by Jim Harris
Many Chestnut Hillers know about “The Red Rose Girls.” Violet Oakley and her little band of women artists lived and worked at “Cogslea,” their enclave on the edge of the Wissahickon Valley, from 1906 until 1961. Not as many folks, however, have heard of “The Belchwood Boys,” a trio of young male artists who lived a similarly idyllic experience in Mt. Airy during the second half of 20th century.
Blinky St. Ives, Tweed Entwhistle and Blotto McGurk (you could pull a muscle trying to spell their names) were mere adolescents when they met in Cub Scout Pack 249 in 1955 and vowed to dedicate their lives to making art together. But by the time they were in their 20s, they were struggling to keep their dream alive.
Their big break came in 1976 when wealthy cupcake heiress Thomasina Windsor-Knott noticed the boys living on a catwalk under the McCallum Street Bridge. She offered to let them stay in a long-abandoned stable on her estate if they agreed to clean up their act (and clean up the stable). They accepted the deal, and after a long evening of celebratory beer drinking, they dubbed their new abode “Belchwood” and set about creating art like men on a mission.
Blinky’s forte was drawing people with grossly exaggerated appendages. His creations graced many of the overpasses along route 309. He also produced “kinetic sculptures” like his multi-tiered mobile, “Breadscape 117,” made entirely of croutons, which hung in the headquarters of the International House of Pancakes until it started attracting flies. His largest work, a mural at Franklin Field, ended abruptly when he ran out of space (and when he discovered there was no wall to paint the mural on).
Blinky was also a pioneer in the use of disposable cameras. It took him a couple of years to realize that you don’t actually throw the camera away when the pictures run out, that you have to take it to some kind of store that develops the film. “That was a turning point in his photographic career,” says Dwight Hooferhoffen, in his 12-volume biography of the boys, “Belchwood Revisited.”
Blinky’s series of photographs from that period, entitled “Stuff I Saw Floating in the Creek,” was called “Incomprehensible yet frightening,” by art critic Daveed Yahtzee of Artifice Magazine. “Over two-thirds of the faint, fuzzy images,” he said, “contain parts of Blinky’s fingers over the lens. It’s just that kind of inattention to detail that gives his work its refreshingly carefree ethos.”
Tweed, a guitarist, wandered about, composing songs inspired by highway signs he saw in his travels. His landmark album, “Do Not Enter,” contained such seminal folksongs as “Left Lane Must Cry” and “Last Gas Till We Meet Again.”
Blotto, who looked like a Siamese cat and coincidentally suffered from meow-patterned baldness, was the writer of the group. His books include “Looking for Mr. Peanut,” in which he set out to find if the iconic legume was modeled after an actual person (it wasn’t), and “Explosion on My Head,” a scholarly study of Albert Einstein’s hair.
The three young men started out as anonymous as cattle, but they wound up leading the artistic herd, so to speak. They happily spent their days communing with their respective muses, and in their leisure time they could be seen cruising around Chestnut Hill in their Chevy Corvair trying to crash debutante parties.
Then, early on the morning of April 28, 1997, straining under the weight of 50 years worth of pigeon droppings, the Belchwood property collapsed with a crash so loud that it was heard as far away as Fishtown. Despite being pinned under the wreckage for 19 days (give or take a few), the boys survived, but with no place left to live, they eventually drifted apart.
Blinky went on a photographic tour of the West and fell off of Mount Rushmore. Tweed opened a beer distributorship and accidentally locked himself in the freezer. He remains frozen to this day. Blotto founded a newspaper called the Mt. Airy/Chestnut Hill/Germantown Independent Chronicle Express Gazette Post Times, which consists mainly of political editorials, classified ads for stomach-stapling surgery and hairpieces made out of rodent fur, and letters to the editor which he writes himself.
Their art, created all those years ago, may be languishing in obscurity right now, but hopefully, in the spirit of Belchwood, it will rise again. You never know. Remember that Vincent Van Gogh only sold one painting in his entire lifetime.