"Whither the orphaned technology of yesteryear, the detritus of culture obscured by shrouds of time, the quirky whatsits created by divinely inspired kooks or by the eccentric machinations of nature itself? Scott Webel and Jen Hirt, who run Austin's delightful Museum of Natural and Artificial Ephemera, know whither. In fact, they devote much of their time and their own home collecting and displaying such arcane miscellanea for the amusement and edification of us, the wonder-hungry public; and we, in turn, are devoted right back."Thank you Chronicle! - Your Devoted Curators
"Do you wish you could decipher a person's character by mapping the topography of their head? Do mutant mermaids (half fish/half monkey) fill your dreams at night? Have you ever wondered what David Hasselhoff's favorite Jolly Rancher flavor is? If you answered yes to one of more of these questions, drop everything and head straight to the Museum of Natural and Artificial Ephemerata. Make sure you take time to talk with co-curators Scott Webel and Jen Hirt, to get the full experience as you make your way through the five impermanent collections: Naturalia & Artificialia, Urban Phantasmagoria, The Celebrity Collection, The Snowglobe Collection, and a wing dedicated to sleep."
"In addition to being a burgeoning high-tech mecca, Austin offers unique meeting venues including the Alamo Drafthouse, an historic movie theater that combines great films with food and wine for interactive events, the Museum of Natural & Artificial Ephemerata and the Cathedral of Junk."
"When the Blanton Museum of Art opened in April 2006, the common response was, 'At last, finally, Austin has a real museum.' This is displayed ignorance of the Museum of Natural and Artificial Ephemerata ('where you have been all along'), a wonderful collection of exccentric objects gathered by eccentrics for eccentrics... The museum is an exploration of the stuff of life that is usually ignored but that is actually extremely influential."
AUSTIN, Texas -- It was the spring of 2000, and Red Wassenich was listening to a radio show with a penchant for playing oddball songs like William Shatner's "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds."
The station happened to be holding a fund-raiser. When Wassenich called in his donation, the person taking the pledge asked why he chose to give money during this particular program.
"Well, it helps keep Austin weird," Wassenich replied.
And an unofficial city motto was born.
Wassenich's wife had "Keep Austin Weird" bumper stickers printed. A couple fiercely independent local businesses seized on the slogan, too, and it wasn't long before this trio of words started popping up on T-shirts and coffee mugs throughout the Texas capital. The mantra is even plastered in giant letters along the outside of an otherwise normal looking blue home.
Wassenich, 57, a librarian at Austin Community College, recently chronicled his hometown's eccentricities in a book he wrote last year called, Keep Austin Weird: A Guide to the Odd Side of Town (Schiffer Publishing, $24.95).
It's 128 pages long. In other words, Austin has a lot of weirdness to go around, and I didn't have to look too hard to find it during an autumn visit to this funky, fast-growing city.
"Oh yeah," said Vince Hannemann, taking a swig from a can of Milwaukee's Best as he eyed the overflowing bed of a pickup truck parked on his driveway. "I can definitely use those."
"Those" were a bunch of pole-like thingamajigs that, I was told, are used to support drop ceilings.
They looked like junk to me. I guess they looked like that to Hannemann as well because he planned to add them to the aptly named Cathedral of Junk in his backyard.
Rusty lawn mowers, skis, trophies, street signs, irons, computer keyboards -- this is merely a fraction of the detritus that Hannemann has sculpted into a multilevel monument of garage sale rejects.
"People come from all over the world to see this," said Hannemann, who welcomes visitors on weekends to his home at 4422 Lareina Dr. Sometimes the curious drop by after hours.
"One night I looked out the window and [the late former Gov.] Ann Richards was walking around my backyard," Hannemann said.
The inspiration for his work in progress is "just a continuation of playing in the backyard as a kid building forts and stuff," he said. Not everyone is a fan of his unusual hobby. "I've been through two wives and a dozen roommates."
Grass isn't always greener
While Hannemann keeps his weirdness confined to the backyard, Beth Thom prefers the front lawn.
Six years ago, this petite mother of four was standing at her kitchen sink, looking out the window, when weirdness struck.
"The lawn was all dried up," Thom said. "It looked like a canvas. I thought, 'I should paint it!'"
Like a Martha Stewart gang banger, she grabbed some stencils and spray paint and covered the grass on her corner lot (at West 29th Street and Glenview Avenue) with colorful polka dots. And yes, drunk college students have been spotted playing Twister outside her house in the wee hours.
Thom recently switched from dots to red hearts and white peace signs "to mix it up."
"People honk and wave when they drive by," she said. "It's fun to give them a mental respite for a moment -- just make them smile."
But isn't she worried her neighbors will think it's weird?
"There's a lot of tolerance here," Thom said. "Just the other day I saw three naked people riding their bikes from [the popular swimming hole] Barton Springs. People don't raise their eyebrows at much of anything in Austin."
Thongs and spam
Indeed, weirdness is something to celebrate, not shun, in this town that takes pride in being "nothing like the rest of Texas," as one resident explained.
This is where a well-known semi-homeless cross-dresser in a thong repeatedly runs for public office -- and he actually gets votes. It's where potted pork is the subject of an annual event, Spamarama, and you'll find more tattoo parlors per capita than in any other city.
It's where $3 gets you admission to the Museum of the Weird, a tiny collection of creepy curios in the back of the Lucky Lizard gift shop on rowdy, bar-lined Sixth Street.
And it's where I found myself in the house of a young couple, Jen Hirt and Scott Webel, who've turned three rooms of their East Austin home at 1808 Singleton Ave. into the Museum of Ephemerata, which is even weirder than it sounds. Artifacts on display include rivets from the original Ferris wheel in Chicago as well as a napkin used by the Flaming Lips' frontman Wayne Coyne to blow his nose.
During my 20-minute tour of the museum, I spotted a tiny vial filled with sandlike material under a large wing of a bird.
"This is our entire wing devoted to sleep," she said, taking the vial off the shelf. "And this is the amount of sleep your two caring curators collected out of the corner of their eyes over two months."
So what made Austin a magnet for the bat-crackers set? Wassenich traces it back to what used to be the city's two main employers: the university and state government.
"That attracted overeducated and underpaid people, and they tend to be the weirdo demographic," he explained.
Wassenich has another observation. "It's getting less weird here," he opined.
Why is that?
"Money," he said.
Austin's property values and bank accounts may be on the rise, but something tells me Wassenich, Hannemann, Thom and a very long list of other characters will somehow manage to Keep Austin Weird.