Arts & Culture » Visual Art

On Cleo's Trail

Outsider art in and outside environ


About 15 miles south of Nampa, just off Highway 45 at historic Walter's Ferry, sits Dan's Ferry Service Gas Station. Below the station is an obscure little road that leads to Cleo's Nature Trail and Museum. No roadside signage announces the place. Only the very observant might notice the large plastic rainbow and a collection of rusty kids' tricycles signifying the way. But the extremely curious might be cautious to venture down this path uninvited—it feels much like entering someone's private world. And, in many ways, it is.

"We don't advertise, so we rely mainly on people coming back again and again and bringing their friends. They really are inspired by what this remarkable woman has created," says Steve Washburn, the on-site caretaker.

Visionary environments like Cleo's have been misunderstood and largely ignored in the fine art world until recent academic interest in the area of folk art garnered them fame. Part sculpture, architecture and landscape, these visionary environments are a kind of fantasy world. The people who craft them are typically untrained artists, often referred to as "folk" or "outsider" artists, with a deep, almost obsessive desire to create. Because of their lack of formal training and frequent use of found materials or "junk," American outsider artists and their created worlds have been traditionally seen as strange and unimportant—often eventually neglected or destroyed. Luckily, with many large museum exhibitions devoted to the work of folk artists, the importance of these landscapes to our national history/artistic heritage is being recognized.

Dr. Samuel Swayne purchased the picturesque property on the Snake River in 1927. He married his second wife, Cleo, in 1946 and together with their children lived in an adobe house that acted as the original ferry station in the late 1800s. As a well-known caregiver to the community, Doc Swayne, as he was called, and Cleo were active both civically and socially. They hosted local square dance nights at their home in the 1950s. The eclectic couple also shared a passion for collecting—from antique medical equipment to clocks, license plates to religious artifacts. Until his death in 1976, Doc Swayne took an interest in architecture and built a small compound of buildings on the property, utilizing a collection of stone, rocks and glass. He built his wife a grand home and several mini museums to display their collections—a clock museum, a doll museum, a medical museum and a chapel.

It wasn't until after her husband died that Cleo truly began her journey as an artist. While she threw herself into creating artworks indoors, such as carving small, meticulous environments within eggshells, Cleo's vision was focused on an outside environment. With a little help, she cleared a one-mile looped path on her property, later dubbed "the nature trail." She began collecting yard art to adorn the trail, often created locally, like hundreds of birdhouses built by Letta Hogland of Melba and five large totems carved by a woodworker in Cascade. Life-sized sculptures began making their way one by one onto the trail, including an entire zoo of large painted African animals. Along the way Cleo became a fan of Utah sculptor Gary Lee Price, whose bronzes of children on rope swings and an entire marching band are waiting to greet visitors.

A woman of great faith, Cleo was dedicated to creating a spiritual environment for visitors. Biblical quotes printed on metal signs tacked to wooden fence posts line the trail, as do saintly statues and a garden of angels. She even created private alcoves for personal reflection—one can visit a replica of Jesus' tomb or head up the hill to the prayer closet.

Though there are many serious and spiritual elements along her nature trail, Cleo also had a clear sense of fun and whimsy. An enchanted forest is hidden at the back of the trail's loop, covered with low slung tree branches and bracketed by a stream. Fairies, gnomes, mushrooms and shiny whirligigs enhance the childlike environment.

Throughout the 1980s, Cleo personally greeted all visitors who wandered through her gate, including numerous local fourth grade classes who visited this piece of Idaho history.

"Although we were there to learn about Walter's Ferry and its place in Idaho history, I remember more about the kitschy collectibles and taxidermy that filled the museums," says Katie Hammon of Meridian, who first visited Cleo's Nature Trail and Museum in 1984 as a 10-year-old student at Caldwell's Washington Elementary School.

"I also remember Cleo's bright red hair, eccentric dress, and that she was very kind to all of us kids." Cleo curated, collected and cared for the museums and the trail until her death in 2008 at age 94. Currently a board consisting of family members oversees the place, along with Washburn. The museum buildings are closed while the collections are undergoing documentation and conservation, but the nature trail remains free and open to the public daily. Cleo's recently gained some national attention and a bit of fame, being featured on a 2006 episode of Kansas City Public Television show "Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations" and several offbeat tourist guides. There's a sign on the trail, with one of Cleo's sayings: "This Place was built as a Vibrant Faith Adventure. You are my special friend. Please keep it free from harm."