Welcome to the doll house

Jun 15, 2005 at 12:00 am
29349 Shacket Ave., Madison Heights (best viewed from Campbell)

Along a suburban stretch of Campbell in Madison Heights, the modest yet quaint houses are neat, tidy, soothingly uniform ... and then you come upon Michael Dion's back yard. It's dotted by found objects and old, dirty dolls — some decapitated — impaled, tucked into crevices, or posed in what looks like youthful play. It's both creepy and compelling — and constantly evolving.

"I'm a junk man artist, I find my stuff in the trash," says Dion, who goes by M80 in the art world. An antique collector and vendor for 12 years now, he occasionally shows his work in local galleries. He has no formal training, and says he began creating art around 1993, on a whim.

"I did what probably a lot of people do when they look at a painting in a gallery or museum, and say, 'I can do that,'" Dion says. "So one day I said to myself, 'All right, big shot, why don't you prove it?'"

The backyard installation is continually changing.

"I like constructing little vignettes," he says. "It started out as almost a little shrine, and then, as I found other objects, I would add. Rather than just leave it static, I'd move them around, and I think people were really attracted to that aspect, that it changed."

Most notable in Dion's back yard are the discarded toy dolls, some worse for wear, their blank expressions conveying anything from youthful innocence to haunted sorrow, depending on the perspective of the viewer.

"I would find these dolls in horrible condition, and I wanted to give them a new lease on life," Dion says. "My wife thinks I'm acting out because we have two teen boys and no daughters, but I'd see something tender in them, really. I wanted to portray these dolls, like, OK, they have some scars, they're dirty, but now they have a second lease. There are a lot of people who have what we consider flaws but they still have to lead their life."

Dion says he's seen people from all across the country stop by his installation, and he's always eager to talk about it.

"They come knocking on the door, thinking they're going to meet some strange mad scientist," he says. "They don't expect the fact that I'm super-approachable. I'm always ready to respond — I love it when people aren't afraid to demonstrate that art is important to them."