Greendale's Al Emmons decorates chimneys with his sculptures

Greendale artist Al Emmons has decorated more than 200 chimneys throughout the village.
Published on: 7/24/2013

Greendale — As the car approaches Cardinal Court, Al Emmons suddenly asks to pull over. He hangs his head out the passenger-side window and points to one of the village's Originals.

"It's this big chimney right here," he says. "I can picture a stark-white chimney with a red cardinal on it. It'll be beautiful."

Before he can finish his vision, a cardinal swoops down and lands on a clothesline in the backyard.

"How's that for good luck?" he says.

In the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt built Greendale with the New Deal. Now Emmons restores and re-imagines it with his chimney folk art. The 75-year-old estimates that he's decorated more than 200 Greendale chimneys with his trademark sculptures.

The sculptures, carved out of a kind of Styrofoam with a hot knife and treated with synthetic stucco and plaster, range from bright and animated cartoon characters to monochromatic still-lifes.

Some streets have a cohesive theme. Most of the chimneys along Apricot Court feature apricots. There are blooming azaleas — one so big that it stretches along the entire side of a house — along Azalea Court. There's a couple of Bucky Badgers on Badger Court, and there are berries on the chimneys of houses along, you guessed it, Berry Court.

While those courts chose their street namesake as their emblems, there are plenty of other homeowners who personalize their chimneys. These sculptures often manifest the ideals and identities of the homeowners themselves — a family crest crowning their home.

"Imagine if someone called you up and said, 'Hey I don't want you to draw a picture that you can hang inside my house. No, I'm going to have you do a picture and you're going to hang it on the outside of the house on the chimney, and everybody that goes by can see it and enjoy it,'" Emmons said.

"What a privilege that is. I mean it's mindboggling that I should have 200 of my drawings on the outside of buildings in one village."

All in the family

When building handcrafted folk art out of stucco, it helps to have skill and creativity already in the veins.

Emmons, like his father, grandfather and two generations before that, became a plasterer. He then taught the trade to his son and grandson.

"I think plastering, in itself, is an art," Emmons said. "I was born into it. I always knew I could shape and do things with plaster."

Emmons said he plastered parts of the Costa Rica rain forest exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Decades before that, his dad plastered displays in the Streets of Old Milwaukee, and his grandfather worked on both the dinosaur and glacier exhibits.

Emmons took over his father's company, Creative Construction of Wisconsin, in the 1960s, and has since passed on the day-to-day duties to Bingo (aka Al Emmons, Jr.), the oldest of his eight children. Bingo and his crew are now the ones who climb the scaffolding and plaster the sculptures to the chimneys.

In the beginning, the company mostly repaired stucco homes and businesses, strengthening cracked and worn-out buildings. It eventually evolved to include chimney and roof repair.

Creative Construction wouldn't add chimney art to its list of services until the mid-1980s.

"I went down to Disneyland and I'm on one of the rides, but I'm looking over the fence at the workers who were building a new exhibit," Emmons said. "They were plasterers. I said, 'Wait a minute, I should do this. It would be so much more fun than plastering a flat wall at a house all the time.'"

Emmons finally got his chance to bring the spirit of Disneyland to Greendale in 1984, when he was frustrated by a bump that commonly appears after chimney restoration.

"So I took a piece of Styrofoam, carved a diamond and covered up that bump," Emmons said.

"I did that and then the next lady asked me if I could do a dog instead of a diamond. And then the next lady, she asked for a smiley face. Whatever the people would ask me to do, I did. And that's how I became what I call a forensic sculptor."

The chimney art has become a family affair. Emmons' wife started designing projects a couple years ago. The couple cuts and paints the sculptures from their art studio in their garage. When flipping through the photo album of their work, the two are quick to point out who did what. They've been known to knock down the price or even offer to pay homeowners for sculptures they want to see done.

"As far as I know, we're the only ones that's ever done this in the world," Emmons said. "And the ultimate thing would be, is for people to start to copy us. Then I would have achieved what I wanted: to see other guys attempt it, or do better."

Family crests

Most of the houses along Arrowwood Street have decorated chimneys, and the owners of the ones that don't are planning to change that soon.

"There's a guy on Arrowwood who doesn't know what he wants yet," Emmons said. "He says he wants his chimney to be better than any other chimney that's on the street. That's going to be tough."

Emmons says some of his best work is on Arrowwood. There's even been talk of starting a walking tour of the street.

A couple who married at County Stadium has the old Milwaukee Brewers ball-and-glove logo on their chimney. A local film director's domicile has an old camera projector and "Arrowwood" spelled out in the fashion of the famous "Hollywood" sign. A nun's home features a giant cross, clutched by a giant rainbow hand.

The street also features an American flag, an ocean wave and an owl.

"It's kind of neat because it does force you to think about what's important to you," says Kathy Mudrock, whose Arrowwood home has the University of Wisconsin-Madison logo because her two daughters were cheerleaders for the school.

The Blue Bird saga

Not everyone loves all the sculptures, but that's just the nature of the business, Emmons says. But only one of his works of art has been truly controversial.

Most of the birds Emmons sculpts have a John James Audubon quality to them. They're painstakingly accurate and demonstrate amazing technical skill. His Blue Bird sculpture however — a 3-foot tall, 200 pound, blue version of Sesame Street's Big Bird — is anything but Audubonesque.

The bird was nested atop a home on Bluebird Court for years, until a neighbor complained that it affected the aesthetics of the historical neighborhood.

It was both loved and loathed. There have been political candidates who have tactfully sought out Blue Bird's endorsement by having their campaign sign staked in the same yard. But it eventually came down and made a round of appearances, including briefly at the Brady Street pharmacy.

The bird's migration out of the village devastated 9-year-old Jacob Henrichs. The Greendale boy had collected news articles about the bird since he was 6. So when the bird eventually returned to Emmons' front lawn, Henrichs offered $300 and took it home.

Henrich proudly perched Blue Bird in a giant evergreen bush in his front yard. Less than 24 hours later, the bird flew the coup. Police officers offered a $2,000 reward for its safe return and said the culprits who snatched the bird could face felony grand theft charges. Days later, Big Bird's severed head was found on the lawn of the neighbor who had originally complained about it. Emmons rebuilt Blue Bird for Henrichs, and it's now back at the boy's house.

"That's art — that's what it's all about. If you go to the art museum, you're not going to think all the art there is lovely," Emmons said. "But often the work makes people happy."

"We had a group of schoolchildren walk by the other day, and they all stopped and they were pointing and looking at my house. And all of them had smiles. That's always been my goal."