Torpy at Large: ‘Druid Hill’ is a state of mind — and fighting words

Clark Ashton’s eyes get big with theatrical and maniacal glee.

“I’ve seized the high ground,” he says with a cackle concerning his ongoing fight for federal recognition.

Ashton has raised a flag. He’s even erected an official-looking historical marker: “The Battle for Druid Hill.”

He wants the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to designate his property as Druid Hill (singular). The Druid Hills (plural) Civic Association, which represents a tony, historic and well-connected neighborhood, doesn’t want that to occur.

If you live in or drive through DeKalb County, you may already know Ashton. He’s that odd fellow with all those iron structures in his front yard on North Druid Hills Road. In the past, he often sat in his metal throne out front drinking coffee as commuters oozed by in morning rush-hour traffic.

He named his creation the Commuter Gallery, although now it's the Mechanical Riverfront Kingdom. I think. I get confused when talking to Clark because he often drifts onto different planes of thought when explaining things.

Ashton has been known to employ performance art. He used to shoulder a massive wrench and tromp about his front yard to symbolize mankind’s daily toil, an effort that struck home with commuters.

A young lady once shouted, “Ironman, I think I love you!”

Another guy leaned from his truck growling, “Get yer dumbass back into the house.”

Art strikes people differently. It still does.

Recently, Ashton wowed a national arts group called Artadia, winning a prestigious award, as well as a $10,000 prize.

And this year he got a knock-it-off letter from the Druid Hills Civic Association.

» RELATED PHOTO GALLERY: Clark Ashton and his metal forest

First, the award. The Artadia folks like that Ashton is pushing the boundaries, that he’s not a cookie-cutter artist just trying to bang out some pieces for his next show. He lives it.

I know firsthand. I live nearby, and he sometimes calls up saying, “Torpy, what’re you doing?” This is Clark-speak for, “I need someone with a strong back and dull mind to hump something heavy into place.”

The structures on his property range from arches to towers to iron skeletons to dozens of ornate iron stoves. A renowned professor of sculpture and ironwork once told me that Ashton is a genius. I can't disagree.

He’s a welder by trade but an artist by heart, a throwback from America’s hands-on industrial past caught in an e-world of drones toiling in cubicles.

Ashton could sell some of the pieces and sometimes does. Yet he seems not inclined to push real hard. It’s art for art’s sake. It’s not a commodity. That won over the Artadia selection committee.

Teresa Reeves, an art professor at Kennesaw State University and a judge, said "he's resolute and stubborn in not having to compromise his ideals."

The committee, she said, was “kind of amazed and shocked at the complexities, and with Clark himself. He almost takes on a role as a preacher. At first it kind of scared me because it seems so real. Then I realized this is just part of it. He’s not crazy. He’s just Clark.”

The Druid Hills folks aren’t as impressed. In a letter of opposition, Anne Wallace, president of the Druid Hills Civic Association, wrote: “The area proposed is not a geographic feature, nor is it a hill.”

Naming his property Druid Hill (again, singular) could lead to confusion, she said, since the historic neighborhood is a couple of miles southwest of Ashton’s perch on North Druid Hills Road.

The civic association’s letter ended saying, “We oppose naming this area “Druid Hill’ and urge the proponents to select a more suitable name for these residential lots and associated yard work.”

Ashton read the last sentence with an exaggerated Masterpiece Thee-ah-ture voice. “Suitable?” he asks. “That statement shows them looking down their nose. I’ve pointed out to them that Druid Hills is just a collection of residential lots.”

In fact, more than 100 years ago a developer picked the name Druid Hills from a list of 39 names. It just sounded kind of mysterious and highbrow.

Ashton added that at least a dozen businesses, schools and apartment complexes use the name Druid Hills, including a storage facility down the road.

“Well, this land has pedigree, too,” he said, pulling out a booklet he produced about religion, art, history and even real estate. Turns out he’s the 13th owner of the land since the settlers stole it from the Indians.

“I consider Druid Hill to be a piece of sculpture,” he said. “I’ve had a natural stage here because of the topography. I’d have never built these towers if I didn’t have this hill.”

His property, like many others on the street, rises about 30 feet from the pavement.

Now he’s thinking about legacy. The 59-year-old had a heart operation three years ago. He’d somehow like to see the property and his art survive intact. Earlier this year, a developer assembled most of the adjoining properties, reportedly to build townhouses.

I called Jennifer Runyon, the federal worker handling his request. She said local governments must make a request for a feature to be named. America is littered with zillions of unnamed streams, cliffs, buttes, hills, etc.

Currently, students in Decatur are trying to get a stream by their school named, she said. Usually the U.S. Board on Geographic Names does what local pols request.

That leaves it in the hands of DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader, who also resides in the Druid Hills neighborhood, although he calls his area "Lesser Druid Hills."

“I’m not opposed to it,” he said. “I don’t know if we have to be overly restrictive with the name. The private sector is not overly restrictive with that name.”

Rader said he can live with civic association pushback. It’s part of the job. He said he wants to make sure an official naming doesn’t screw up people with their GPS or their Google maps. He doesn’t want to have someone looking for Driving Miss Daisy’s home in historic Druid Hills and have them instead find some dude on a metal throne.