By April Short
City on a Hill Press Editor
On a relatively quiet Santa Cruz street sits a Victorian-style home with orange, fallen leaves scattered across the porch. Inside is an eclectic assortment of art – enough to fill a gallery. A man in a rustic cowboy hat and unique artistic vision greets all who enter.
Charlie Tweddle (pronounced TWEE-dull) is a Santa Cruz local and world-renowned hat designer. His original western hat creations, which sell for between $450 and over $2000, have adorned the heads of such celebrities as Kate Hudson, Cher, Kris Kristofferson and Reggie Jackson, among others.
“Tweddle hats are of a very good quality, and each one is original,” said Maria Sentry, owner of the Hat Company, a retail store in downtown Santa Cruz that sells several of Tweddle’s creations.
Tweddle cultivates an artistic ability that oozes from his person like tree sap. This talent extends far beyond hat design; he is lesser known, but equally talented in the assorted endeavors of pigeon breeding, surrealistic sculpture, painting, music composition, and writing.
“He’s just one of those American icons that some people know about and more should,” said San Jose Interior Designer and Tweddle’s long-time friend, Peter Hurd.
A resident of Santa Cruz for 35 years, Tweddle has been an artist since before he can remember.
“[When I was young] I used to make stuff out of plants, all kinds of things I would just find,” Tweddle said in his relaxed Kentucky drawl. “I would create these interesting little figures. I’d spend hours just standing around a little stream of water watching the tadpoles and all kinds of little water bugs.”
Tweddle spent his childhood in a small Kentucky village. His family had little money and often had to skip meals. He and his brother used to create their own toys out of the items they found in the natural world.
“It just beat the hell out of watching TV,” Tweddle said of his creative activities. “We didn’t have TV, radio or anything, you know. No electricity… old kerosene lamps.”
Sandy Lesnewsky coordinates the Retail Floristry department at Mission College in Santa Clara and has been a close Tweddle family friend for more than 20 years.
“I think [he] is probably one of the most creative artists I’ve ever seen,” Lesnewsky said. “He’s just a different sort of a person — you either love him or you don’t…I think he really is special.”
Born and raised in the 60-resident, backcountry town of Pickneyville, Kentucky without running water or electricity, nature was, and has continued to be, essential to Tweddle’s way of life.
“We used to kill all of our own meat,” Tweddle said. “We would throw away the tails and the feet and the heads and the skin, you know, and since I was just an artist at heart, I thought, ‘God, I hate to throw these away. I wish I could think of something to use them for.’”
Tweddle manufactured a way to put the leftover parts to use. He compiled a quail’s wings, a pheasant’s feet and a snake’s head, to create a creature suspended in wooden box that soars above the nest of similar-looking offspring. This “weird creature sculpture,” as Tweddle described it, was the first of many he would create.
Tweddle’s home is now dotted with comparable sculptures. He found many of the animal parts he used at flea markets, from pet-store casualties, and on the sides of roads.
“I actually enjoy using road kill,” Tweddle said. “I feel like I am honoring the poor little creatures that didn’t even make it across the road.”
In order to create the sculptures, Tweddle “pickles” the dead animal parts in rubbing alcohol. His outdoor workshop is littered with pieces of animals he keeps preserved for future art endeavors.
“I like the little creature things he does, a way of kind of giving the little animals their lives back,” Lesnewsky said. “I think that’s a really wonderful thing.”
<b>Constructing the Tweddle Hawk</b>
The face of a small dead alligator snarls at a bustling pigeon coop in Tweddle’s backyard. The sculpture was originally installed as a makeshift scarecrow to guard Tweddle’s pigeons from harassing hawks.
When he was 11 years old, Tweddle ordered his first pet pigeons from an ad he found in a magazine. The ad boasted six pigeons, all of different breeds, for $3.98. Tweddle spoke of a long-time fascination with pigeon breeding.
Sixty years later, Tweddle still breeds pigeons, hoping to eventually create his own breed of pigeon, which he says he would call the “Tweddle hawk.”
“The trouble is to get ’em so that almost all of them have the same qualities,” Tweddle said. “I’ve been interested in creating something that if you turned it loose it would just learn how to survive in the wild, just like that.”
Two pigeon coops filled with roughly 80 birds sit among a tangle of wild grasses and shrubs. The plants, from which the coops protrude, appear to the average onlooker as a sprawling collection of spiky weeds, but Tweddle handpicks each one.
“I need a few thorns in my life just to keep me on my toes,” Tweddle said with a wry smile.
A rusting wind chime made from a horseshoe, a Native American dream-catcher, and dozens of sculptures and trinkets all add to the ambiance of Tweddle’s backyard.
“This one’s my favorite,” Tweddle said above the noisy flutter of wings and pigeon coos, holding a pigeon with a relatively small beak, black and white lacing on the feathers, and large eyes.
<b>Fantastic “Encounters With Charlie Tweddle”</b>
Tweddle’s workshop sits on the right hand side of his backyard. The shed is covered with chipping white paint, the walls and shelves littered with cobwebs, art, pickled animal parts, and curious sayings. Scrawled in black felt-tip marker on the entrance to the shop are the quotes, “It’s magic time!” and “What you send out comes back… multiplied!”
Similar sayings cover the walls of a bathroom on Tweddle’s back porch. These quotes, originally intended for Tweddle’s personal enjoyment, led to the publication of his book “Encounter with Charlie Tweddle.”
Baseball Hall-of-Famer Reggie Jackson holds a long-standing friendship with Tweddle. Jackson owns many Tweddle hats and the baseball legend would often visit Tweddle’s backyard workshop to discuss his hats. Upon one such visit, Jackson excused himself to use the back porch restroom. When he came out, he told Tweddle that he should publish his wallpaper sayings. The suggestion turned around in Tweddle’s mind for several years and eventually manifested in a book entitled “Encounter With Charlie Tweddle.”
Hurd has been a friend of Tweddle’s for six or seven years, and a fan of Tweddle’s hats since the “hippie days” of the ’70s. Hurd wrote the introduction to “Encounter With Charlie Tweddle.”
Hurd, like Jackson, used the back porch restroom during a dinnertime visit and found himself similarly “floored” by the writings on the wall.
“Charlie had written many verses about life and about how things are. He made notes spiritually about what the essence of life is, and what things meant to him,” Hurd said. “And I thought, ‘This is some of the most incredible material I’ve ever read in my life.’”
In 2005 Hurd helped Tweddle publish his book, filled with photographs from his childhood and hundreds of his original sayings.
“That was the birth of something he’d been wanting to do for years,” said Hurd.
“Rocking-chair” Frank Wilkes, an artist, musician, painter, writer, and filmmaker, has known Tweddle for over 20 years, since the two originally met as fellow musicians.
Tweddle’s musical talent led him to produce two albums reminiscent of ’60s and ’70s folk music, with an extra touch of Western-style twang.
“[Tweddle] plays a unique style of music,” Wilkes said. “It gives off a very back-woods, back-porch kind of a feeling.”
Original copies of Tweddle’s first album, which came out in vinyl in 1974, now sell to collectors for between $500 and $600. His second album, a more recent project, was released several years ago. Both albums share the title “Fantastic: Greatest Hits.” Tweddle owns approximately 6 guitars, all of which have been “tweddlized,” or altered artistically by Tweddle. The guitars are covered with intricate tribal designs.
“I tweddlize just about everything I can get my hands on,” Tweddle said.
Wilkes, like Hurd, views Tweddle as a sort of artistic icon. For the past two and a half years Wilkes has been working on a documentary, expected to be finished in 2010, about the life and talents of Tweddle. The documentary is attempts to share Tweddle’s intricacies with the rest of the world.
“I wanted this documentary to be true to his voice and his viewpoint. He gives you so much good material to work with, his stories are just incredible,” Wilkes said. “He’s like this guy who just kind of wandered out of the back woods into the twenty-first century.”
<b>Always an Art Student</b>
When Tweddle was in his 20s, he received a full scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute. Following his graduation from the institute, he was offered a teaching job at Stanford University.
“You know, I was having too much fun back in those hippie days,” Tweddle said. “I went over [to Stanford] one day and they had a big studio for me looking over a pasture with horses grazing- everything I’d ever dreamed of… and I never went back [to Stanford].”
Although the young Tweddle, caught up in the rush of the surrealist, artistic movement of the ’70s, never took the Stanford teaching job, he said he might now be ready to pass on his artistic knowledge. In fact, he is interested in teaching at UC Santa Cruz.
“At one time I wasn’t interested in teaching, but now that I’m almost 72 years old, it might be a good time to, you know, share some of my stuff,” Tweddle said. “ And I’m an art student as well. I’ll always be a student. You never can learn too much.”
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