Pain’t That America: The Front Yard Patriotism of Gary Thumberg

brick house with many handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

Little America: Thumberg house, 3rd Street, Beaver, PA

It’s a cliché, sure, but you can’t miss it.

No, the sweet, pre-war two-story brick home would look a lot like many others found in Pittsburgh’s down-river boroughs but for the wealth–some might say overload–of red, white, and blue homemade patriotic holiday displays that fill every inch of its front, side, and rear yard space. Together, they lift this house from small town charmer to an explosion of full-on Yankee Doodle Dandydom.

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag

Beaver, PA. A picture-perfect embodiment of quaint. The town’s wide streets, stately manors, well-groomed lawns, and fancy boutiques look more country posh than the (ex-)industry brownfields and empty storefronts of almost all its Ohio Valley neighbors[1]. But it’s a pleasant, accessible, middle-class midwestern posh, rather than its harder-to-take New England old money cousin.

There was long bit about taking a bike from Monaca to Rochester and then here to Beaver, but our editor told us to cut the crap. Suffice to say, there are a bunch of interesting things in town and River Road is both aptly-named and bicycle-perfect. If you take it almost all the way around and then back to the main drag, your ride-around will conclude up on 3rd Street with the great homemade holiday decorations of Gary Thumberg.

Gary Thumberg with his handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

Gary Thumberg by his alley cannon and flags

Some of the displays may be what you’re expecting. There are dozens of eagles, their wings spread in majestic mid-flight glory and bodies brightly marked like sports jerseys. A couple of them have been framed in lumpy ovals to appear as if in an official seal. Uncle Sam is here–the red, white, and blue literally oozing out of him–as are many, many American flags in different sizes and variants.

handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations including flags, eagles, and star flowers, Beaver, PA

side of Thumberg’s house with flags, eagles, and star flowers

In The Orbit‘s annual Independence Day post, we mused about why it’s so difficult for homemade flag-painters to get the 50-star count right. On this matter, we need to eat some Corvus brachyrhynchos (that’s all-American crow).

With so many homemade flags created by the same two hands, it’s exciting to see the umpteen different expressions that Gary Thumberg has come up with. For sure: flags that are near the exact design you’ll see flying above the courthouse are featured in the yard. But so are seven-striped models of minimalism, gestural two-star tree-hangers, and reverse-color mind-benders.

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag

In addition to these familiar forms, the lawn display also includes some other interesting takes on America’s favorite color scheme.

Thumberg attacks the most effervescent of holiday imagery in his captured-in-time fireworks explosions. These wooden cut-outs–complete with smoke trails and star blasts–are repeated several times with different paint jobs. The image is perhaps Thumberg’s most impressionistic form–a daring move to represent so much motion and light, sound and fury in two dimensions, staked in grass.

handmade wood cut fireworks lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

fireworks

The most unique of Thumberg’s choices has to be a large teddy bear form that appears multiple times around the property[2]. How these relate to the declaration of independence, we don’t know–and didn’t think to ask at the time–but we’ll go with it. The bears are standing up for America with no identifiable facial markings and just the vertical red/white/blue stripes of the season. A human-sized teddy bear is out front riding a (real, decommissioned) bicycle.

handmade wood cut teddy bear lawn decoration on bicycle, Beaver, PA

show me what democracy looks like: patriotic teddy bear on bicycle

handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations including teddy bear, fireworks, and Uncle Sam, Beaver, PA

patriotic teddy bear, fireworks, Uncle Sam

You’d think the 4th would be enough, but Gary Thumberg is holiday crazy. Independence Day is just one of four annual occasions that prompt the sixty-something year-old Thumberg to shuffle the contents of his storage shed/workshop/garage–taking in the previous event’s decor and prepping for the next.

With a holiday every season [Halloween, Christmas, and Easter are the others] and the weeks of work it takes him to remove the old, bring out the new, patch, paint, and repair any trouble spots, and finally lay out and line up everything for display, the decorations are a (nearly) full-time side occupation.

handmade wood cut eagles lawn decorations in back yard, Beaver, PA

back yard eagles and flags

The family came to this house on 3rd Street over 40 years ago, and Gary’s passion for holiday decoration goes back almost as long. The painted plywood decorations are all cut out by Thumberg with a jigsaw using various paper patterns or templates. From here, they’re sanded, painted, and hammered into the ground. The majority of the display is saved, stored, and brought back out again each year, but Gary tries to add one or two new pieces each season. Neighbors have gotten into the act by donating lights, wood, paint, and brushes.

handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decoration of red, white, and blue Snoopy, Beaver, PA

Snoopy

The Thumbergs–Gary lives with his lovely 87-year-old mother Doris–want you to stop by and see Gary’s work. A guest book out front encourages visitors to sign in and leave their thoughts. Doris has volumes of past years’ entries with signees coming from every state in the country and all over the world.

Catching this blogger photographing the side of his house, Gary came out to say hello and led me around, acting as tour guide to the full display, which extends into the back yard and out to the alley. Then I got invited into the house, phone numbers were exchanged, and we were invited back.

We will be back–for sure. We’ll see you guys at Halloween, if not sooner.

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag


[1] Yes, Sewickley is the other obvious exception.
[2] We weren’t sure what these shapes actually are, but Gary Thumberg confirmed them as teddy bears.

Flag Post: A Very Orbit Independence Day 2017

garage door painted like American flag, Millvale, PA

garage flag (53 stars), Millvale

If congress ever grants Puerto Rico the right to become America’s fifty-first state, it will likely be a very good thing for the island–at least, its electorate are optimistic. The most recent referendum was just last month with a whopping 97% of voters opting for the change[1].

That said, Puerto Rico’s inclusion in the union will inevitably end up as a nightmare for the graphic designers tasked with figuring out how to artfully arrange the awkward number of 51 stars into coherent symmetry for the to-be-updated American flag. Fifty-one is not a prime number–you could do three rows of 17–but come on, it’s going to be a star-spangled mess.

plywood storefront painted like 48-star American flag, West Newton, PA

empty storefront cover flag (48 stars), West Newton

homemade American flag made from fence wood, Apollo, PA

fence flag (28 stars/7 stripes), Apollo

Anyone born here in the last half century has grown up with a 50-state America and its flag with a matching star count. That can make a lot of us feel like it’s always been that way, and always will be. However, we know what happens when we forget our history. Like that 51-star flag, it isn’t pretty.

The United States started as the thirteen original British colonies, each individually converted to statehood/commonweathdom. Over the next two centuries another thirty-seven expansion teams were gradually added to the league. Vermont and Kentucky formed the very first class in 1795; the most recent was Hawaii in 1960.

homemade American flag made from fence material, Carroll Township, PA

fence flag (39 stars), Carroll Twp.

garage door painted like the 13-star colonial American flag, Pittsburgh, PA

13-star colonial/”Betsy Ross” design garage flag, Stanton Heights

The flag–or, at least, the number and arrangement of white stars on its blue field–was redesigned many times in this span. These were often periods of just one or two years with a particular design until another new state was added. While the general stars-and-(thirteen) bars composition never varied, the arrangement of the constantly-in-flux star count sure did.

When that number added up to something nice and easily divisible–like, say, 20, 24, 30, 35, or 48–there’s an obvious grid to lay out. But on the years where you’re starting with a prime number, it doesn’t work out so nicely. Take, for example, the 31-star flag used in the 1850s or the 43-star flag of 1890-91–these are just plain raunchy. I’m sure Henry Clay was working overtime to convert western territories just to get out of using some of these ugly-ass banners.

concrete bridge support painted like American flag with slogan "Make the Channel Great Again", Pittsburgh, PA

“Make the Channel Great Again” (no stars attempted), 31st Street Bridge

American flag mural on V.F.W., Sharpsburg, PA

V.F.W. flag (50 stars!), Sharpsburg

It is so interesting that a person–heck, it’s Independence Day–a patriot–would dedicate this much time, effort, and public-facing garage-front property to hand-constructing and commemorating Old Glory, but not bother to paint the right number of stars.

The pattern is just not that difficult to match. There are exactly 50 stars on America’s flag, one for each state. These are arranged in nine rows that space to interleaved sets alternating between six and five stars. There are lots of models to look at.

Regardless, citizens taking up paint bucket and brush to turn an old section of fence, shipping pallet, or garage door into a crude rendition of the star-spangled banner is about as American as it gets. Not getting the math right on the star count only makes it more so.

Happy Independence Day, everyone!


Some of the other interesting flags and flag-like things we’ve come across in the last year:

American flag hanging in second-floor doorway of brick house, Pittsburgh, PA

doorway flag, Lawrenceville

Mary statue in front of brick porch with many American flags, Pittsburgh, PA

front yard Mary with flags, Oakland

We’re working on a whole piece around the front yard Marys of Oakland, in which this photo will inevitably be cross-listed. Until then, this combo of Mary, papa flag, mama flag and her eight sisters, plus a whole lot of baby flags stuck into a red, white, and blue base will have to get you through the holiday.

patriotic mural including soldiers, military cemetery, and American flag, Leechburg, PA

mural, Leechburg

male mannequin dressed as a woman standing in front of American flag, Hawley, PA

mannequin/flag, Hawley, PA

Little Hawley, PA–way across the state on Lake Wallenpaupack in the Poconos–is definitely not in the Pittsburgh “orbit”, but we loved this thrift shop’s repurposing of an obviously-male mannequin into a women’s clothes model with patriotic backdrop so much we had to include it.

metal rolling window cover painted with crossed American and Polish flags, Pittsburgh, PA

American and Polish flags, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Bloomfield

Sigh. Later this year, when the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern finally serves up its last Polish Platter and Dingus Day goes looking for a new home, this classic old world/new world unity image will (likely) be painted over in favor of the future new owner’s redesign. When that day comes, you can count on the mother of all Orbit obits. Until then, we can only hope it remains “Pittsburgh’s original Polish party house,” but don’t hold your breath.

American flag on pole split into two, Pittsburgh, PA

flag torn asunder, Esplen

While it’s tempting to think of the torn-right-down-the-middle flag we found flying in Esplen as a subtle political commentary, I have a feeling the real explanation is simple neglect along with the wear-and-tear on any fabric left out for a few too many Pittsburgh winters.

For the record, Section 8 (e) of the U.S. “Flag Code” states: “The flag should never be fastened, displayed, used, or stored in such a manner as to permit it to be easily torn, soiled, or damaged in any way.” Further, under Destruction of Worn Flags, the code continues, “The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”

The Orbit is in no position to tell anyone what to do about anything, but I think it’s safe to say this Esplen flag is still very much a “fitting emblem” of the deeply-divided America of today.

red metal flag drop box at Rochester, PA, Veterans of Foreign Wars

V.F.W. flag drop box, Rochester, PA

plastic light-up flag in window, Pittsburgh, PA

window flag, Bloomfield

yard sign reading "Kathleen's Beaver Supports our Troops", Beaver, PA

No snickering! Kathleen’s Beaver Supports our Troops, Beaver

homemade poster reading "America is Great", Pittsburgh, PA

America is Great, Lawrenceville

A pre-election 2016 homemade banner hanging from a Lawrenceville front porch wasn’t enough to convince Pennsylvania voters they were already living in a great country, sigh.


[1] Although only a paltry 23% of the population voted. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puerto_Rican_status_referendum,_2017.

Flag Post: A Very Orbit Independence Day 2016

mural of American flag painted on exterior brick wall

Mural, Lawrenceville

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

The Star-Spangled Banner (second verse), Francis Scott Key

artwork with American flag and news clippings, Clarion, PA

Public art, Clarion

Wooden shipping pallet painted like an American flag

Shipping pallet flag, North Side

Oh sure, the world looks at we, the bloggerati, and just sees the obvious glory. But let me tell you something: blogging is more than just lavish parties, sleazy hangers-on, “making it rain,” and bath salt benders–it’s hard work! Why, who do you think is out of the house at 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, gears cranking while sunlight warms his wind-tousled hair, obsessively searching high and low* for the next breaking story? Not you–I’ll tell you that much. Why, you’re probably doing something fun and relaxing while getting some light aerobic exercise! And who’s working his index fingers to mere nubs hunt-and-pecking to research the national anthem while you sit on your keister and surf the Internet? This is the cross we bloggers bear.

Neon American flag in glass block window of brick building

Neon flag with glass block frame, Strip District

glass storefront windows for former pizza shop, Homestead, PA

Yellow, white, and blue flag, (Former) pizza shop, Homestead

Of the many rewards blogging provides, the excuse to look up odd reference points like the verses of our national anthem is one that goes unheralded–un-spangled, if you will. Reading the full set of lyrics (there are four original verses written by Francis Scott Key, plus one more added by Oliver Wendell Holmes during the Civil War), it’s nice to see that the song actually has some real heart and poetry to it.

It’s quite a lovely and unexpected bit of verse from a tune that is, at best, overplayed, and at worst, a nail-biting one-two of plodding drudgery preceding the inevitable scene-chewing high wire act in the penultimate line. The song (and each verse in its full form) has a Sunday morning coming down conclusion in the good-on-paper, but now tainted-by-jingoism cliché The land of the free and the home of the brave.

Child's painting of American flag on painted plywood

(Former) storefront, Ambridge

Mural detail showing waving abstract American flag with many other design elements including dice, city skyline, men, flowers, etc.

Park’n’ride mural (detail), Wilkinsburg

The American flag can be a lot to take in–both visually and symbolically. It’s not the most aesthetically-rewarding vehicle out there, but we prattled on enough about this in last year’s flag post. What is exciting is how many citizens choose to construct their own versions of the flag. Here we see them painted on wood, built from shipping pallets, recycled from the lathe of a plaster wall, as a mural over a parking lot, and fixed into a waving position in the chain link fence by a steel mill. Donald Trump would have us believe that America is no longer great, but it’s pretty obvious that plenty of Americans still feel like there’s something to celebrate.

homemade American flag made from painted wooden slats, Pittsburgh, PA

Front porch, South Oakland

American flag made from red, white, and blue plastic pieces inserted into chain link fence, U.S. Steel/Edgar Thomson Works, Braddock, PA

Chain link and garland flag, U.S. Steel/Edgar Thomson Works, Braddock


* At least, everywhere along the bicycle trails.

Flag Post: A Very Orbit Independence Day

detail of door painted like the American flag, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Shur-Fine America, Bloomfield

From the mountains to the prairies and from an alley in Bloomfield all the way to a men’s room in Bloomfield, it’s Independence Day in America (aka “The Fourth of July”) and we’re going to celebrate that with a flag post.

We see a lot of American flags this time of year, and that’s no easy experience for the eyes. Red, white, and blue are not colors that naturally look great together–at least, not when served up in the kind of equal doses Old Glory delivers. So for this amateur vexillologist, it can be a challenging holiday. It’s a blitzkrieg to the corneas, a D-Day for the optic nerve, and no laughing matter for the vitreous humor.

Graphically, we’d be a lot better off with just the red and white stripes or just the white stars on the blue field. We know The Orbit wields no small amount of international influence. Fortunes have been made and men (yes: and women) destroyed with the simple addition of key tag or a righteous repost. But a rebranding of The United States of America may be out of even this blog’s enviable powers.

So what are we to do? It’s our flag and whatever one thinks of it symbolically, it’s one of the great constants in any American’s existence. We at The Orbit find that the flags rendered by actual American hands have a whole lot more charm and humanity than their perfect (if cheap) cousins that show up on doorsteps and grave markers, waving at parades and discarded or packed-away by Summer’s end.

Through absolutely no forethought or planning, almost all of these flags were picked up when we thought we were photographing something else.  Super fans may cry “rerun!” but, c’mon–there’s good new stuff here! We’ll brand this a six-month “roll-up” to highlight some stories may be not everyone got to the first time. Happy birthday, America!

American flag made out of wooden fence

Fence flag, Highland Park

We came across this fine flag when we reported on Chet’s Tiny Backyard Dream World last month. Aside from the fact that Chet created this piece from old fence posts, I love that it both ended up slanted at this odd trapezoidal angle, and that it only has nine stripes and thirty stars. There is something so slyly seditious (if, likely, unconscious) about having patriotic art that is factually incorrect.

American flag made from popsicle sticks

Popsicle stick flag, Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]

Lee sent in this photo of a flag constructed of painted (?) popsicle sticks hours before going to press, so we frankly don’t have time to get all the details on it. What we do know is that just like Chet’s, the popsicle stick flag eschews the standard 13 stripes/50 stars arrangement in favor of a more loose interpretation. Whatever the artist’s intention, we like what we’re seeing from this American!

American flag sticker, scratched and graffiti'd

Sonny’s Tavern, Bloomfield

This flag begs the question: Which is more (or less) patriotic? To paste an American flag sticker above the urinal of a men’s room in a dive bar or to (fail to) properly remove/destroy it? Are all representations of the flag sacred?

American flag behind cypress bushes

Cypress flag, Highland Park

We came across this interesting flag/hedge combination when we were in Highland Park photographing the Heidi Houses back in May. The owner/tenant of this house used a huge flag to cover the entire front porch of the house, draping it between the gutter and scraggly cypress bushes. Like the men’s room above, this is a very questionable way to honor America. I love how the unmistakable red and white stripes blast out out from behind the green shrubs.

In retrospect, this photo‘s red, white, and green would have made an excellent inclusion in our Italian Colors story (and inevitable sequel!) from a while back. Magari la prossima volta.

exterior wall of a former V.F.W. painted like the American flag, Pittsburgh, Pa.

(Former) V.F.W., Bloomfield

All right–we did a whole story on the murals of the Bloomfield V.F.W. a couple months back, so this one you’ve pretty much seen before. But not this side and not from this angle! I had to climb out on a wall, leaning back against the top of an eighteen-wheeler at the Shur-Save loading dock to get any shot of this, the only side of the V.F.W. that just has flag painting (and no representational war fantasy). Also notable here is the odd choice to paint the flag on its end–with the stars at the bottom and the stripes at the top. Whatever that was about, the veterans obviously wanted big flag and they got it–covering three sides of the building. And then the club closed. Sigh.