What the Groundhog Saw

Artist Patrick Donley found himself digging deeper when his tenant began unearthing antiques in the basement.

By Jenni Laidman

This story originally appeared in Louisville Magazine in 2019

Patrick Donley thinks he might’ve pissed off the groundhog. “I’ve tried to be really nice,” he says. But the groundhog would have to be blind to miss Donley’s disruptive encroachment on her territory. In any event, she brought this on herself. She could have picked somewhere other than the basement of his Germantown studio to create her network of tunnels. If it weren’t for her mining ops, Donley would still be painting.

When I visit in mid-July, Donley’s Louisville City FC T-shirt is already sweat-soaked, and his face is damp under graying curls and a ball cap from his alma mater, Davidson College in North Carolina. He apologizes for not turning on the AC earlier in the space where he used to paint. Several canvases are underway, each featuring some version of the weighty spheres that hover through his work, magically afloat yet lassoed by gravity. Marks on one canvas show what he planned to work on next, but that was back in April, before the takeover of Phyllis the groundhog — named for the better-known, weather-predicting Punxsutawney Phil.

Donley used to see Phyllis scurrying under the fence to the house next door, never thinking about where she came from. He found the answer in April while searching his basement for a pup tent. He seldom had reason to enter the dark space with its cracked and tilting concrete slab floor, but on that trip he noticed dirt pushed out from under one of the broken floor slabs. “I thought, ‘That’s odd,’” Donley says. “I got a flashlight and started walking around.” He found an old Falls City beer bottle with embossed glass lettering that was common in the early 20th century. Then he found an old beer bottle from Dubuque, Iowa, followed by an intact aqua-colored medicine bottle with raised glass letters advertising Piso’s Cure — a mid- to late-19th century quack nostrum for tuberculosis that, at various times, contained opium, morphine, hashish, marijuana, chloroform and alcohol. Donley’s Piso’s bottle contained nothing. Nothing but promise for what lay beneath it. “So that got me kind of crazy,” he says. “I started looking around in all the holes and noticed where the gopher’d been digging, and I started raking the dirt and finding all this broken stuff. And then the intact stuff — the amount of intact stuff was starting to freak me out. Then I found the handguns” — what Donley thinks might be old cap guns. He has three of these relics, their shape unmistakable, their details corroded into rusted lumps.

By July, his studio is overrun by his almost daily discoveries: intact round-bottomed soda bottles, tarnished metal tools, an ancient Ball jar, flasks that say “Merry Christmas,” a Hirsch’s pickle jug, a Rue de la Cloche No. 4711 cologne bottle, the china face of a baby doll and then, in the mud packed into the back of her face, two blue glass eyes. And Donley finds bones. Lots and lots of (he hopes) animal bones. He ponders the art he’ll create from all the broken bits. He has discovered all the pieces of several china plates and crockery bowls and plans to fix them using the Japanese technique of kintsugi — literally golden (kin) repair (tsugi) — which employs gold dust and lacquer to make broken items more beautiful than the originals. He isn’t sure how he’ll share the intact finds.

The basement has wholly given way to the treasure hunt. In many places Donley has smashed concrete sections with a sledgehammer to reveal dirt, and every bit of it bears more surprises. “I started with just a little hole, and stuff just started pouring out,” he says. He exposed brick in one part of the basement. “And when I did that some debris fell down and out came another malted milk bottle. I’m not even working for it! There it is! Horlick’s malted milk!”

He reaches into a hole and taps on a tin bucket lodged firmly in the earth.

“It sounds empty,” I say.

“Or full of goodies,” Donley replies. He’s almost gleeful, like a kid estimating his Halloween haul on a street where every porch light is on.

From city records, Donley has determined that the former warehouse was built in 1922 by Herman Poll, who owned the saloon a few doors down. Before that, Donley surmises, his lot contained a natural sinkhole used as a neighborhood dump. Some have speculated he might have unearthed a cistern (such water-storage receptacles often deliver urban archeological finds), but he thinks his trove is too extensive to have been a cistern or a privy, another source of old stuff. “It’s a thousand square feet, and I’m finding stuff in every corner,” he says. At this point, some of his digging is three feet below grade, with no signs of diminished treasures.

Phyllis remains a tenant, but less active, more cautious. Donley has a video of her from earlier this summer, hopping around with plastic sheeting in her mouth, unperturbed by his presence. Then he accidentally broke through one of her tunnels. The next day, the hole was filled. “There were furious little digging marks,” Donley says. “She was annoyed.” Phyllis now keeps her distance. She probably wouldn’t like it if she knew he isn’t anywhere near finished. “Several people have asked me, ‘When do you stop?’” Donley says. “I don’t know. I’m kind of obsessed.”

This version of the story does not include the artful and inspiring photographs of Joon Kim, which were published with the original. To see those photos, visit https://archive.louisville.com/content/groundhog-basement-patrick-donley-germantown-louisville. To see more of Joon Kim’s work, visit studiojoon.com

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