Made in America with Foreign Parts

27 Outhouse Wall

Outhouse Wall Outhouse Wall
American
Decoration attributed to either Anton or Albert Bruflat, 1905
Wood (pine)
Gift of Bob & Vicki Applegate
MHAHS 1986.040.0001

This carved interior outhouse wall is a remnant from the Bruflat family’s homestead. The artist, likely one of the Bruflat sons based on the initials “AB”, incised a dove with an olive leaf and a scroll, possibly inspired by religious motifs from their local Perry Lutheran Church or common design themes found in religious publications. It is interesting to contemplate why they chose to decorate such a mundane space with an elegant carved scriptural reference.


The human impulse to mark and write, to claim ownership or personalization of an environment whether public or private, forms a continuum from the first human cave drawings to today’s graffiti culture.[1] Today, there is hardly a public restroom stall that has not been christened with the scratchings and writings of visitors driven to leave a permanent relic of their transient presence. Their wall writings are often categorized as Graffiti, defined by Howard Pearlstein as “any coherently-intended presence written, scratched, painted, engraved, printed or pasted or otherwise impressed in a public place.” Pearlstein then goes on to identify two motivations for graffiti, suggesting that the definition of graffiti is wrapped up in its drive as much as in its manifestation: “the need of the moment to personalize, integrate and possess the environment, and the desire to make one’s presence and/or perceptions known to otherwise unconnected persons who share that environment.”[2]

The outhouse is one of the most banal, dirty environments visited multiple times during the course of a day and, though we might happily withdraw our human need to visit the facilities if possible, evacuation is a necessary daily experience of every mammalian body.  Hygienically separate from the homestead, the outhouse is consigned a functional space often adorned with little more than a carved window, perhaps in the shape of a moon or rooster. How ought one enhance the banality and mock sterility of the outhouse – the flat and unaesthetic space of countless cumulative waking hours. For many, the requisite trip to the loo is bettered by introspection or some solitary activity such as that requiring merely the ever-at-hand pocket knife or pen. Better yet, the bathroom venue provides the spontaneous artist with command of an anonymous, willing or unwilling, temporarily captivated audience, making it an ideal local for untrained, expressive scribbles.

This carved interior outhouse wall belonged to the Bruflat family of Blue Mounds, WI. Andrew Bruflat and his wife Kuri Bruflat married in Norway in 1880 before immigrating to the United States in 1885. The couple had seven children, five of which were born in Blue Mounds.

The pinewood canvas is incised with the outline of a large dove with long tail feathers spanning two boards. Below the bird, the artist, self-identified with the initials “AB” carved below the tail feathers, also carved the date 1905. Two of the Bruflat children possessed the initials AB: Anton (aged 19 in 1905) and Albert (aged 16 in 1905). Although it is plausible that the father, Andrew Bruflat, could have carved the image, the donor claims that it was carved by one of the sons.

The next question is “why carve a dove in an outhouse?” The dove is accompanied by an olive leaf, suggestive of Christian iconography, particularly of the story of Noah’s ark, and a scroll. The scriptures tell of Noah’s discovery of land after the great flood.  He sent out a dove anticipating that if it returned to the ark, it did not find an alternative place to perch.  If it did not return, that meant that the dove found land, providing Noah and his distressed family with assurance that their tribulation would soon be at an end. After Noah’s first failed attempt, the text about the dove proceeds as follows:

“He [Noah] waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him.”[3]

The story of Noah’s ark and the dove in particular symbolizes God’s faithfulness to provide and the peace that knowledge provides for the recipient.

What is the meaning of adorning an outhouse wall with an elegant scriptural reference? Is it in some way irreverent? The outhouse itself is a sort of floating wooden structure separate from the house.  It is also a space out of doors and more deeply connected to nature than perhaps the main homestead. In some ways, it is like the ark. A quiet, isolated space of introspection as much as a functional necessity.

Perhaps the best way to understand the Bruflat graffiti artist is to think of the messages inscribed in bathroom stalls today. They might be political, religious, personal, comical, pictorial or indecipherable. But nonetheless, we read them on a scale ranging from absentmindedness to thoughtfulness. In this way, it is easy to imagine the Bruflat artist and his family occupying the outhouse and being caused to ponder the dove and the olive branch, calling to mind the story of Noah and of God’s faithfulness all while hearing the breeze blow past the small building and the bird, perhaps a dove, chirping outside.

References

[1] Robert Reisner, Graffiti: Two Thousand Years of Wall Writing, (Chicago: Cowles Book Company, 1971), 1.  34-35 “Scholars do admit that whereas the writers, historians, and record keepers of various eras have provided panoramic stylization of a civilization, it is the graffiti that attest to the continuity of the common man, and the continued commonness of many of his problems. It was true of Pompeii, and is certainly true of ancient Rome, where the mania for writing on public and private buildings was intense. There was hardly an edifice that didn’t bear the scars of a schoolboy’s pocket-knife or some idle passerby’s nail…Many graffiti show that deeply entrenched in time and history are some of life’s daily vexations.”

[2] Howard Pearlstein, Post-Graffiti, (New York: Sidney Janis Gallery, 1983), N.P.

[3] Genesis 8:10-12, New International Version of the Bible

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Outhouse Wall by Individual Contributors is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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