How Does Your Garden Grow?

Romano Gabriel's life told in dance



What sparks inspiration? What causes the muses to say: Give in. Release me?

Sometimes it's a subtle nudge: a small poem, splashes of paint on a canvas, a sketch, a few movement phrases put together in the dance studio.

And sometimes the spark turns epic. A symphony resounds. A fully staged ballet unfolds. A sculpture garden can't stop growing.

Romano Gabriel's garden of wood was planted and nurtured on his front lawn on Pine Street in Eureka for all the world to see. By the time it was done, Gabriel had built so many pieces his home was barely visible to passersby. Folk artists don't set out to enter the world of art openings and chatter over glasses of chardonnay. They're generally self-taught, following their hearts and imaginations toward creating something that speaks to our hearts and imaginations. From the years when Gabriel was creating sculptures outside his modest home, to today when rows of his garden are safely housed in a faux storefront in Old Town Eureka, locals and travelers alike revel in the abundance of the painted wooden people, flowers and animals. One admirer, Danny Furlong, director of North Coast Dance, feels a particular connection to the life of this artist and the magnum opus he spawned.

Whatever seed of inspiration drove Gabriel to embrace such ardent vision, it in turn blossomed and dropped another seed, lodging itself in Furlong's psyche where a new work gestated until it was born in the form of a dance. Furlong sees his new work, Gabriel's Garden, not as a ballet, but as a sophisticated musical, a docudrama, a dance theater biography about the man and his work.

Furlong was granted full access to everything Romano Gabriel. Surrounded by piles of photographs, news clippings and some of the smaller pieces Gabriel fashioned with his own hands, Furlong absorbed the essence of Gabriel. He was transfixed by the reclusive man whose massive output far from the artistic mainstream has become internationally known. Furlong says, "I do understand this man on a great level -- I am channeling this dude."

Even while happily showing off photos, Furlong measures out his words, squinting his eyes as he deliberately picks his way through the bits of history he has gleaned. Sitting in his office upstairs in the North Coast Dance studios, which is cluttered with all things Gabriel, Furlong tilts back in his chair, his long legs stretched before him, his fingertips steepled. At 54, he is lean and fit, with a dancer's carriage and a gentle smile. Furlong had a full career in the greater dance world before taking over as director of North Coast Dance in 2001. Like Gabriel, he has made a name for himself here on the North Coast, far from any large urban art center. He choreographed four original full-length ballets in 10 years, an artistic accomplishment beyond the scope of restaging a good Nutcracker every December.

Furlong takes pride in the trust Eureka's Vellutini family, who own the Gabriel estate, bestowed on him, opening their archives to him alone. He feels connected to the story of this loner who made such a big picture on the street where he lived. "The oddest, amazing thing," said Furlough, occurred when he was deep into the project. "The groundwork [for the show] was long done, we had received grant money, we were in production, and I find out we have the same birthday." Romano Gabriel was born 70 years to the day before Danny Furlong. Gabriel died when Furlong was 20 years old and just beginning to make his own name in the dance world.

Among the characters in Furlong's Gabriel's Garden are three ages of Gabriel, as a youth in Italy, a young man on his way to America and in his later years. There's Gabriel's mother in Italy; Doris "The Lady Who Cared" (clearly an homage to Dolores Vellutini); and his friend's son, Louie Rolandelli. Memories of his life and the sculptures he created come to life, dancing. They express Furlong's take on what the wooden garden denizens might represent. 

The dancers' reconstruction of Gabriel's life is accompanied by an original score and live music, performed on flute, clarinet, bass and piano. On the piano is Justin Ross, who at a mere 26 is North Coast Dance's musical director as well as the composer and arranger of the score for Gabriel's Garden. About half of the score is original instrumental music and new songs with lyrics penned by Furlong. The other half includes works Furlong imagined were central to Gabriel's life: new arrangements of '60s pop standards that could have been coming out of the radio while Gabriel worked in his shed, along with 19th century Italian opera by Puccini and Verdi, the music of his childhood, the sound of his homeland.

As the seeds of creative intention continue to be sown, Jerry Wallace's set design reflects Gabriel's artwork and is key to realizing Furlong's biographical vision. A Eureka native, Wallace recalls experiencing the wonder of the garden in its true form, on Pine. "It was an odd little anomaly -- nothing else like it in town," he said. "I'd be driving by it in high school going, ‘Wow, what's the story there?' It was great to see ... for someone who ended up doing art."

Wallace remembers the yard being so crammed with objects that it took over Gabriel's garage, forcing him to park his car across the street from the house. "It was immense. The kiosk only holds about a third of it." When he began working on the set, Wallace studied photos of the garden from behind the wooden pieces and from other angles inaccessible to his younger self. "There was an amazing amount of bracing. For every piece there's a leg, a diagonal, holding it up from behind, some going straight to his roof or shed. There were walkways and sculpture you could walk under."

Wallace is not duplicating Gabriel's pieces and he's not attempting to build a replica of the garden. He's used the garden as inspiration to build a home for the story of Romano Gabriel that Furlong and the company have decided to tell. "The set I made is about him and his stuff. My version of his things -- the scale is different, some pieces closer to the original size than others." It's a massive undertaking made using 30 4-by-8 pieces of plywood. "Yes," Wallace laughs, "I had my way with him."

Wallace's favorite piece is a version of Gabriel's "Tree of Life," a sculpture central to a musical number with an original song, "Va Va Va Voom," written by Furlong and Ross. The tree was assembled by putting together some of Gabriel's smaller sculptures recovered from the many "bins full of things" saved by the Velluntinis. "After a while, using his pieces to assemble his tree, I really felt like it was OK," said Wallace. "He was with me. He approved. Part of what he has done was being reborn."

Wallace and Furlong are not the only ones in Gabriel's Garden who have become immersed in Romano. The cast and crew own this work, with Furlong's obsession grabbing hold of everyone in the studio. Up in the costume shop, Jackie Pokorski and Gaily Browning have a major chore recreating Gabriel's sculptures as costumes that are lightweight but stiff, so they look like wood. The costume makers paint each torso and head piece after construction. Asked about the process, Pokorski spoke about more than her job in the shop, describing some of the dance sections, retelling parts of the Gabriel saga and describing the garden as "a powerful statement. It's there in Old Town, but this is bringing attention back to it. Around here we're all channeling Romano."

Just as the costumer talks about the dance, two ballerinas, Emily Claypool (who plays Gabriel's mother) and Heather Walker, (a busybody church lady), can talk costumes. When they were done dancing their parts during an early June rehearsal, they volunteered a tour of the costume room upstairs, explaining details right down to the name of the fabric stiffener Pokorski used. The two dancers demonstrated how the costumer created individual head pieces for each of the young dancers portraying sculptures.

Furlong has a long history training strong, emotive performers. In this work, some of the principle characters are speaking dialogue and singing. Playing the part of the elder Gabriel is the versatile Mark Hapgood, who, like Wallace, has been working with Furlong since the beginning of his tenure at North Coast Dance. Demonstrating their mutual respect, Furlong created the central role for Hapgood. This Gabriel, the Gabriel who built the garden, has a lot to say. In the dialogue he's written, Furlong uses conversations between the aging Gabriel and the cobbler Louie Rolandelli, his confidant, as a vehicle for shedding light on the major themes of Gabriel's life.

Craig Benson plays Rolandelli, the central narrator of the story. Here we have an actor, a singer and a dancer who is really the straight man to Hapgood's Gabriel, providing an ear where the older man can vent about the girl who spurned him in marriage, his conflicts with the Catholic Church and other irritants. Gabriel is a lonely man who left his homeland in Italy to return only once. Benson's Rolandelli is an everyman, a laborer, a good neighbor, seemingly a pragmatist who hears Gabriel's pain yet keeps an even keel when dealing with it. He is Gabriel's only friend. He is the witness. He can defend him to the naysayers -- in words and in song.

Ikolo Griffin plays the younger Gabriel, leaving behind a fiancée on his way to America. A guest artist up from the Bay Area, Griffin has danced with many companies including San Francisco Ballet and The Joffrey.  He says he enjoys being in class and in rehearsal, his established dance presence stepping it up a notch for the company as he, too, becomes lured into the storytelling.

Doris, "The Lady Who Cared," and one of the priest's busybody ladies (Katie Kitchen and Lisa McNeely) argue tit for tat over the virtues versus the perceived sinfulness of Gabriel's creation in the original song, "What Is It That Matters to You." Reminiscent of a number in a Sondheim musical, it's a surprisingly deft banter sung between the two company members, (this is a ballet company, remember?), who sing (for real sing) and act, too.

Iris Van Atta, who flowered as a ballerina while studying with Furlong, gets to strut her stuff in a big way. In the same collaborative bent that informs much of this work, Furlong gave the much-too-young-to-know-who-most-of-these-women-are Van Atta the homework of studying the poses of leopard-clad Bettie Page, total va voom girl Jayne Mansfield, elegant Ava Gardner and the iconic Marilyn Monroe. With Furlong's editing, Van Atta choreographed her own pin-up girl solo for the part of The Temptress. The character is modeled after The Bathing Beauty, a smaller Gabriel sculpture that Furlong proudly shows off -- twice -- to a visitor.

Garbriel's Garden tells the story of a life and a life's work that has become emblematic in Eureka and far beyond. Gabriel's internationally known wooden garden was designated a cultural landmark by the California Cultural Arts Council on the day he died in 1977 at the age of 90. Photographs of his sculptures have been published in numerous magazines and books and were exhibited at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Selected pieces have toured Europe and been exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Oakland Museum.

True of many prolific artists, Romano Gabriel the man cannot be separated from his work. Furlong sees Gabriel as "a sad and lonely man, a shy man who made this great expression right in his front yard stating ‘Somebody has lived here and decided to make it personal.' He said it loud, clear and quickly."

Furlong has become a self-described Gabriel expert, intuitively filling in missing pieces of the sculptor's life with relationships he sees between commonly known history, stories he has unearthed, and the symbols and characters he built for the garden.

Gabriel was born in Italy in 1887 and immigrated in 1913. At times he worked as a log peeler, a master carpenter and a gardener, although urban legend has it that he complained this climate was inhospitable for growing things. He built nine houses, one being his garden-graced home at 1415 Pine Street. Many of his whimsical sculptures appear to be born of simple fancy, some purely artistic, while others express the artist's political views and his feelings about unrequited love and the Catholic Church.

To say Furlong is an admirer is an understatement; he has become obsessed with the enigmatic Gabriel. After studying several photographs, comparing the ages of cars parked on the street with the size and scope of the garden, Furlong became convinced that the hermetic Gabriel did not work extensively on the garden for several decades, as popular accounts suggest. Instead, he believes, the wooden sculptures were an "enormous output of energy of 10 to 15 years," the bulk of the work occurring in just one decade when the artist was between the ages of 70 and 80.

Whatever the source of Gabriel's compulsion to build the garden with such urgency and tenacity, at such a late age, it triggered Furlong's compulsion to create his full-length biographical performance about the man and the making of his garden. It is a case of one man's obsession feeding another's, the work of an older artist influencing an artist coming full into middle age, which is ancient by ballet standards for a dancer's feats on the proscenium stage, yet prime for choreographing and directing. Although he does not see himself as a shy or lonely man like the garden artist, Furlong identifies with Gabriel as a man who "made a unique statement on a grand scale."

Gabriel left his entire estate to the son of his friend, Louie Rolandelli, who in turn sold it to Ray and Dolores Vellutini. Watching the garden grow over many years, Dolores had come to love the work. Recognizing its importance, she ultimately took it upon herself to contact the California Cultural Arts Council for help saving it. While Gabriel lay on his death bed, an emergency session of the council convened and then stepped in.

The garden, mostly assembled from the slats of discarded wooden orange crates that Gabriel fashioned into topiary with his handsaw, was in bad shape when he died. Dismantled for storage, it filled four garages. Restoration became a family mission: Ray and Dolores' son, Vince Vellutini, 20 at the time, spent two years repairing and refurbishing each piece.

Others beyond the ballet world also share Furlong's enthusiasm for Romano Gabriel -- and for Gabriel's Garden. North Coast Dance received a $25,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation to produce the performance. The Morris Graves Museum of Art is featuring artwork from "the internationally recognized folk art sculpture artist" Romano Gabriel in the Rotunda from June 4 through July 31. At the request of North Coast Dance, the whole city is channeling Romano, devoting a month to this outsider without family or progeny other than his work. The Eureka City Council proclaimed June "Romano Gabriel Month." It is a routine governmental document, one more proclamation on a city's agenda, but its origin comes from a deeper place. Who listens to the Muse in the middle of the night when she is up dancing in the attic, wearing army boots? Romano Gabriel got up and listened. So did Danny Furlong.

North Coast Dance presents Gabriel's Garden June 17-19 at the Arkley Center for the Performing Arts with an opening night reception catered by Avalon. The dance company suggests the performance is inappropriate for children younger than 8. For ticket information call 442-1956 or go to


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