spare days and night at Holmberg's place, where he filmed the round-the-clock spectacle of the raft building. Now it was over.
"It was like a fairy tale or a dream," Parkos said. "There will never be anything like that here again." He paused a moment and wondered aloud whether any of it was even real. Then he looked to the shore and pointed at the physical evidence. There on a cement and iron retaining wall was a colorful mural, left in appreciation by the crew of the Miss Rockaway Armada.