Let's Go in the Vardo
Getting ready to get there was half the fun as
artist Greer Farris created his colorful caravan
Editor’s note: Whenever Greer Farris gives the magazine a call, every few years or so, we know an adventure is afoot. The first magazine feature I ever wrote, for Mary Jane Hennig’s Fort Smith Etc. Magazine, was about the artist and Alma schoolteacher's summer job working as a mule skinner at the Grand Canyon. Greer played an onery ol’ mule skinner like a character in a John Ford Western and his charm as a canyon guide won him an invitation to Georgia – the Georgia that was then a state of Russia – to “advise” the government on horseback tourism. Of course he went! We called him the “Glasnost Cowboy.”
When his daughter, Delaney, became old enough for international travel, this magazine covered their trip to Ireland to play Irish folk music and, later, their epic journey to Thailand where she helped teach children in a remote mission school. Since then, they’ve taken in Paris on a summer visit after her high school graduation. Delaney is now a sophomore at Hendrix College.
On his own travels as a young man in 1961, Greer had been taken with the style of the ornately painted horse-drawn wagon called a “vardo,” crafted and lived in by the nomadic Travellers of Ireland. Referenced in folk tales and movies, Americans call them “gypsy caravans.”
A traditional vardo has details inside and out of highly carved wood, painted many colors or even gilded with gold leaf. A real vardo’s lavish adornment reflects the social standing of its owner.
Greer had planned to travel with Delaney to Sweden and France this past summer but when arrangements with an academic tour fell through, he decided to build their own vardo. Instead of a horse-drawn model, he built the wooden structure onto the frame of a trailer so it could be pulled with a truck.
When Greer called the magazine at summer’s end, he said only that he had something in his backyard we might like to see. We were intrigued.
As astonishing to us as he has always been, the last thing we expected to find in the courtyard between his home and his “Pottery Ranch” studio was this dandy, candy-like caravan, imaginatively embellished over its every inch. Before he and Delaney take off on its maiden camping voyage, we had to share it in our pages.
Where will they go next? Anywhere the road leads. Colorfully.
Greer Farris is an artist – foremost a potter and sculptor – and a carpenter who has renovated several homes and buildings to suit his tastes and purposes. The vardo, however, is his first work of art meant to travel on wheels. He was inspired not only by the caravans he had seen in Ireland long ago, but by tiny sheepherder wagons he had seen in Western states, even by the covered wagons his cowboy buddy “Skinner” had driven.
“I like to make things, of course, but this one has a function. It’s just another traveling experience. I thought we’d have some fun, go see some friends out West,” he explained.
"I stood around up there with my rough sketches and he made it for me,” Greer said, appreciatively. Another skilled welder, David Klug, “rolled” the steel for the rounded top, the traditional vardo shape.
“It looked like a bird cage or an iron paddy wagon,” he explained. The sides lean outward. They just “eyeballed” the right angles, artistically.
Cladding the steel frame with wood siding and trim took place in Greer’s backyard with the help of Travis Sinden, a carpenter and friend. With a goal to still take Delaney on a summer trip out West, Greer worked like fury, taking off only three days all summer. Almost every element of wood trim on the wagon has been custom-routered with curls and scroll saw work, inside and out. He found the posts of its back porch as architectural salvage and incorporated fleur-de-lis designs in honor of the New Orleans Saints.
“I’m invited to take it tailgating down there,” he said.
In order to qualify as a trailer (and to squeeze into his courtyard gates) it could be no more than 100 inches wide, which called for ingenuity inside. Although it has only two bunks, two seats with storage beneath, two drawers and a fine little woodstove, the interior’s many embellishments echo the design in larger, more elaborate traditional vardoes. The little caravan’s European forefather wagons can have rare inlaid woodwork, fancy cabinetry and richly patterned upholsteries. And they were the actual homes of their owners, he found in his research.
His tiny vardo is stylistically faithful – but he will take along an air conditioner in his truck, which has plenty of room for food and luggage. He designed a canopy for the sides, with painted, fancy poles. There’s an outside electrical outlet so they can hang strings of lights.
Painting must have taken almost as long as the carpentry. There are at least five – or is it seven? – different colors inside and out. His new red truck matches the vardo’s crimson accents (hey, this is art!) but the trailer wheels are painted a metal-flake, tree-froggy green in case he pulls it with his vintage Bronco of the same near-fluorescent hue. You won’t miss it on the highway or need directions to find it at a campground.
He finished one week before school began, so they have yet to make a trip. His first test drive attracted plenty of looks, of course. A lady pulled over where he stopped and asked to take a picture of it.
Greer replied, “Yes and for $5 you can look inside!”
The real question is whether he’s finally gone too far for Delaney to agree to travel with him, he admitted. He has offered (threatened?) to take the vardo to Hendrix College for a tailgating party.
So far, she has replied with a bemused eye-roll and a pleasant but firm “No.” But she did smile.
“I think she’ll come around,”?he said with a teasing grin. After all, they’ve had excellent adventures traveling together all over the globe. Why not go wandering, like folk-tale vagabonds, all over this big country?
This article appears in the October 2014 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.