Visitors to artist Henry Clarke’s outdoor gallery are treated to a healing tour and a fresh take on “going green.”
Written by Susan Baldani | Photographed by Joe Worthem
When you think about moss, if you think about it at all, it’s probably that soft, squishy ground covering you see in shady yards or growing up the side of a tree. Most of the time, it’s not even noticed or appreciated. But moss actually has a lot of benefits — to the environment, to our health and even in art. Yes, art.
Henry Clarke, a master ceramic tile glazer and artist from Oxford, Mississippi, felt that something was missing from his wooden carvings. He wanted to infuse more natural elements into his designs.
“Being out in the woods brought out my creativity, and when I saw all the moss, I decided I wanted to put that in the forefront,” Clarke said. “So, I started putting it on top of my wood carvings, and after that it was off to the races.”
Mosses are small flowerless plants that typically form dense green clumps or mats, often in damp or shady locations. According to Britannica.com, there are approximately 12,000 species throughout the world. They grow in damp places and don’t require a lot of sunlight, preferring the ground around trees and other taller plants. They clean our water, clear our air and prevent erosion.
“What people don’t realize is that moss takes carbon out of the air,” Clarke said. “If you’re in an area with a bunch of moss, you’re getting nothing but clean fresh air which will make you feel euphoric.”
Clarke, who calls himself “the Moss Hunter,” searches for moss all around Oxford and Lafayette County; he’s been at it now for over three years. He’s been known to stop on the side of the road, put on his bright orange jacket and get busy digging up the moss he spotted there. His backyard collection includes fern, tree and toothpick mosses, among others.
The yard is an outdoor gallery; a fairyland filled with wooden creations covered in moss.
Among them are a carved head with moss for the hair, mustache and beard; a wooden bench totally covered in a vibrant green moss; and a moss-covered carved man lying on the ground. He sometimes incorporates small ferns as well.
“Children love to run around and touch everything,” Clarke said. “I have some moss that I glued onto little wood animals, and they love that. It looks a little like a zoo when you first walk in.”
Clarke’s wife, Toni Coleman, whom he met while living in New York and followed to Mississippi, supports his hobby wholeheartedly. Coleman came up with the name, House on the Hill Enchanted Oasis, to describe their home and grounds.
“She loves when I’m outside doing my thing,” Clarke said.
Visitors who come to House on the Hill for the free moss garden tours are from all walks of life and of all different ages. Many of them have never been around moss before, and Clarke said they always find it fascinating.
While touring, guests are encouraged to walk on the moss in bare feet. Clarke wants people to be close to the moss, to touch it and be able to differentiate between the different types of moss.
He also teaches people how to attach moss to wood using mud, and he will sometimes give them moss to take home, to start their own moss gardens.
At the very end of the moss trail, Clarke created a little beach that he calls Betty Beach, after Coleman’s mother. It’s an all-white sand beach with a 20- by 27-foot pool.
“It’s like a little lake,” Clarke said. “I want people to get immersed in all the elements of life here. They can feel the sand, get in the water, and then come back and feel the moss. It’s a place of total enjoyment. After the tour, I let them be free to wander around to see what they want. I let the moss take control of them so they can let their minds flow.”
A cancer survivor, Clarke says he is grateful for every day, and that the best things in life are usually free. He strongly believes that the moss, along with spending time in nature and working in his garden, were as much a part of his recovery and survival as his medical team. He notes that Native Americans and the Japanese have been using moss for many years to treat all kinds of illness.
“Since I’ve been playing with this moss, it has taken me now to a whole different level with dealing with nature and people,” Clarke said. “It’s calming, more like a meditation thing now, as opposed to art. One of my goals now is to have people come to the moss garden and meditate and be healed.”
Clarke admits he sometimes gets lost in nature and in his garden. But then again, he said, there is nowhere else he’d rather be.
To visit the House on the Hill Enchanted Oasis, email Henry Clarke at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call him at 662-715-9597.
Written for Invitation Oxford Magazine in Mississippi.