The Back Page

One woman's radiant flights of fantasy illuminate the house that stands for home inside each of us.

Her name is Gayleen Aiken, and she lives in Vermont. She is a folk artist whose bright paintings have the happy charm of grade-school masterpieces papering a refrigerator door. I first learned about her when a friend lent me a remarkable video and an even more remarkable one-of-a-kind handmade book.

The video shows a sweet-faced woman with gray hair, thick eyeglasses, and tremendous energy. She plays a miniature xylophone with almost alarming exuberance, banging out a volley of notes that is joyful, if not conventionally melodious. Introducing a flock of life-size cardboard people that she calls her "cousins," she talks a mile a minute, cracking jokes and laughing at their imaginary antics. She attacks a harmonica with such gusto that you worry she might inhale the thing. Through it all she wears a smile that her face can barely contain.

The book–­­Gayleen calls it "My Telling Book"–is as hard to describe as it is hard to put down. It is a kaleidoscopic trip to a private world both wonderfully strange and strangely wonderful. Drawings, blurry photocopies of old snapshots, cut-out bits of colored paper, and blocks of handwritten text are densely layered on random-size pages stuck together with tape. On every page is a small rubber-stamped proclamation: "Gayleen Aiken, artist, music, camping. I like old nickelodeons, xylophone, organ music, big country houses."

It's this last thing that attracts me. Running through Gayleen's art like a broad, warm, rainbow-hued stream is a celebration of the old houses where she has lived. She still has a drawing she made when she was a very small child: Scrawled on a chunk of wooden baseboard–a piece of a house–it is a picture of houses. Though she does some fine landscapes, houses are still her primary subjects: big, many-windowed structures washed in moonlight, their brightly lit rooms filled with people playing the piano or dancing, always with the same enormous smile that Gayleen herself wears.

She has names for these places: Her girlhood home ("it had everything we liked") is the Old Big Heirloom House or, more expansively, the Art and Music Box Heirloom Mansion. In the most literal sense, it and the other houses aren't hers anymore. Strangers live in them now, or they stand vacant. But in a larger, truer sense, the houses are hers forever. However dusty and echoing, the rooms are alive with memories and visions, and she glories in them. In the video she looks through a window into an empty room, holding up one of the cousins so he can see, too, and she is almost singing: "Hi, chandelier … hi, wallpaper … hi, organ … hi, nickelodeon."

A house can do that to you. It can get inside your mind, make you dream weird dreams and do strange things. Ask anybody who's ever bought an old house, started fixing it up, and become possessed, driven to get everything just right, to make the house on the ground match the house in his head. A house can shape your outlook on life, can anchor you or set you free, can be refuge or launching pad or both. It can make you homesick–and that feeling, if you're lucky enough to have a certain kind of vision and don't fight it too hard, can turn into art.

Gayleen's mother sold the houses years ago, and Gayleen frets that they'll disappear. "Some way," she writes, "there needs to be a way to stop wreckers from tearing down old houses, barns … such a sad loss." But recently, something picked up her spirits: Her art dealer took her for a drive into town, and when they passed the long-vacant Heirloom Mansion she saw "curtains, a reading lamp on, & shades in windows. … So someone is living in it, so it is not going to be torn down."

To whomever lives in the Heirloom Mansion: Thanks for putting that lamp in the window, for making Gayleen's smile broader than ever. A house can do that to you.    

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.