Ammons: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast. The show that brings you the people and projects that are advancing the future of America’s heritage. I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. In this edition of the podcast, we join NCPTT’s Jason Church as he speaks with Tony Rajer. He is an Art Conservator with the Nek Chand Foundation and a conservation professor at the University of Wisconsin. Today they will discuss Rajer’s interest in folk art and his work with the Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India.
Church: I have a couple of questions for you, Tony. I know you have quite the reputation out in the profession of the conservation of folk art. And the thing I wanted to ask you today while I got you captive is how did you get into folk art? What started your interest in conservation, but particularly the conservation of folk art?
Rajer: Well, I was born and raised in rural Wisconsin, and our neighbor was a folk artist. That is, he was a self-taught visionary artist who build concrete sculpture in his yard and carved wooden sculpture for the interior of their logged cabin, which was next to our house. He also happened to attend the same church as I did, and he was also in rosary club with my parents. So, I knew Mr. Talen as a child and was exposed to people making things and making art. My family, who also came from that kind of background, were my grandfather was a furniture maker.
Church: Now Mr. Talen, other than his own folk art there for himself, did he ever sell of has his work ever gotten out?
Rajer: He never sold his work. He only made it for the community. He’d make it for church members, and you could go to him and specifically asking for a work of art that he made and he would accommodate people and make pieces for the congregation. But apart from that, not really. Now as an young adult, I was exposed to more examples of folk are with my travels along the United States. And in college, by chance, I took a course on popular American culture, and then I was exposed to this broader vision of what visionary art is, art environments like what Mr. Talen lived in, as well as people decorating the interiors of their homes.
Church: As a conservation professional, as a conservator, what made you decide that’s what you wanted to work on?
Rajer: One of my specialties is dealing with folk art and helping to preserve folk art, and you know Jason, I made that decision to have a focal point with folk art because I had met so many folk artists also in my own travels and in my own interest in popular American culture. And I knew that this was not only unique to the United States, it’s found in other countries also, but what was unique was this relationship of meeting the artist in their home environment and the sense of humility so many of them exhibit because the vast majority of them are self-taught artists, but have this compulsion or this desire to embellish their environment.
Church: Recently you’ve been doing a lot of work with the Nek Chand Foundation in India. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Rajer: Nek Chand is a self-taught artist. He was a road inspector, and he began building a part in Chandigarh, India, that’s at the foothills of the Himalayas. Back in the 1950s it was unfortunately on government land, the government eventually discovered it, and the government bureaucrat decided to let it be open as a public park. And since then, the garden has grown to 25 acres, we’ve got over 3,000 pieces of sculpture, and I help to coordinate Americans who wish to spend one month residences living in the rock garden and making art with Mr. Nek Chand in his art garden. And our foundation is based in London, and I am the US representative for that foundation. And I have recently just returned from India where we have placed six foreigners from three different countries for a period of two months making mosaic art all out of recycled materials.
Church: So if you wanted to find more about this artist and residence program, where would you get information about that?
Rajer: NekChand.org, and Nek Chand is spelled: N-E-K C-H-A-N-D, dot org. And you will see our website as well as our various programs for promoting the completion of the rock garden, the preservation of the rock garden and the dissemination of the rock garden in Chandigarh, India.
Church: So Mr. Chand is still actively an artist himself?
Rajer: Yes. He’s at the garden everyday.
Church: I know he started in the 50s, what is his age now?
Rajer: He is 85, and he is active. He goes to the garden everyday. He supervises the work. He no longer makes the sculptures, but he has people trained under him who not only make the sculptures but maintain the garden and are involved in preservation and operation of the water fountains, the waterfalls, etc.
Church: Now you didn’t mention the completion of the garden. Is there a vision for the end of the work?
Rajer: There is a vision for the end, Jason, and it has to do with Mr. Nek Chand’s desire to not only finish the last of the building, there are only a few more left to be finished, but his general overall plan. He doesn’t work with specific details, but he has conveyed his vision to his immediate staff, and they have an idea of what he wants to see accomplished not only in his lifetime, but after he’s gone. And basically, the Nek Chand foundation supports the idea that after Mr. Nek Chand is gone from the garden, that it would go into a preservation mode of maintaining the garden, that is the sculptures etc, and also holding onto this vision that he had.
Church: Now you mentioned before that he is originally a road inspector, so we know that he is not an originally trained artist. What gave him that vision? What made him start building this environment?
Rajer: We know that as a child, in the period, in the British period of India, that he made sculptures out of sand along the river banks in that part of the Punjab that he lived. And he began by collecting oddly shaped rocks that he felt had a spirit and setting them up on little Earthen terraces that he encountered. And later, as a road inspector it was his job to supervise the crew to collect river rocks, to smash them and to turn them into gravel. And he found that some of the rocks had a particular quality to them, an ascetic quality, so he refused to smash them into gravel, and he began setting them up on these terraces and that eventually turned into and evolved into the Rock Garden where we have over 3,000 visitors a day. And by the way, because the Rock Garden is a self-contained park under the Chandigarh administration, the admission is 10 cents per person. It’s an income generator, and with that money that comes into the garden, we actually have enough money to maintain the garden and to bring it to fruition.
Church: Now one thing that you and I have talked about before. I know you as a conservator go there as a professional, you have the artist in residence, Mr. Chand is working there, but you also hire locals to do both the construction and the preservation.
Rajer: Exactly. And they are hired, we have a permanent staff of approximately 10 cleaners that maintain the garden, pick up the leaves of the garden, etc. And then on a craftural (8:04) basis, we have another 10 workers that make the sculptures and who help in the development of the garden.
Church: The people that do the cleaning and the construction, they are trained there on site by Mr. Chand?
Rajer: Right. They are trained onsite by Mr. Chand and his overseers, and will help us with the pick up of the recyclable materials along the city of Chandigarh. That is the broken plates from hotels, restaurants, etc.; rags, which are recycled into soft sculptures made into the garden, and the other various projects that he’s got going. For example, there is a small nursery there for growing plants, etc. None of it is for sale, but it can be loaned out for exhibition.
Church: Now this is the first time I have heard about the soft sculptures. Are they out in the environment along with the concrete sculptures?
Rajer: No. The soft sculptures, that is the rag sculptures, they are kept indoors either under a canopy or actually in a structure because otherwise they would rot.
Church: Well, very good. What do we think the overall time frame for completion is?
Rajer: We are probably looking at within the next five years. The new art museum is well underway, and that will be finished within the next 12 months. Then it will have to be decorated. And then the next phase of phase three, that is the terrace of the horse and the terrace of the camels, that’s nearly finished. So, this huge 25-acre park, which has a boundary wall around it, will be set and open to the public–all of it–and the fortunate thing for the foreigners, like myself, Mr. Nek Chand has built guest quarters within the garden where we can stay as part of our work-project making the mosaics with his laborers.
Church: So you can find out more information on the website that you mentioned early on NekChand.org, and photographs of the completion as it comes around and photographs of the project. Once that wraps up, what do you think you will be working on next.
Rajer: Well, I will continue to work with Nek Chand foundation, and as I said early, we will go into a preservation mode. So we will work on the documents needed for the preservation to keep up this vision and this dream that was Mr. Nek Chand’s in recycling way back in the 50s before there was even a word for it.
Church: So he is really an innovator of recycling and sustainability.
Rajer: Oh most definitely Jason.
Church: Very good. Well thank you for talking with us today Mr. Rajer, and we look forward to keep up with you and hear how the foundation is going and how the rock garden is going.
Rajer: Please come and visit us in Chandigarh, India. Thank you.
Ammons: That was Jason Church interviewing Tony Rajer. If you would like to learn more about him and the Rock Garden, visit our podcast shownotes at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training website. That’s ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time, goodbye everybody.