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Dave Dardis is the quintessential artist, a man who chose his art in tandem with his lifestyle way back when, and has been the way he is since anyone around here has known him.

Dave is funny and friendly, always in jeans and a simple shirt or two with his hair flying wildly about his head. He is completely involved in whatever he is doing at the moment, whether that’s talking to a gaggle of his neighbors or taking a walk with some of the community dogs or fashioning the fantastic out of metal.

He has lived in and worked out of the same building — on the end of the Makanda Boardwalk, one of Southern Illinois’ premiere artist colonies — for more than four decades. You can tell that as soon as you open the door to his shop, Rainmaker Art Studio. Squint a little, and you’ll begin to see the artwork through the dust and cigarette haze, among the clutter of supplies and tools of the trade.

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Just a few of the many features of the backyard garden behind Dave Dardis' Rainmaker Studio.

He works almost exclusively with metal, creating intricate pendants, rings and tiaras — “Yes, every woman needs a tiara,” Dave said — out of bronze and copper bent into fantastic patterns. His studio is arranged in long isles of works in progress, from those trays of jewelry to giant metal bugs in various states of assembly to elaborate metal sculptures, some of which have been made into fountains.

Dave learned his craft from a metalsmith he met traveling across the country as a leatherworker, an earlier artistic incarnation. That man taught Dave the art he has practiced for more than 40 years, and Dave has taught apprentices the same way.

“By allowing me to watch, just watch, is how I learned,” Dave said. “I taught my apprentices the same way: less energy in teaching.”

He works mainly with copper in its various forms, producing pieces in natural shapes, predominantly the human form and various plants and animals. He accepts commissioned work — a large metal statue, on its way to becoming a fountain, took up a portion of the northeast corner of his studio — and sells many of his pieces at local fairs and out of his Makanda studio.

Into the garden

But when he needs a break from his metalwork, Dave works in his garden. It’s just outside the back door to his studio, and it’s a wonderfully fantastic place with surprises around every corner and, usually, a friendly dog or two to keep you company.

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Dave Dardis' backyard garden is an eclectic mix of features built by Dardis and donated items.

“I started the garden for myself, and it took on a life of its own,” Dave said. “People just started coming and kept coming, so the garden kept growing. I have friends who drop by with things for the garden, and we add them as we go along. So, the garden is always changing.”

As you step through the door, the world opens up to reveal a brickwork patio and a pond nestled in the shadow of an ivy-covered wall. One of Dave’s fish sculpture fountains keeps the water circulated. Go up one of several narrow winding stairways and you’ll find a world of interesting structures, statues, an old wood-burning stove, animal skulls, several of Dave’s giant metal sculptures and fountains, old streetlights, bridges that cross a running stream, a maze created with lattice work panels and plants, a tower for a bird’s-eye view, and plenty of birdbaths and benches for feathered and non-feathered friends.

“There’s an old, collapsed stone bridge,” Dave said. “At 30 feet tall, it looks like an old Roman ruin. And Willow Bob has a living chair in the backyard. It’s still growing after 10 years, and you can sit in it.”

You might call it a secret garden, but it’s not much of a secret. There’s almost always someone back there, enjoying what the garden has to offer, whether that be whimsy or peace.

“No, it’s not a secret,” Dave said. “We get people who come in and spend the day here,” he said. “We don’t charge anything, and we have free concerts here, so anybody is welcome to come. Everything in the garden was either salvaged or donated or created. This is what I do when I need a break from work, for fun."

Solar eclipse installation

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A piece Dardis is working on to commemorate the upcoming solar eclipses that will pass over Makanda in 2017 and 2024.

The latest addition to Dave’s garden was installed to memorialize an event that won’t happen until Aug. 21, 2017, the next total solar eclipse, the one that scientists have determined will be best viewed along a line that runs right through Southern Illinois, specifically through Rainmaker Art Studio in Makanda.

Dave has painted that line, the center line of totality of the eclipse, from the boardwalk, through his studio and out to his garden. And just inside Dave’s garden, on the red line, is his eclipse marker, what looks like the mast of a ship, coming right out of the sidewalk, complete with a crow’s nest, a pirate’s flag, one of Dave’s giant praying mantises and a commemorative plaque.

He made the monument last winter and has since been busy working on commissioned works and some solar eclipse jewelry, along with a few giant insects. But he hasn’t forgotten the upcoming celestial event. He’s planning on “pirating” the local festival during the first weekend in May and holding it in his garden in honor of the celestial event (and as a good excuse for some live music and beverages).

“Everybody come!” Dave exclaimed. “There is always an event on the first weekend of May, and Vulture Fest is always the third weekend in October.”

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Sculptor Dave Dardis in his backyard garden in Makanda.

Just make sure you make it to Dave’s garden on Aug. 21, 2017, because that is sure to be one heck of a party.

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