As you drive into the small, tight-knit community of Sebastopol, one of the things that you can’t help but notice are the whimsical junk art creations that greet you as you enter town. From the giant Holstein cow alongside actual cows grazing in a pasture, to the larger than life dog whose eyes light up at night in front of the Humane Society, to the sculpture of an oversized fisherman astride his fish with eyes the size of hubcaps, each one of these whimsical delights created from objects destined for the dump have become an iconic and integral part of the city. These one-of-a-kind junk-art sculptures have been painstakingly and lovingly brought to life by Patrick Amiot and meticulously painted by his wife, Brigitte Laurent. Their work ranges from quirky to folksy, whimsical to zany. "People slow down,” Amiot says. “They like what they see. I get that approval in the local community. Like everyone else, I just want to be loved in life."
So just how did this French-Canadian artist end up calling Sebastopol home? Always knowing that his passion was art, Amiot was well established early on in eastern Canada creating a unique niche for himself making clay figures including hockey players. By 1997 he decided that it was time for a change. Originally, it was Southern California that seemed to be what he thought would be the perfect fit and with images of living the Hollywood dream, Amiot sold everything that he owned, packed up the family and jumped into a motor home. On arriving the family quickly decided it wasn’t for them and decided to head north. They had always loved the San Francisco area but quickly realized that the cost of living was prohibitive. Driving across the bridge they paused briefly in Marin County but soon continued north until they reached Sebastopol. They at once felt the warmth and welcoming nature of the residents and knew this was the place for them.
In the early days, the family loved everything that Sebastopol had to offer, but sadly, the ceramic art that had done so well in Canada just wasn't supporting them here in Northern California. Shipping to galleries in Canada was costly, with import duties, breakage and an unfavorable exchange rate.
With a family to support Amiot and more money going out than coming in, decided that if he was going down, he might as well go out with a bang. In early 2001 the first of his junk art statues, the Towering Fisherman was brought to life. With nothing to lose, Amiot placed the Fisherman on his front lawn. In the back of his mind he was fairly certain that this might be something that could annoy his neighbors but just the opposite occurred, and they loved it.
Suddenly, a new genre of art was born bringing other people’s trash and discarded items to life in a whole new way. Although known for the whimsical and cartoonish junk art creations Amiot also tackled serious issues. A perfect example was a statue that he created after the Twin Towers fell when Amiot was inspired to bring to life a sculpture of a firefighter atop a box painted with American flags. He placed it in a neighbor's yard and after that just about everyone on Florence Avenue wanted a piece of his art. Ever the prolific creator he obliged. Florence Ave. quickly became known as the Happiest Street on Earth and brings in visitors from far and wide to take in the magical qualities of Amiot's open-air gallery of fantastic creations.
The artist explained that he never knows what his pieces will look like until the very last day because he never knows what pieces he will use in the final creation. Amiot explained, “When I do a project, I never know where it’s going to lead me. It all has to do with what kind of junk I’ll find.” Friends, neighbors and people from all around will drop off various objects to the Amiot home. From hubcaps and old car parts, to bicycle wheels and chains to old gardening tools, he feels that each of these objects has a story to tell. Some people think that it is Amiot and Laurent that give new life to the “junk” but in their eyes, they are just extending its’ life.
One of Amiot’s biggest passions in life is being able to give back to the community that he calls home. After seeing kids sell candy bars to raise money for local schools, he wanted to offer an alternative and he soon began publishing a calendar featuring his art that’s raised nearly $400,000 for schools. In addition, his work can be seen throughout the town. For example, a 12-foot-high cat with amber streetlights for eyes that at one time implored speeding drivers to slow down now sports a handmade quilted mask reminding those that enter Sebastopol to “Mask Up!”
When reflecting on how life has come full circle, Amiot tells the story that many years ago when the Barlow apple-canning factory in Sebastopol was closing, a foreman offered him some 4.5-inch lids. He grabbed a couple of boxes and thanked him, but the foreman said, “Oh no, all or nothing.” Suddenly he was the proud owner of 40,000 lids. Over the years, he's used them as scales on mermaids and fish, and as part of the feathers on owls he created for the newest incarnation of The Barlow, a collection of restaurants, tasting rooms and shops on the former site of the cannery.
“They asked me to take this stuff off the Barlow lot and now they're paying me to put it back,” Amiot said. Over the last few months, Amiot has felt compelled to tell a different story with his works and has recently unveiled several different Black Lives Matter pieces. The most visible stands in front of Community Market in the front of The Barlow as well as several other versions that can be seen around town. These poignant pieces were formed of repurposed steel and have a black hand clutching a patched, red heart. When asked if the piece was on temporary exhibit at the The Barlow or if it will be there permanently his reply was thoughtful and simple, “Once we have no more racism in the United States, we’ll take it down.”
Amiot likes to think of his work as more than just art for the sake of art and
he summed it up in this way: “What it says is, ‘Welcome to our humble, but
whimsical, fun, recycled, conscientious community.”