It started out as a nightmare on Elm Street, with pain, surgery and the deaths of loved ones. But two artists turned their grief into a colorful, healing dream at their York City home.
If you ever drive down Elm Street in a small neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, chances are you will pass a colorful and, well, unusual home.
With a bright red roof, Roy the Truck parked out front, matching colors on the ombre shutters, not to mention the bicycle arch fence, musical chicken statues, glass art, and more, you’ve stumbled upon the Elm Street Open Air Art Gallery.
But it’s not a museum, it’s actually a home, inhabited by two artists who say they found each other at the right time.
Robin Robinson, 66, moved into the house in 2017, and the original house was white with black shutters. Looking for a splash of color, she decided to paint the shutters red, yellow and orange, which eventually caught the eye of local harmonica player Parker James Hooker, 69, who was across the street with Peter Danko at the time, working on furniture projects.
Hooker knocked on her door one day, and a friendship soon blossomed.
One year later, Hooker was set to get back surgery, and Robinson, who recently had a back surgery of her own, offered to help.
“I knew he needed someone to help him out and said you can stay at my house, I have an extra bedroom, and I can take care of you – and he hasn’t left since,” Robinson said jokingly.
In the summer of 2019, Robinson wanted a paint job on the shed in her backyard, and Hooker was on the job – not blue with white trim, but a mural that would become a testament to their lives.
Turning grief into a happy place
The deal was that Robinson would help him through his back surgery, and when he recovered, Hooker, who had earlier sold all his belongings, would move to Nashville. Three back surgeries later, here they are.
After his second back surgery, Hooker was on his way home from the Belmont Bean Coffee Shop in January 2020 when he got a call from his daughter-in-law asking where he was.
“Heading home,” he said. “She said we’re picking you up in an hour.”
Hooker spent his last moments with his 31-year-old daughter, Patricia Ann Houck, who was dying of brain cancer.
“I got to hold her when she died,” said Hooker. The loss of his daughter was the darkest time of his life.
This year, Hooker lost his ex-wife, Patrica Hooker, also to brain cancer, and years ago Robinson lost her sister, Kay Beck, to cancer.
It was through grief and coming to peace with the loss that the two of them began their journey to create an art gallery in honor of these women.
“During the darkest time of my life, Robin and her colors saved me. I don’t know if I would even be here on Earth today because it was so hard,” he said.
“So, we turned the grief into our happy place. It gave him a purpose,” Robinson said.
Grief takes on many forms
What emerged from Hooker’s pain was a series of sculptures, fences and objects, all created with a purpose, defying conventional understanding.
When you drive up to the house, the first thing you notice is an arched fence. It’s made of hundreds of old bicycle wheels. In the shed, Hooker has homemade guitars, chandeliers made from CDs, artificial fruit, statues made from scrap metal, and much more.
Robinson painted a handful of statues and furniture, including a mural pond, and two large metal chickens, not to mention pretty much everything else in her house.
The interior of her home is filled with lamps, wooden sculptures, refurbished benches, knitted items, paintings, and more. It’s not cluttered by any means and resembles an art museum.
One of the most memorable pieces in the Robinson-Hooker home is a swing made from an old wheelbarrow that swings ever so slowly. When you close your eyes, you are transported to peace and tranquility.
A friend of Robinson’s was even moved to tears after using the swing.
Hooker said the two have never experienced theft of their art and believe it’s the “holy spirit” that protects their home and the art that surrounds it.
“I never thought I’d say I love York, but to make a community you have to go through the good and the bad,” Hooker said.
The outdoor art gallery is located at 1202 Elm St. Passersby are welcome to stop, stare and admire.
“I want people to leave feeling more positive, with peace and joy,” Hooker said.