Gene Dillard adds to his fantasy world, one small, jagged piece of glass at a time.
Most summer mornings, evenings and sometimes weekends, you’ll find Dillard standing on the side of his house buttering a piece of mirror with adhesive and sticking it to the side of his house, as it makes a slight click. His reflection stares back at him from the mirror mosaic like a Pablo Picasso cubist painting.
“I’m a repair guy, and I have repaired what other people have designed all my adult life,” said Dillard, 62, a mechanic who fixes scientific equipment. “And this is kind of for me to design and build.”
“This” is his quarter-acre lot on Elgin Street in Northgate Park, where metal sculptures congregate on his front and back yards. A wall made of concrete and beer and wine bottles confines a back patio. Three sides of his garage are covered with massive, bright, stunning tile mosaics of flowers, waves and a swirly tree.
“A lot of things I do are just on a lark,” he said. “I just stay with the lark. Then it’s finished. Then it’s ‘Wow, look what I did.’”
The eye-catching centerpiece is Dillard’s two-bedroom, one-bath house. The once Cape Cod blue exterior is now mainly covered with streaks of swirling glass gems and mirror mosaics that dance in the ever shifting light.
Some people watch TV. Some people read. Dillard finds peace in repetitive motion and working with his hands.
“I like trying to create my fantasy world in reality,” he said.
Dillard grew up in California, about 30 miles north of San Diego. He met his wife working at a rescue mission in San Jose. They moved to Cedartown, in the northwest corner of Georgia, and worked at an orphanage, where Dillard did maintenance work.
After they had two children, they decided to move to Durham, where family lived.
“It felt like fresh air,” he said about the move to a more progressive community.
Dillard got a job repairing restaurant equipment and then scientific equipment. He started his one-man Dillard Repair Service around 1994. He divorced and moved into his home on Elgin Street in 1999.
“Over the years, I started realizing, you know, I am working on all this equipment that somebody else has designed,” he said. “I live in a house that somebody else designed. I drive a car that somebody else designed. I wear clothing that somebody else designed. I wanted to try designing something.”
Dillard started by designing poems.
He ventured into poetry in the 1980s, taking classes and participating in local contests and projects.
By the 1990s, he moved onto metal sculptures, turning found railroad spikes and rebar into arbors, a face on a tree, jumping dolphins, a woman with an Elvis belt, a surfer on a wave.
“All of my (sculpture) people have hearts,” he said.
In 2003, he joined the Peace Corps and moved to Honduras, where he built water systems
“It was probably a midlife crisis thing,” he said. “A convertible sports car would have been cheaper.”
He returned two years later to take care of his mother after she was diagnosed with lung cancer.
That’s about the time he and friend Karen Smith started exploring work by outsider artists, self-taught individuals outside the mainstream art world. They started working with concrete.
Smith and Dillard collaborated to make stepping stones splattered with simple mosaics. They turned Styrofoam coolers into concrete planters. They made a pillar and covered it with a tile mosaic. And Dillard made a wall out of concrete, beer and wine bottles.
“I had seen pictures in magazines,” Dillard said. “A home in the mountains that some old guy had made out of bottles.”
Smith helped Dillard design the mosaics on his garage.
“I was sitting in the backyard, drinking a beer, and thinking I really need to paint my garage,” Dillard said. “I thought, ‘God that is so much work.’ So I thought, ‘I will mosaic it.’”
Each summer, he completed a wall. Giant red and yellow flowers cover the front. Waves and plates cover the side. And a twisting tree, the back.
Sara Carter, who lives behind Dillard, used to hear him whistling while he was working on his mosaic, and she was working in her rose garden.
“Finally, I just said hello, and he said hello,” said Carter, 75. At the time, shrubbery blocked her view to his property. A couple of years after the hello, she hired people to cut the overgrowth back. The worker came inside to tell Carter about the mosaic on the back of Dillard’s garage.
“I was astonished,” Carter said. “I said ‘Oh for God’s sake, cut down all the bushes. Cut them back. Cut them way back.’ ”
Carter sent a note to the neighborhood listserv alerting Northgate Park of the “something spectacular” that she found in her back yard.
“It is unbelievable that he was that modest about it,” Carter said.
As Dillard’s work has continued, he has grown into a neighborhood celebrity, Carter said.
“I know now that some people move into this neighborhood so they can be near Gene Dillard’s home,” Carter said.
Beyond his talent, she said, he is a really kind guy. The kind of guy who calls often to check on her and others. He visited her twice in the hospital when she had knee surgery.
“I think he is a saint,” she said.
During the cold months, Dillard completes projects inside. A light in his dining room is surrounded by large concrete petals covered in green, pink and red tile mosaics. On his ceilings, archways and window valances, mosaic flowers bloom and mirror stars sparkle.
Pamela Gutlon owned Outsiders Art & Collectibles, a Durham gallery spotlighting untrained artists for four years. For years Gutlon, who closed the Durham gallery in fall 2013 and moved to New England, lived a few doors down from Dillard and watched him transform his property
Gutlon tried to buy art from Dillard, but he refused.
“He said he did this for himself, he did other things for money,” Gutlon said.
Dillard calls himself a craftsman, but Gutlon said he is an outsider artist.
“Absolutely,” she said. “He is a visionary.”
“I think Gene’s place is going to be one of those places where people travel to come see it,” Gutlon said.
‘Pattern in my head’
To prepare the side of his house, Dillard pulled off the vinyl siding. He used 7,000 screws to secure diamond wire. And then he resumed an almost daily ritual of spreading adhesive on broken glass and sticking the pieces on the house. He’s spent about 300 hours on one side since April.
“I kind of have a pattern in my head,” he said. “I want that circle to come down and go around and end up here by the meter.”
Once he gets a section like he wants it, he smears grout all over it.
“My stuff is a little rough,” Dillard said. “People say, ‘Can you tile my bathroom?’ I don’t know how to do that.”
Dillard plans to continue the transformation of his property as long as he is able.
“I got one more wall of the house to do,” he said. “I am already thinking about raising the ceiling in my bedroom. There is always something I can do. I am thinking about redoing my bathroom. ... I have plenty of canvas.”