WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — Skeletons, tombstones . and a spooky political pirate ship?

The latter may not be a typical autumn adornment, but at West Hartford resident Matt Warshauer’s house, there is no such thing as an ordinary Halloween decoration.

For nearly 15 years, Warshauer has designed and enlisted family and friends to construct an original scene using Halloween ornaments to comment on the nation’s political landscape in his front yard at 115 North Main St. The themes are typically critical of the Republican Party.

Warshauer, a professor of American history at Central Connecticut State University, has gained notoriety for the creative seasonal landscapes, which over time have included last year’s U.S.-Mexico border wall theme and the “pants on fire” President George W. Bush figure clad with flame-decorated pants.

“I truly believe I’m being a good citizen in doing this,” Warshauer said. “I think good citizens stand up for what they believe in. When they see something that goes against their morality and ethics and political beliefs, they need to stand up for it.”

This year, Warshauer chose to focus on the Trump administration’s impact on the nation’s founding ideals. He brought this to life as a 50-foot-long, 20-foot-tall pirate ship called the U.S.S. Constitution, an homage to the actual oldest commissioned naval vessel still afloat, in representation of “the Trumpian ship of state.”

Captained from the crow’s nest by a President Donald Trump effigy labeled as “The Mad King” with a skeleton vulture on its shoulder, the centerpiece vessel boasts about a dozen figurines aboard its decks, from the fired FBI director James Comey to a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to Russian Sailors to the unsuccessful Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton clutching a book entitled “Why I Lost” in reference to her memoir “What Happened”. The ship, replete with artificial cannons and knotted rigging is surrounded by gravestones marking the demise of “Obama Policies”, “Reason” and “History We Don’t Like” and appears to have struck a “Rock of Republican Recalcitrance.”

The buccaneers’ vessel stretches from the driveway to into his neighbor’s lawn with a dinghy labeled “Sorrow” carrying a skeleton with a suit and top hat that Warshauer identifies as President Abraham Lincoln and one of his favorite aspects of the scene. The jeering creature displays a sign asking, “What’s Become of my Party?” in a nod to Lincoln’s Republican representation.

“Part of me looks at this ship and it is partisan. I admit it, it’s very partisan,” Warshauer said. “Some people might look at me and say ‘Oh, you’re a hypocrite. You’re talking about partisanship and how terrible it is and you’re being a partisan.’ Yeah, I am in this instance because I think that the message and the voice from the other side is so incredibly bad and does not in fact represent what the ideals of America are. I don’t so much consider myself a partisan as a realist.”

Warshauer began the development in earnest after Trump’s election last November. “Distraught and concerned” after the results came out, Warshauer’s creative wheels started churning: “I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this ship of state has just really gone off course.’ And so I came up with the idea of doing a ship.”

He started looking up images of historically accurate pirate ships and the specifics on ghost pirate ships and launched the engineering phase early this summer instead of his usual late summer kickoff. His family and friends traditionally gather the last weekend of September to assemble the display, which stays up for about four weeks until the first weekend after the Halloween holiday. The cost of the project usually isn’t prohibitive, since Warshauer uses cardboard as the main ingredient, but this year’s detailed rope rigging bumped the cost to several hundred dollars, though he does accept donations on his website to offset the cost and support Connecticut History Day.

“Some people get upset and say, ‘Why are you taking Halloween, a kid’s day, and making it political?’ The kids come by and they don’t see anything in this. They just see a big pirate ship,” he said.

Still, the depiction of the current U.S. president as a “mad king” commandeering a pirate ship could be considered offensive. Warshauer responded that he respects people, not inanimate objects such as the office of the presidency. His constructively critical installation actually sparks productive conversations, he said, both between himself and people who reach out over email and passerby who discuss their interpretations of the display’s aspects (he can hear conversations from the inside of the ship).

“What should we be striving to try to make people aware of? Just the great things, or the things that need to be addressed and corrected?” he said. “I think people should be able to speak their minds and that’s the core of what our democracy is supposed to be. If you can’t have dialogue how are you going to arrive at compromise which is the core of what this nation means and was built on?”

In an area where 70 percent of voters supported Clinton in last year’s presidential election, Warshauer’s political stance is not uncommon. “I realize that I could not do this in a wide variety of other states. I couldn’t do this in a wide variety of other towns,” he said.

West Hartford resident Andy Held has enjoyed the elaborate displays for 12 years. “We look for it every year,” Andy said, pausing on an evening walk with his wife, Maria, to Warshauer’s home to inspect the ship from a closer angle. “West Hartford has always been a fine city. It adds to the color of it.”

“It shows how politically involved people are.. I think it’s a good thing that people can raise their voices about when they disagree. And this is a fun way to do it,” Maria said. “Some people complain about everything in life, but I think this is a great addition to the neighborhood.”

The month-long installation has drawn more and more attention over the years, on a block with approximately 20,000 people passing through each day. There is no parking on Main Street, so visitors can park around the corner on Hilltop Drive instead.

Warshauer hopes people leave with the appreciation of his creative feat, but also with a new look on the modern American political history being written every day.

“I just do Halloween stuff,” but through his installation art, Warshauer said, he wants to encourage people to think critically and engage other viewpoints. “Art is meant to push the envelope and be provocative and get people thinking.”

Online: http://cour.at/2ysGchi


Information from: Hartford Courant, http://www.courant.com