When Joyce Wallacavage tells you her son Adam "isn't normal," it's cause for laughter - and admiration.
"Thank goodness he's not normal, whatever that is," she says.
It's hard to explain exactly what she means, but after meeting Adam, you know it has something to do with being creative and funny and sweetly different from probably anyone else you know.
Adam Wallacavage (his surname is Lithuanian, with the accent on wall) is 38 but looks younger. He has green eyes that don't always find yours, an ironic manner that confuses - Is he serious? Is he joking? - and a stillness about him that belies the kooky exuberance of his 19th-century brownstone in South Philly.
"I'm like an eccentric millionaire who's just a thousandaire who's figured out how to be an eccentric millionaire," he says.
Here's a partial list of this "thousandaire's" random talents:
He's a skateboarder and photographer who shoots skaters, artists and musicians for himself and other stuff for an ad agency.
He's a cartoonist, 'zine creator and silk-screen printer, a self-taught ornamental-plaster artisan and interior decorator who seems to throw Victoriana and grunge at the wall to see what develops.
He makes plaster-cast octopus chandeliers that are wonderfully wacky. He has a squeaky-toy collection, four parakeets, and a host of taxidermic favorites that he uses as photo props right there in the living room window.
There's a permanently roaring lizard and a dusty armadillo, a bear cub that died by automobile, and a resplendent peacock, all fabulous flea-market finds.
"It doesn't cost a lot of money to do eccentric, fun things," Wallacavage says.
It helps to be serially obsessed - more time to search and collect.
He's obsessed with the ocean, from summers in Wildwood Crest. Give him a millisecond and he suggests that Broad Street is kind of like the ocean. With Mummers and protesters and all manner of possessed and dispossessed filling street and sidewalk, Wallacavage says, "you never know what can wash up. It has a possibility of mystery about it."
He's obsessed with the moody beauty and extravagant interiors of old Catholic churches, which, at night, remind him of being underwater. Their images bubble up from childhood and a faith that endures today.
Though not yet 40, Wallacavage is also obsessed with creating a legacy. It will include both "permanent, pretty and inspiring" works of art and his "Victorian fun house."
Let it be said here: He's on his way.
The house, bought in 2000 with his now-ex-wife for $115,000, is in the 1800 block of South Broad, one of those brownstones you pass all the time on your way somewhere. But come inside, as scores did on Jan. 1 to watch the Mummers, and prepare to be entertained.
First stop: the living room, formerly a doctor's office.
It's no surprise to learn that as a kid Wallacavage loved The Addams Family, the hilariously macabre '60s TV show about a nuclear-family nuthouse: Gomez and Morticia, kids Pugsley and Wednesday, Uncle Fester and Lurch, hairy Cousin Itt and disembodied Thing.
"It's not threatening. It's not scary. It's funny," Wallacavage opines, speaking as much about the Addamses as his photos, published by Gingko Press in 2006 in a volume titled Monster Size Monsters.
"I always liked the word monster," he explains. "I like the idea that they're supposed to be scary but they're not."
This is the worldview that prompts Jim Houser to call his friend of almost 20 years "my hero." They grew up together in Springfield, Delaware County, went to Cardinal O'Hara High School together, and embraced skateboarding, later art, together.
Houser, an artist in Queen Village, describes his pal as the kind of person who says things like: "How come mermaids' tails don't start at their knees?"
Lest you get the impression Wallacavage is some kind of freak, please - not at all. He's quite conventional in some ways: strongly desires a wife and children, spent eight years as a Seabee in the Navy Reserve, and in 1995 earned a fine-arts degree at the University of the Arts.
He's also stayed true to his Catholic faith. "As much as I can," he offers.
"I've been living in a huge, crazy art world for a long, long, long time, and it pretty much opposes - a lot of times despises - my faith," he says. "But I've always felt protected in my belief. It's a real good, solid base."
Wallacavage is one of five children in a family he describes as "awesome close." Dad Mike is a retired IBM manager. Mom Joyce, a homemaker, says Adam was a quiet, creative child. He often entertained himself by dressing up in costumes - pirate, cowboy, space explorer - and pretending his parents' bed and built-in bookcases were his ship, horse or rocket.
"Adam was different, happily so," Joyce Wallacavage says with a laugh, describing how she'd sometimes find "fun little cartoon characters" doodled on his grade-school papers.
She matter-of-factly taught her son to sew; he now has his own sewing machine and makes over-the-top velvet curtains with fringe and doodads. This he's done more than once in his fun house, which he calls "my elaborate sketchbook."
But there's so much more, including what you might say is - and this is quite a distinction - the most arresting part of the house: the dining room.
Designed to feel like it's 20,000 leagues under the sea, it's a foamy blue-green with octopus and seashell chandeliers and an old-fashioned mural, a previous owner's commission, featuring sailboats and a lighthouse by a beach.
The room feels tight, a paean to oceanic excess, reminiscent of Jules Verne's Nautilus. It's presided over by a large and oddly unnerving diving helmet. (Could it be Captain Nemo's?)
"This room is just going and going and going," Wallacavage says, gesturing to the portholes, the petrified starfish, the melted wax on the candelabra.
Next: the kitchen. It's "circus-y," all lime, white and yellow stripes, an escape from the "dark gothy-y look of the rest of the house," its creator says.
The guest room's not so goth. It's fuchsia pink. Its eight-armed octopus chandelier drips with Barbie pearls fashioned by jewelry designer Tarina Tarantino, for whom Wallacavage did a photo shoot in Los Angeles.
"I'm just stuck on the tentacle thing for now," he says, as if it were a Cheerios kick.
His chandeliers sell for between $6,000 and $18,000, and Wallacavage says he's making a living off them. They'll be the centerpiece of his show from June 28 to July 26 at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery (formerly Tin Man Alley Gallery of Philadelphia and New Hope) in New York's Chelsea neighborhood.
The gallery's Malena Seldin describes Wallacavage's work as "imaginative, playful, a little bit humorous - and a bit surreal."
In other words, as his mother suggests, "not normal, whatever that is."
Getting the Goods
To see Adam Wallacavage's work, go to www.adamwallacavage.com or www.jonathanlevinegallery.com. His chandeliers will be available for sale during his exhibit June 28 to July 26 at the LeVine gallery, 529 W. 20th St., 9E, New York.
Contact staff writer Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or email@example.com.