Hidden amid a patch of high grass and wild brush beside the French Broad River sits what looks like the rubble of an ancient temple. Massive, broken, concrete road slabs curve into poetic spirals around the giant oaks and maples. The layered stone walls and artful seating might have coaxed a dialectic out of Plato. But this is the makeshift home of a modern-day mythic character known as Badger, who calls his Promethean recycled-art project “the Sanctuary.”
Part hippie temple, part childhood fantasy and part studio, the Sanctuary shows what a passionately creative mind with a mission can produce from the discards of industrial society. At the upscale OK Harris Gallery in New York, it would be called Fluxist Assemblage. In the world of Badger, it’s just junk. “I’ve made a garden out of a neglected dump,” he says simply.
More post-earthquake than House and Garden, Badger’s sleeping hut, he says, smells “like old hippie and wet dog.” The artist shares this humble nest — made of sticks, rags, discarded plastic and stacks of boxes — with a family of wrens, who obviously feel they have found a safe haven.
To say that David Erickson is an eccentric artist would be like saying that Mt. Everest is tall. Badger himself admits to being many things, including: “queer (homosexual), purposely homeless, a political dissident, even a martyr — a kind of Don Quixote on acid.” But scratch that crusty, handsome, self-mocking exterior, and you discover a sensitive, passionate environmentalist, urban shaman and voice of reason, who often gets a tear in his eye as he speaks of someone else’s hunger and sorrow. It becomes clear that his Sanctuary — and the sculptures fashioned from discarded bits of metal, glass and bones — bespeak primitive longings and 20th-century comi-tragic pollution nightmares. Some people even call him a holy man.
Revering the ancient art of shamanic healers — who, he explains, were usually the homosexuals in primitive tribes — Badger carries on this tradition in his sculptures and altars, which playfully mock many American icons. One, called the “Sacred Holy Cow Bat,” represents what he refers to as “silly religions that justify murdering others who don’t believe as they do.” Another, “The Ghost of Patty Smith’s Virginity Past,” speaks for itself.
“My job as a shaman is to reflect and heal the wounds of hatred, intolerance and disregard for the Earth’s animals and children, which are sublimated by the almighty dollar,” says Badger. “I feel I have to address all matter of freedoms being violated.”
Running from the homophobia that has plagued his life, the artist (who was born in 1957) travels from city to city in his van, “with a ton of sculpture,” protesting — and, as he puts it, dancing love instead of hatred to the Ku Klux Klan. Wherever he goes, Badger seems to wind up in First Amendment struggles, advocating for (among other things) gay rights, environmental protection and the legalization of marijuana. His life, he says, has been like a political cartoon.
Of all the cities Badger has lived in, he likes Asheville best. “This is a very loving, tolerant community. I would like to stay here,” says the artist. “Unfortunately, Carolina Power & Light, which owns this property beside the river, has given me my walking papers. They say I have to move in two weeks. I wish they would just let me make this a public garden, I know I could get volunteers to clean the place up. They would save thousands of dollars by not mowing and clearing the land. There [are] so many wild fruits here that feed the birds and animals. It’s a shame to destroy it.”
David Hester, community-relations manager for CP&L, says the company has a policy against allowing anyone on the property, for safety reasons. “If anyone were to fall and get hurt, we would be responsible,” he explains, noting that the company has had the same problem with the homeless on one of its downtown properties. CP&L, he says, has just donated a portion of that property to the Salvation Army, to enable it to expand its adjacent building.
Hester says the company is conducting an economic-impact study to determine what to do with all its land holdings, but it may be several years before a decision is made. CP&L, he notes, previously donated land across the river for the French Broad River Park, and might consider doing the same in the River District.
Karen Cragnolin of RiverLink says, “Badger’s work is fabulous — it’s phenomenal.” Strong praise from the director of an organization working to revitalize the urban riverfront. She adds, “We are actually working with CP&L right now to do something with the land [where Badger is living]. It would be great if they would let Badger keep his Sanctuary intact.”
In art exhibits all across the country, Badger has constructed monuments with names like “Rearranging the Furniture,” “Troll Town in Savannah,” “Nashville Back to Bridge” and “The Little Stone House on the St. Croix River in Hudson, Wisconsin.” Despite often winning best-of-show awards, he says, most of his creations have been desecrated by the authorities.
Mark Burleson is the director of the Odyssey Center for the Ceramic Arts, around the corner on Clingman Avenue. “I’m definitely in support of what Badger’s done and would like to see him be able to stay there. All of the neighbors love him and are very supportive. His work would be a great centerpiece for a river park.”
The controversial artist hasn’t always been as warmly appreciated as he appears to be in Asheville, however. “At an Earth Day celebration in Memphis, a black officer threatened me with arrest and destruction, because I had set up a sculpture exhibit without a permit,” Badger relates. “I said to him, ‘Don’t you realize that I am standing up for the same things that Dr. King stood for?’ The officer said, ‘But Dr. King went around getting arrested.’ I answered, ‘What do you think is happening here?’ He thought a minute, then left me alone.”
Another time, Badger was defending his right to be on the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol. “The police started harassing me. When I began citing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, a gubernatorial candidate gave me a $100 bill and said, “Keep up the good work, kid.”
Getting Badger talking is not difficult; getting him to stop, however, can be a challenge. Puffing one of his handmade stone pipes, he spews run-on sentences rife with opinions on everything:
“Our American society … continues to rip down forests to make paper while protecting the petroleum/plastics industry, when we could be making paper from hemp, a fast-growing, nonpolluting crop which, before Dupont made sure [it] was banned, produced the world’s finest paper and is a wonderful alternative for fuel. The government knows that hemp will produce four-and-a-half times more paper than trees and takes 80 to 90 percent less chemicals,” says Badger. “Plus the root, the stem, the leaves and seeds are all medicinal. The root can be made into nontoxic fuel. Diesel cars originally ran on hemp oil. It could completely and cheaply replace petroleum — you know, that stuff we send our youth to fight wars over in the Middle East. Ten thousand farmers were put into bankruptcy when Dupont stopped hemp from growing in America. They changed the name from hemp to marijuana and said it was smoked by ‘evil, nigger jazz musicians’ and if white women smoked it, they would be seduced to ‘sleep with the niggers.'”
And so on. Badger talks about how we spend billions of dollars on helicopters to confiscate a few pounds of grass that “does a hell of a lot less harm than Prozac.” Or how our society thinks nothing of killing wildlife, polluting the earth with unnecessary toxic chemicals, and jailing innocent children for smoking pot, one of the “herb-bearing seeds that God has given us to expand our consciousness.”
Or the fact that communities have been destroyed all over the country by malls and highways, and you can’t gather in the downtown sections of most cities anymore. “Did you know that, if you sit down on the sidewalk in Philadelphia, there is a $200 fine now? Last week, in downtown Asheville, there was a playful kid juggling with his friends at Pack Square, and a policeman wanted to put him in jail, because he didn’t have a license to juggle.”
Waxing nostalgic, he says, “I made a sculpture once as a tribute to John F. Kennedy. It was covered with a peace pipe and a dream catcher and Kennedy memorabilia. I found a picture of him as an innocent child, with his family on the lawn at the compound. The camera caught what looked like the shadow of a man in the tree behind the family. It was like a portent of what was to happen on the grassy knoll. … All of our peace makers are gone now.”
Badger says he, too, is afraid of going to prison or being killed, but that he continues to be a voice for freedom, because it’s what he is supposed to do.
In New Orleans, he was attacked by swat teams, accused of being a cult, and threatened with 10 years’ hard labor. But Badger maintains that the police had no jurisdiction, because he was on federal land at the time. He would have gone to jail to test the system, he says, except that he had no one to keep his German shepherd, Alfred, his constant companion. The artist acknowledges that he has squatted on private property, but says he hopes the land beside the river can be preserved as some kind of park.
Badger feels he is on a spiritual path and believes people should integrate their spiritual principles into daily life. “I believe in honoring all living things. How can people justify rape, war and killing and call themselves Christians? All we really need is more love and understanding.”
Sometimes living on just 50 cents a day, he says, “Remember that Christian saying? ‘Until everyone is fed, let me be hungry. Until everyone is clothed, let me be naked.’ That’s pretty much how I feel! And that is what my art is about.”