To step inside Brillig Manor is to enter the creative whirlwind that is Darlene Graeser.

Written by Leslie Gregory Haukoos
Photos by Michael Coons

The home, named after Alice in Wonderland’s whimsical “Jabberwocky” poem, has evolved over the last 42 years into a virtual showplace for Darlene’s art. In fact, the house barely contains the art which inhabits each corner and spills onto the walls and stretches up to the roof, through her meandering back garden and enticing guests from the front yard.

Contractor Gordon Johansen worked with Darlene on many of her projects over some 20 years until his death three years ago. She’d describe an idea and he would ”get it“ and  help her realize her dream, no matter how wild. They worked together to build Darlene's ”Mother May I“ a figure climbing the living room fireplace.

Contractor Gordon Johansen worked with Darlene on many of her projects over some 20 years until his death three years ago. She’d describe an idea and he would ”get it“ and help her realize her dream, no matter how wild. They worked together to build Darlene’s ”Mother May I“ a figure climbing the living room fireplace.

The artist recovers older chairs in canvas then paints whimsical figures on them. Beneath the chair, the “Go to Jail” corner of a 40’x40’ mosaic Monopoly board. Right, 14-year-old Dutchess makes her way around the board.

The artist recovers older chairs in canvas then paints whimsical figures on them. Beneath the chair, the “Go to Jail” corner of a 40’x40’ mosaic Monopoly board. Right, 14-year-old Dutchess makes her way around the board.

The house literally bursts with art; the house is the art.
Bold and colorful paintings hang on each wall and fly up the stairway. Bright tile mosaics bring the floors to life, jumping up the walls and swirling around the ceilings. She has transformed the walls into sculptures which blossom into 3D figures climbing the fireplace and dripping down the shower. Even the rugs are pieces of art, with characters, colors and shapes all meticulously planted by the artist. And watch where you sit down. You’ll most likely land in the lap of a person, infused into the chair by the artist’s brush.

Remember the shoe from the old Monopoly board? Darlene had it recreated for her larger-than-life mosaic game board. She also placed hallway tile in the shape of a hopscotch court.

Remember the shoe from the old Monopoly board? Darlene had it recreated for her larger-than-life mosaic game board. She also placed hallway tile in the shape of a hopscotch court.

The house is playful, bright, bold and, the art, as Darlene says, is “noisy.”
Noisy is a good word to describe an environment that’s difficult to put to words but delicious to experience.

It’s fun, whimsical and populated to the gills with Darlene’s people. Her figures are everywhere, laughing, screaming, dancing, diving into the marriage bed or reposing in post-coital bliss. It would take several visits to meet them all, the figures that is, because they are everywhere.
One angel, tiled in black mosaic and squatting in high heels, fills the master bath with her laughter. Not literally out loud but with such visual vibrancy that one can almost hear the cacophony.

the master bedroom fireplace, a functional sculpture that evolved over several years.

The master bedroom fireplace is a functional sculpture that evolved over several years.

In fact, angels are everywhere. Female angels, male angels, naked angels, parts of angels. Cupid heads, angel eyes with their sight lines drawn, white angels, black angels. And ribbons. Ribbons that float streams of color made of tile or colored glass, playfully tying it all together in a delightful celebration of universe and continuity.
The angels are there, not to impart a particularly religious message but to tell the viewer to “wonder about the mystery,” Darlene says.

Stairway Vertical

Whimsical and wise birds climb the staircase leading to the artist’s bird’s nest studio.

If there is a spiritual message, she says, it is “Namaste: I see the divine in you.”
“I have no idea where this all comes from,” Darlene says, waving her arm to indicate the universe of her artistic expression. “I am a conduit.” For her, the art is about the journey.
So far that journey includes her full-time practice as a psychologist, three master’s degrees and a PhD. She also has two grown daughters, two grandchildren and John, her husband of 49 years. “None of this would have happened without John,” she says. “He is my container.”
Darlene and John met while both were students at CSUN. They married young and moved to San Francisco, where he went to dental school and their eldest daughter was born. It was the late ’60s, early ’70s and San Francisco was rocking with flower children, Timothy Leary and the loftiest dreams. “We believed there could be peace and love in the world . . . we did a lot of good,” Darlene says. “For all the rest, I apologize.”
It was an era that deeply influenced the artwork that was still to come. The couple moved to a plain ranch house in Thousand Oaks in 1972 where John began practicing dentistry and their second child was born.
Darlene went back to school in the ’80s, earning her PhD in clinical psychology from Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara. She began her practice with Vietnam vets and AIDS patients, back when the AIDS diagnosis meant death was likely.
It was then her art began to inform her practice. “I would give patients little pictures of mine that let them know ‘I get it, I get you,’” she remembers. She still uses not only art but psychodrama, movement therapy and other means to “engage the senses” in her practice which, she says, gives “more opportunity for healing.”

The main living area evolved from an exterior courtyard. Some time after tiling the floor, Darlene enclosed it under a massive skylight ceiling. The hanging glass piece is also Darlene’s design. She says making it was ”an engineering feat” which she accomplished with the help of ”clever friends Marty and Kathy Haviland.”

The main living area evolved from an exterior courtyard. Some time after tiling the floor, Darlene enclosed it under a massive skylight ceiling. The hanging glass piece is also Darlene’s design. She says making it was ”an engineering feat” which she accomplished with the help of ”clever friends Marty and Kathy Haviland.”

John Graeser poses for a portrait. Darlene calls the piece ”Adventures of Napman.“ The couple has been married 49 years. ”He is my container,“ she says.

John Graeser poses for a portrait. Darlene calls the piece ”Adventures of Napman.“ The couple has been married 49 years. ”He is my container,“ she says.

Rose panting on wall Horizontal.

Rose panting on wall Horizontal.

It’s hard to imagine that, with a full-time practice, family, and the numerous charity and community events she and John host at Brillig Manor, Darlene has hours left in a day to create so much art. Up in her studio, designed to look like a birdhouse, finished canvases are stacked in two corners while another pile of clean canvases await the characters taking root in Darlene’s imagination.

The front doors are engraved glass images of angels taken from one of Darlene’s paintings.

The front doors are engraved glass images of angels taken from one of Darlene’s paintings. Courtesy of Darlene Graeser

 

Is there more she’s planning to do on the house? Darlene responds with a rhetorical question: “Are we done yet?” Somehow it seems the question is about something much bigger than pictures yet to be painted or house projects not yet begun. I suspect she’s referring to the journey. “We’re never done,” she responds with a meaningful smile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A bathroom is literally lined with mosaic work. The shower contains several human figures with 3D waterdrops eternally poised in their journey down the walls.

A bathroom is literally lined with mosaic work. The shower contains several human figures with 3D waterdrops eternally poised in their journey down the walls.