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It’s impossible to fully see the Bottle Chapel in just one trip to Wilmington’s stately Airlie Gardens, where it has stood, weird and shining and beguiling, for more than 15

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It’s impossible to fully see the Bottle Chapel in just one trip to Wilmington’s stately Airlie Gardens, where it has stood, weird and shining and beguiling, for more than 15

Splendor in the Glass at Airlie Gardens

Broad photo of Arlie Gardens with sculptures.

It’s impossible to fully see the Bottle Chapel in just one trip to Wilmington’s stately Airlie Gardens, where it has stood, weird and shining and beguiling, for more than 15 years, through storms of all seasons. It is constructed of the humblest materials, discarded bottles and cement, staked by wooden posts and metal wire, and, at 17 by 17 feet, it’s smaller than many backyard sheds, not counting its lack of roof — how does one measure that height, I wonder, up through its open ceiling of crisscrossing copper tree branches to the heavens? And how many other dimensions of the chapel, how many lives and ghosts and stories, like rays on the light spectrum, are simply not visible to the naked eye?

In the manner of most mosaic art, from a distance, the chapel tells only half its story. As you approach through the Minnie Evans Sculpture Garden, a neatly landscaped niche, the chapel’s front invites you in with its bright, symmetrical design — crafted in hundreds of colorful bottles — of two apple trees framing an arched entryway. At night, it is a glowing fairy-tale house, warm and sparkling as a Christmas tree.

But up close, in the plain light of day, the Bottle Chapel is something else again, chaotic and complicated, its beauty no longer serene or coherent but splintered into thousands of facets and fragments, its bones and ghosts laid bare. The uneven yet gracefully sloping lines of its partially open sides remind me of ancient ruins, how one can perceive exquisite design even in walls and buildings that are no longer fully there.

Walking around and around the chapel on a mild day, against the hush and rustle of Airlie’s trees, I see bottles shaped like fish, like maple leaves, like cowboy boots. I see brown whiskey bottles and pale antique green Coke bottles and rich green champagne bottles, dark blue bottles that once contained cheap wine or expensive vodka. There are thousands of them, each individually set by hand into the clay-colored mortar by artist and Wilmington resident Virginia Wright-Frierson.

Construction was a grueling process. Wright-Frierson worked daily and mostly alone, pushing wheelbarrows of wet cement through the freezing winter and sweltering summers of 2004 and 2005. When it was cold, the cement often fell apart in her hands as she molded bottles into place. “The fastest I ever got was six bottles an hour,” she says. Early on, she acquired bottles from friends and family, requesting colors and shapes she needed. Later, she started climbing into recycling bins.

The bottles form an ordered disorder, a prismatic proliferation of color and light.

Collectively, the bottles form an ordered disorder, a prismatic proliferation of color and light that looks different from every angle. I spot a red glass cake dome, a clear fishbowl, a blown-glass angelfish, a grouping of glass “swirly” marbles set close to the ground, as if placed there by children, or for them. A single graceful dark blue glass hand reaches out from one shimmering, kaleidoscopic wall, as if to pull me in, or to summon my help in escaping. The chapel seems not so much haunted by ghosts as constructed of them.

• • •

The work was commissioned to honor the legacy of self-taught visionary artist Minnie Evans, perhaps Wilmington’s most acclaimed painter. A descendant of enslaved people brought to America from Trinidad, Evans was born in 1892 and lived almost all her life in Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, quitting school after fifth grade so she could help support her family, selling oysters door-to-door. Some remember her drawing as a child. As an adult, she was compelled to make her color-saturated, surrealistic designs from dreams and waking visions, heavily influenced by the Bible and, later, the Eden-like landscapes of Airlie Gardens. “I wasn’t like the other children,” Evans once said. She knew she saw things that others could not see, and her dreams often woke her at night. When Evans was 42 years old, a fearsome voice in a dream bellowed at her, Why don’t you draw or die?

Old black and white photograph of Minnie Evans sitting on chair while drawing.

Artist Minnie Evans found inspiration in the Bible and the natural world — including Airlie Gardens — to create drawings like The Tree of Life. Learn more at ncartmuseum.org/fromhome. photograph by Cape Fear Museum of History and Science, Wilmington, NC

She obeyed. Evans drew on any paper she could find — grocery bags, shirt cardboards, discarded stationery. By all accounts even-tempered, good-humored, and humble, Evans married, raised three sons, and lived adaptably through difficult, restrictive times. It was Evans’s art, not her life, that caused such an uproar.

By the 1970s, her work had gained national acclaim, and it was eventually housed at the Smithsonian, The Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Evans enjoyed her success but prayed not to get too “biggety” about it. Not long before her death in 1987, when one of her sons asked her how it felt to be famous, she laughed and replied, “I don’t even know; I can’t feel it. I can’t realize it.”

“I wanted people to feel they could enter one of her paintings, stand inside it.”

In 2002, Wright-Frierson enlisted seven other artists to join her proposal for the Bottle Chapel and Minnie Evans Sculpture Garden, because, she says, “Minnie Evans’s work inspires all of us.” In the Bottle Chapel, Wright-Frierson hoped to create a three-dimensional version of an Evans painting. “I wanted people to feel they could enter one of her paintings, stand inside it.”

Wright-Frierson is an impressionistic-realist painter by profession and predilection, with a college degree and specialization in oil painting and drawing. Yet I feel the spark of Evans’s fantastical visions even in Wright-Frierson’s most straightforward works — her children’s book An Island Scrapbook: Dawn to Dusk on a Barrier Island, for example, in which a weathered beach fence seems to sag and bulge in the wind. Even Wright- Frierson’s most literal images have an edge of exaggeration, as if beauty strains the outlines of the real, pushing to burst out.

“Oh, there’s my pendant,” she remarks as we stroll around the Bottle Chapel. Some shards of blue-and-white china that I notice pressed into the cement are “my broken dishes,” she says, leaving me to ponder circumstances. The blue glass hand belonged to Wright-Frierson’s late mother, she confides — well, not literally. It was a jewelry holder.

Night-time photograph of the Bottle Chapel.

Different facets of the Bottle Chapel take center stage depending on the time of day: At night, apple trees glow around the entrance; in the daylight, treasures and talismans reveal themselves in the cement. photograph by Matt Ray Photography

The Bottle Chapel shows a different side at night, its well-camouflaged spotlights placed to illuminate the bottles from within. “At night, the cement disappears,” Wright-Frierson says.

But to me, the cement is everything. Pressed into the chapel’s exterior walls, I find infinite fragments of beauty that can’t be illuminated: seashells, pottery shards, trinkets and talismans, items broken and whole. I see scallop shells, sand dollars, arks. Worn bits of sea glass and shark teeth, pointy auger shells arranged in starburst patterns. A life-size gold metal hummingbird that was once a brooch. Ceramic letters that spell out “BAA” — a contribution from the Black Arts Alliance in Wilmington. “They stopped by one day when I was working,” Wright-Frierson says.

As the days of building wore on, Wright-Frierson accepted offerings from all who stopped by, friends and strangers alike. Whether it was a family keepsake or a child’s handful of broken seashells, she added it to the structure. “It began to seem that whenever I really needed something for a particular area I was working on,” she recalls, “someone would show up and give me the perfect object.”

Its bottles sing in the high winds of storms — “a ghostly celestial sound from thousands of bottles at once.”

Most days, Wright-Frierson was accompanied only by her beloved dog, Willie, a standard poodle who resembled a polar bear. On the night of the building’s dedication, he passed away, so she incorporated his ashes into the work as well, though I’m not at liberty to say exactly where they’re stored.

Inside the Bottle Chapel, a small army of Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup bottles forms a resolute line of women going up the wall, tall and brown and dignified, stripped of their labels. These are the “ancestors,” says Wright-Frierson. She half-jokingly refers to the “Holy Family,” a small gathering of three person-shaped bottles on a shrine-like shelf in the chapel’s interior: another Mrs. Butterworth and two Frangelico liqueur bottles — parents and a child. “They’re not really the Holy Family,” amends Wright-Frierson, who was raised Episcopalian. “I’d just call it a wedding.”

• • •

Arlie Gardens always represented a literal Eden to Minnie Evans; she spoke of “the gardens” — the biblical ones and those at Airlie — interchangeably. “Green is God’s theme color,” she once said. “He paints everything green. Six hundred and some shades of green.” For 27 years, she worked in a cramped wooden booth as Airlie’s gatekeeper, for which she was paid around a dollar a day. Yet sitting there, or in the shade of a tree, she was inspired to make hundreds of drawings and paintings — lush, resplendent designs of faces and blossoms, like mandalas containing all the colors of the rainbow and some that only she could see. To Evans, “the outdoors was a church whose architect was God,” according to biographer Mary E. Lyons. The Bottle Chapel reflects Evans’s biblical motifs with its Edenic apple trees, its hidden eyes and faces, even a small ceramic snake pressed into one wall. It also contains the youthful spirit of Evans’s work. Its welcoming pathway of 95 mosaic stepping-stones — one for each year of Evans’s life — features smiling flowers, suns, birds, and bumblebees, all designed and handmade by Wilmington schoolchildren under the guidance of artist Brooks Koff. The stones lead up to and encircle the chapel’s raised base, as if it were a merry-go-round or a wishing well.

Close-up photograph of a glass bottle figure in a wall.

Artist Virginia Wright-Frierson’s Bottle Chapel is both otherworldly and, somehow, right at home among the bright blooms and majestic live oaks in Airlie Gardens. photograph by Matt Ray Photography

Like all fairy-tale creations, the chapel is not quite safe. A lightning rod was added by necessity during the building process, anchored 14 feet down in the ground and running up invisibly alongside the copper tree (created by artist Karen Paden Crouch) that “grows” through the chapel’s interior, stretching its limbs into the space where a roof would be. Because the Bottle Chapel is staked with wooden posts, if lightning ever hit it and there were no rod, it would quite literally explode.

Instead, its bottles sing in the high winds of storms — “a ghostly celestial sound from thousands of bottles at once,” says Wright-Frierson, who might be the only person who’s ever heard it. The copper tree is so indistinguishable from the surrounding real trees that a strange copper-colored dove once blew in from the tropics during a hurricane and stayed for a time, making the tree and chapel its home.

• • •

Despite The Bottle Chapel’s cacophony of stories, fans cite its “sense of calm and sweetness,” how it evinces “awe, love, a sense of eccentricity and peace.” A friend of mine notes the powerful use of repurposed materials. “What we may view as a discard can be beautiful if we were more open-minded,” she says. “Art made with found materials is an embodiment of hope.”

Because the bottle stems all face inward and point slightly downward (so they don’t fill with rain), only from inside the Bottle Chapel can one see the formidable thickness of its walls, how much strength and precision they must have required to build.

Standing inside, my face turned to the open sky, I shut my eyes for a moment and think of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral,” the blind man making his cynical host draw a cathedral on a paper grocery bag. They are both drunk, and neither man has seen a cathedral in real life, yet soon they are creating one together, the blind man’s hand riding along on the hand of his friend as he draws, so he can feel the cathedral coming into focus. Soon, both men’s eyes are closed, and both can see.

I was in my house, thinks the skeptic with wonder. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.

The Bottle Chapel at Arlie Gardens
300 Airlie Road
Wilmington, NC 28403
(910) 798-7700

This story was published on Mar 30, 2021

Wendy Brenner

Wendy Brenner is the author of two books of short fiction, and a contributing editor for The Oxford American.