How a Groundhog Helped an Artist Find a New Passion

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When Kentucky visual artist Patrick Donley moved into his art studio in Louisville’s Germantown neighborhood, he had no idea his life direction was about to change from paint to mud – or , happily digging in his garden in search of hidden treasures.

And he never imagined that this new passion he affectionately calls “groundhog archaeology” would be discovered thanks to a stubborn groundhog named Phyllis, who had claimed the space under the basement of the old warehouse long before it arrived.

By the 1920s, the land at 1005 Mary Street had been used as a neighborhood dump, adjacent to a saloon that eventually closed during Prohibition. The structure, then built for a local moving and storage company, quickly covered the pile of trash and likely a sinkhole carried a lot of “trash” further underground.

In 2019, shortly after Donley, 60, moved in to make way for his artwork, he noticed a groundhog scampering around the backyard, away from the building. Groundhogs, known for their prowess at digging and tunneling (and destroying foundations), can sometimes be a nuisance. With that in mind, Donley tried three times to humanely trap her and move her, but “she just kept pushing the trap away.”

Shortly after, Donley arrived to find a new pile of dirt she had turned over in the cave-like basement. In the mound of dirt, there was something that caught his eye, glistening. He walked over and found a bottle – it was actually one of the first of thousands – a turn-of-the-century beer bottle from the Dubuque Brewing Company in Iowa.

Groundhogs, also known as “pigtails,” are known to burrow and dig tunnels, sometimes under house foundations.

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An unlikely friendship with a groundhog

This first discovery began a journey of excavation for years to come and continues to this day. But a friendship had to be created for Donley to begin the process – an unlikely friendship with a groundhog.

“For the first two years, she didn’t feel comfortable with me. I started laying down plates of vegetables and I started putting up videos, putting my camera on a tripod,” he said of his attempts to see the creature.

Later, he would be lying on a concrete slab, his hand groping in a hole, and Phyllis would appear – through the basement door!

“She would walk, look at me, then go into another hole where she had a tunnel and she would just go down,” he explained.

Eventually, the two became quite comfortable with each other. Donley notes that Phyllis had two different litters during this excavation – he got to watch her rear and play with them in the backyard. Although he keeps his distance, she was never afraid to “hiss” and let him know with a warning not to get too close. Groundhogs are also known as “pigtails”.

Patrick Donley found an assortment of strange objects, including numerous bisque doll heads and body parts.

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“Especially the first year, she wasn’t afraid of me and gave me respect and a bit of confidence. But I haven’t seen her this year. There are footprints, but I don’t see her. haven’t seen,” Donley said. He’s not sure it’s Phyllis — it could be her offspring, though. And that’s fine with her.

Thus, a groundhog and an artist become friends. Both tunnel and research, one out of pure instinct and the other out of relentless curiosity for the past.

To date, Donley has found: over 3,000 intact bottles, jars and inkwells; approximately 100 jugs, plates, dishes/serving dishes; 15 pots in various states; several ceramic spittoons; and 100 milk glass cosmetic and cheese containers.

An endless list of finds

Some of the more unexpected discoveries include: water troughs for chickens; vulcanite dentures with porcelain teeth; bisque doll heads with glass eyes; the anal plug (rectal dilator) of a set for constipation; a clear glass tomahawk head (likely a souvenir from a local attraction like Louisville’s Fontaine Ferry Park, circa 1905); a musket ball, toy guns and piggy banks (broken, of course); several crucifixes; and a small stoneware spice container labeled in handwritten pencil on the bottom, “Allspice”.

Other items include optical molds for glass blowing; small brick sale samples; a stack of terracotta seedling pots; a hard three inch Booth’s Hyomei Rubber Inhaler (for catarrh of the head); a miniature ceramic “Our Turn to Crow” beer mug, an embossed black shoe-shaped whiskey bottle with the big toe protruding through a hole; patent medicines, some of which have since been proven to have killed patients (Ms Winslow’s children’s soothing syrup contained so much morphine that many died from it); combs (nit combs); advertising ceramic marbles, pie weights and tobacco pipes; and syringes and thermometers from the 1920s flu epidemic.

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The list is endless. Even as this story is written, Donley finds something new every day.

Donley, who documented his “groundhog archaeology” on instagram with over 800 devoted followers who are as curious as he is to understand the mysteries of the treasures he uncovers, says his curiosity has trumped everything else and he continues to explore. He went a year and a half without creating his own art and was absorbed in finding the most that was under his building. ” I’m on a mission. I get as much out of it as I can,” he said.

“I’m the master of 3D puzzles now,” he jokes. He often discovers pieces that he must rebuild as he finds them. By looking at a plate, for example, he will recognize a piece he had shot days or weeks before. He instantly knows what the room belongs to. He works to restore and reassemble, as if solving many puzzles.

It has a clear system for digging, cleaning and arrange so that he can keep the many objects and rooms he finds in order. It’s all a labor of love and “takes up a lot of real estate”. He built his own shelves to maximize the space to store all of his finds. In a way, he truly became an archaeologist.

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Create a new museum

Donley is finalizing the formation of a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization, The Mary Street Midden Project & Museum, whose mission is to provide “an accessible resource to all members of the community for the purpose of education, research, cultural understanding and historical preservation.Through its permanent collection, as well as rotating exhibitions in partnership with related entities, the museum will serve as an educational institution, living memorial and bridge of ecological understanding between today’s world and the lives of working-class American immigrants at the dawn of the 20th century.

Plans are underway for the museum to house the artifacts unearthed from the 19th to early 20th century neighborhood dump (garbage heap) that were hiding under the floor of the warehouse’s basement. This era was rich in clues about the influenza epidemic, distillation and brewing in Louisville, as well as the history of the first manufactures of glass for the storage and promotion of beverages and patent medicines. The dishes, toys and the tools all tell a story about everyday existence.

And an art exhibition, showcasing Donley’s “lightbox photos” of some of his most unusual finds, will be on view throughout October 2022 at Garner’s storya contemporary art gallery in Louisville.

“Through exploration of waste from the past, we can better understand how we, as a culture, today must deal with the impact of our waste on the world and beyond,” Donley said. “I envision the exterior being preserved as is and even restored to its 1920 appearance, but the interior is a dazzling array of bright contemporary exhibits.”

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More importantly, it rescues what was considered waste and is now a historical marker of a bygone life and era. He digs to preserve and keep human history.

Phyllis the groundhog gave Donley this gift and he is grateful. “She is immortal,” he said.

Angela Burton, a Next Avenue in Aging 2020 influencer, is the founder and primary writing motivator of Feet in the Fire Writers’ Workshops®, a creative program that inspires adults to challenge themselves through expressive writing. Her distinctive way of helping people find their voice and write authentic stories has earned her a spot in Louisville’s WILD Accelerator for Female Founders program. Burton holds an MFA in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and a BA in English from the University of Louisville.

This article is reproduced with permission from NextAvenue.org© 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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