Chris Barbee (1943 – 2023)
Chris Barbee's Bowling Ball Yard Art
Art Type or Medium: Environment/Installation
Secular or Religious: Secular with Religious aspects
Instead of garden gazing balls, a standard decoration on many lawns and gardens throughout the American south and Midwest, bowling balls—decorative and durable substitutes impaled on rebar posts—began to sprout throughout Carol Barbee’s garden in the 1990s. The unusual decorations recalled Carol‘s passion for growing roses, and a few years after she died in 1997, her husband Chris began to construct new bowling ball displays in her memory. Soon the balls spread beyond Carol’s garden, and Barbee’s unplanned bowling ball yard art environment took off like “wildfire.” Chris and Carol hadn’t been avid bowlers, but bowling alleys were happy to offload cracked and chipped balls; seeing the growing decorations, people also made donations, and Barbee kept getting ideas for new clusters. A bowling ball alphabet in front of Barbee’s house stretches the width of the property and provides a backdrop for: an abacus-like American flag, a working Newton’s cradle, a scaled-up pool table, a peace sign, a cross outlined with Christmas lights, and bowling ball rosary beads (to list just a few).
Donated trophies and other bowling memorabilia are displayed in a small wooden building with halved-pin roof shingles. Deep exterior shelves support rows of “special” balls, some marked with their state of origin, and I was able to surprise my local post office by contributing Pennsylvania and Ohio to Barbee’s collection. He is grateful to accept balls from any state in any condition, and invites ideas for new bowling ball configurations. Barbee is far too modest to think of himself as an artist: he calls his yard art project a retirement hobby, and he is especially fond of meeting all the people it brings to him. Should he run out of new ideas, he says he’ll just keep making his bowling ball pyramid bigger.
The sign at his driveway welcomes visitors inside the balls-and-pins fence that runs along the dirt road bordering Barbee’s property. Barbee himself is usually out back in the workshop entrance to his barn, and “The Bowling Ball Man” will likely be out shortly for a heartfelt greeting.