Meet the Front Street grotesque

Unusual statue adorns the unique Nelson home of retired architect Mike Hames.

Most people who glimpse Dorkmyer, the man-sized grotesque perched atop the roof of a Front Street home in Nelson, only have a few seconds to wonder at his looming presence before they’re swept along in traffic.

From a distance he looks vaguely like Alf, the popular alien sitcom star from the 80s, but with a distinctly malevolent edge. The orange-hued monster, who clutches a crystal in one hand and peers downwards with glowing red eyes, has pointed claws on his feet and long talon-like fingers. If you look closely, you’ll see a pair of thin curved horns sprouting from his skull.

Depending on when you see Dorkmyer, he may be wearing a hockey jersey, a cowboy hat or maybe a cyclist outfit, complete with a helmet. For many, he is a routine part of their commute. For others he is a quintessential Nelson icon, a landmark akin to the pirate ship floating in Kootenay Lake. Recently he was immortalized in Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. And retired architect Mike Hames, who owns the home, couldn’t get a bigger kick out of any of this.

“I’d always wanted something on top of the turret there,” the 66-year-old told the Star on Wednesday morning. “I had a piece of aluminum flashing, which was a little understated, I thought. I wanted something people would laugh at, enjoy. I never thought about the implications of dressing him up for occasions, but that worked out great.”

Up close Dorkmyer is a little rusted, with a feathered back and a hooked tail. Hames classifies him as a chimera or a grotesque, rather than a gargoyle, because the sculpture doesn’t incorporate any water features. His long triangular snout faces the road below. Hames has to scramble up the roof to change his outfits.

“One of my friends calls him my Ken doll,” said Hames.

When asked about why he enjoys decorating his house in this particular way, he shrugged.

“I’m manic, I guess. God, what do you call it? Nuts.”

Hames enlisted his sculptor friend John McKinnon to create Dorkmyer in 2011, after spending 30 years renovating and perfecting his home. McKinnon has pieces displayed around Nelson, including multiple stone statues in Lakeside Park. His work can be found everywhere from Iqualit to Revelstoke to Calgary. And Hames considers himself McKinnon’s biggest fan.

“I got to that point where the last thing to do was put the tiara on the tower. So I called up John and we laughed and giggled. Talked about the profound and the not-so-profound. He made a model and I let him go. He skied Dorkmyer up there with his son Patrick, put him on skis and pulled him up on my roof,” he said.

“I finally made something worthy to set John’s art on. I’m the pedestal, he’s the art.”

But calling himself a pedestal doesn’t quite do justice to Hames’ own art, which is almost too eclectic to describe. His house, which is built around a multi-storey rock cliff, has innovations and inventions in every room. Secret chambers, shelves built out of crutches, self-portraits made out of wine corks and a vast rock collection are only a few examples of a home literally stuffed with interesting gadgets and art installations.

In one room, Hames has a built an elaborate recreation of Gollum’s cave from the Lord of the Rings. His porch is shaped like the prow of a giant ship, and many of the rooms and structures are nautical-themed.

“She’s hit a few reefs, but she’s still going strong,” he said.

Hames first moved to Nelson, and into his house, in 1978. Trained as an architect, he made most of his money, as he puts it, “working as a carpenter, in the pit of despair”. His household hobbies helped keep him sane through the years.

“It took me 35 years to see with my eyes what I saw in my head,” he said. He’s ultimately settled on the name “Dalice house”, which is a combination of Alice in Wonderland and Salvador Dali.

“I’ve built a lot of houses, but this is my passion.”

Hames described the house as a “visual delight and an acoustic disaster.” Unfortunately, his house is on the emergency route that all police cars, fire trucks and ambulances take daily. Add to that the routine commuters buzzing by night and day, and there’s a little bit of a din. But Hames has a solution for that too, as he plays ambient music in every room of every floor of the house, including the outbuildings and green houses in his yard.

The background tinkling gives the entire property an ethereal, almost mystical vibe, which is only added to by the glinting CDs that line his fence and the lush, moist foliage that surrounds him.

Hames receives routine interest in his grotesque, sometimes from unexpected places. He has a number of pieces of art inspired by Dorkmyer hung proudly on his walls. Recently some German woodworkers swung by to inquire about the sculpture, which is constructed out of welded steel, because it appears to be wooden from a distance.

“One guy goes ‘hey, you got a monkey on your roof. I said no, the monkey’s on my back. The chimera’s on the roof.”

The Star spent nearly an hour in Hames’ home, touring from one room to the next, as Hames bellowed at each new joke and excitedly described each new feature while his wife Lana watched from a nearby room, bemused. He has the blissed out, incredulous laugh of a man who can’t believe his luck, and couldn’t be having more fun.

“You’ve gotta do something,” he said. “I’ve got a house. This is what I do.”