The Art of Christmas
Hampden artist harvests hubcaps for 10-foot tree
Published: December 5, 2012
Every evening from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, you can find Jim Pollock in his living room, surrounded by art. Pollock lives inside a rowhouse on Hampden’s “Christmas Street,” the block of 34th Street between Keswick Road and Chestnut Avenue, famous for its fantastical display of holiday cheer. Every December, neighbors deck the street out in thousands of Christmas lights and other decorations, and thousands of people stop by to catch the display in all its shining glory.
Pollock is part of the spectacle too. On his front lawn you’ll find bike wheels stacked and welded together to form snowmen, a tree with Old Bay and National Bohemian ornaments, and crisscrossing strands of pencil steel that look similar to snowflakes. But besides his offbeat art, there’s one thing Pollock does that goes above and beyond the rest of his neighbors: He warmly welcomes passersby into his living room-turned-art gallery.
Bob Hosier, the man who started the Christmas Street tradition along with his wife, Darlene, first motivated Pollock to start up the gallery.
“Bob came by and gave me a nice big kick in the butt,” Pollock says, recounting how his neighbor had come over and asked him for a business card, which the artist didn’t have at the time. Next, Hosier asked Pollock if he would ever consider opening his house up to the public, and when the artist explained he hadn’t thought of it, Bob said, “Well, nice knowing you, Jim!”
“That was enough,” Pollock says. “The moment he left the door, I was on the phone with my buddy. I said [to him], ‘We have the biggest show in town, and all we have to do is clean up the pizza boxes and beer cans and paint the place.’”
That moment of clarity occurred in 1995, just a few years after Pollock and a handful of fellow MICA graduates had found the house at 708 W. 34th St. while searching for studio space. At that time, the lights hadn’t yet taken over the block.
“Some people had gotten involved, but it was dark from my neighbor’s house down,” Pollock says. “Sharon across the street—she’s our unofficial mayor—came over and gave us a bunch of lights and said, ‘Do something with them.’”
That first year, Pollock and his punk-rocker roommates strung lights in a giant X on their front porch and put out Halloween decorations.
“It was upsetting to people, but, you know, it’s what you do right out of college,” he says.
Eventually, Pollock decided to purchase the house. He spent time scouring the alleyways, looking for things that could be turned into decorations, and came up with his first holiday-themed artwork: the pencil-steel snowflakes and bicycle-rim snowmen.
It didn’t take long for Pollock’s neighbors to start asking him if he would sell the sculptures. They even began commissioning the artist to turn their own ideas into reality, sometimes in exchange for new metal scraps for his work and, once, for a few cases of cat food. Over the years, he’s created flying pigs, 4-foot ruby slippers, and a herd of crab reindeer with wrenches for appendages.
But it was Pollock’s neighbor Diane Wallace who tasked him with creating the piece he is now most famous for. Wallace had been collecting hubcaps and asked the artist to weld them together in the shape of a Christmas tree.
Pollock—who works with bronze and other metals at Hampden’s New Arts Foundry and spends time scouring the Potomac and Back rivers, looking for metal to use in his own work—delivered. The tree sat in Wallace’s yard the first year, but after many requests to find out who the artist behind the sculpture was, the tree found a more permanent place in Pollock’s yard the next holiday season.
In 1995, the hubcap tree was only 3 feet tall, but thanks to a snowstorm in January of 1996, it grew quickly.
“There was a big pothole that opened up on Keswick and people kept losing their hubcaps,” Pollock says with a smile on his face. Today, the tree stands at a towering 10 feet and is made up of more than 100 hubcaps.
When asked why he continues constructing the tree and operating the gallery, Pollock’s answer is simple. “I keep doing it because people keep coming back,” he says. “It’s been amazing. Last year I broke a record and had 40,000 people walk through.”
That number means that Pollock, who meticulously keeps track of his visitor numbers with a handheld tally clicker, gets just as much foot traffic in the time his living room is open as the Baltimore Museum of Art does.
For Pollock, who spends much of November painting his house and putting up decorations, the time and effort is worth it. “The reward is that so many people get to see your work. That’s what it’s been about for me since the beginning.”
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