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Walking on Broken Glass

October 7, 2015 5:00 am0 commentsViews: 68
Photo: Leah Dyjak

Photo: Leah Dyjak

The Surprising Past and Future of George Bryant’s Parking Lot

by Steve Desroches

Artist Leah Dyjak was living at 471 Commercial Street in the winter of 2011-2012, spending her days cleaning what had been the home of her father-in-law George Bryant. Beloved and irascible Bryant had been evicted from the home, and eventually a court order prohibited him from coming on the property, which he had filled with items he collected from swap shops, thrift stores, junk piles, and more from around the Outer Cape. The compulsion to collect, or some would say hoard, was propelled by both his passion for history as well as his eccentricities. So, as Dyjak spent her days cleaning all that Bryant had assembled in over 30 years in the house, she would wake up in the morning to find he had thrown several garbage bags over the fence at some point overnight making her job a bit of a Sisyphean parable.

An architect and engineer by trade, a former selectmen and member of the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates out of duty, and a historian by a passionate devotion to Provincetown, Bryant was well-known throughout the community, and the story of his problems, be they personal or a matter of public record, became equally known through local media coverage. But his story, or at least versions of it, also traveled via the lip radio of Provincetown’s penchant for storytelling. In many cases, the story became twisted to fit equally the storyteller’s own narrative and view of what it meant in the larger canon of Provincetown lore, while ignoring the complex realities for those in his family, those who loved him dearly, but were also facing the brunt of his dysfunctions. He is often rightfully regarded as a genius, as brilliant, as supremely intelligent, but there’s more to this complicated man.

“That line is exactly where the trouble started,” says Dyjak of Bryant’s high intellectual capacity. “What made him brilliant also made him ill.”

Anyone who walked by 471 Commercial Street before 2011 noticed the piles of stuff that sometimes spilled out onto the street or across the property lines. But what many also noticed, and still do, is the parking lot for Angel Foods market, comprised of broken dishes and ceramics. The property is owned by the Bryant family, and for 25 years George broke dishes he collected to create it. And that’s largely what was in those garbage bags he tossed over the fence in the middle of the night: dishes. Lots of them. Dyjak knew if she brought them back to any of the thrift stores or swap shops in the area they would soon find their way back anyway. Dealing with Bryant’s compulsions—and the dishes—began to creep into Dyjak’s life.

“I found it unbearable,” says Dyjak. “ I started to smash the plates to mediate frustration of cleaning up after his compulsion and to pursue my own practice.”

When Bryant saw Dyjak breaking the dishes in the parking lot he began to appear regularly, staying across the street shouting instructions as to where certain colored dishes should go. And then he started leaving maps for her detailing where to shatter certain plates. Bryant began smashing dishes as part of a project to regrade the parking lot in order to protect it from the encroaching tide. Dyjak learned that there was “a method to his madness.” While not an art project, color and texture mattered, as did the layering of the shards. It’s perhaps akin to a Jackson Pollock painting: to the untrained eye it appears to be random sploshes and splashes of paint, but there is intention, method, and technique. George claimed that at certain points in that parking lot the depth of the broken ceramics went as deep as three feet. This past winter, not long after Bryant died in March, Dyjak completed a bit of an archaeological survey and found that at its deepest it was close that depth. She also remembered and further discovered that he had a computer-like mind in terms of organizing what seemed to be an unruly junk pile and a seemingly haphazard yard of broken glass. And there was organization.

“You can sort of see in places only terra cotta and in others old crockery parts,” says Dyjak. “He would use the finer ceramics closer to the store.”

Having recently completed her MFA at the University of Texas at Austin, Dyjak sought to continue the work on the parking lot, but as a multifaceted art project titled Collect/Disperse. She’s photographed aspects of the lot, which have been exhibited in a variety of locations in Texas. The latest incarnation is a performance this Saturday. For the past year Dyjak has collected plates and other ceramics, mostly donated, and she and a selected crew will break them in the parking lot starting at 4 p.m. and ending at dark. It’s a way to renew and repurpose, not just the dishes themselves, but the parking lot. The work addresses not just the changing function of the plates, but also an environmental component in keeping back the tide, as well as a statement in regards to gentrification and the contraction of freedom that often comes with it.

“So much space, especially on the waterfront, has been lost,” says Dyjak. “So much of it has been closed off. The Bryant family always wanted that to be open space for people to use.”

The public is encouraged to bring their own plates to contribute (though the crew will be doing the performance). In exchange, people will also be allowed to take a shard with them.  Dyjak and the rest of Bryant’s family were touched to see that after Bryant’s memorial some came by the parking lot to smash dishes in his honor. And this project – which has the blessing of his brother Eugene as well as his sons Eric and Hale – brings in an artistic future for a wonderfully unique and creative engineering project begun by Bryant.

“It’s kind of absurd in a way,” says Dyjak. “It highlights what made him so great.”

Leah Dyjak’s performance component to Collect/Disperse will take place in the parking lot next to Angel Foods, 469 Commercial St., Provincetown, on Saturday, October 10 starting at 4 p.m. A rain date is set for Sunday, October 11 at 4 p.m., but would only by utilized in the event of extreme weather. The public is encouraged to bring their own plates to contribute and should drop them off no later than 3 p.m. For more information on the project and the art of Dyjak visit leahdyjak.com and collectdisperse.com. 

Leah Dyjak at work on the project at the parking lot next to Angel Food (far left, top); materials from Bryant’s project (far left, bottom); and evidence of a method to the process (left); A drop-off  spot for the Collect/Disperse project (above).