Deep in the heart of Somerville, a tiny museum stands on the edge of a fantastical garden.
The Friend Smithsonian Museum, roughly 2 feet by 3 feet and 30 inches deep, is a portal to a larger artwork: owner and curator Martha Friend’s Victorian house and garden.
Exhibitions at the museum rotate through every three months. Sarah Sutro’s abstract ink drawings are on view through September. They’re propped up, rather than flush against the walls, to fill the small space. Bottles of the artist’s handmade ink and brushes add to the scene.
The museum perches just above street level in front of “Sapphire City,” Friend’s front-yard installation of cobalt blue glass, ceramic, and metal objects. “Emerald City,” a similar extravaganza in green, runs along the side of the house. Plastic horses and dinosaurs dot the rooftops of the front porch and garage. A comical installation of dolls, “Babies on Horses” — including one rider in a large birdcage — is in another garden.
When Friend, 68, left her job teaching English as a second language at Revere High School in 2016, she needed a focus for her energy.
“I was itching to sink my teeth into a big project,” she said, noting that she’d had an idea about “Emerald City,” and “so I built it. It took me all summer. I was obsessed.”
The tiny museum was part of the same post-retirement creative wave. Friend used a grant from the Somerville Arts Council to commission artist Janie Owen to construct it.
“It couldn’t be delicate, and it had to be sturdy enough to withstand the weather,” she said. “And it couldn’t be something that people could pick up and walk away with or damage easily.”
Friend is on the lookout for new exhibitors. Somerville artists such as Gary Duehr and Suzanne Lubeck have shown there. Friend’s sister Julie Friend Gray came down from New Hampshire to install the small metal sculptures she makes from nuts, bolts, and found metal objects. Children from neighboring day-care centers have had exhibitions.
“I love children’s art and untrained artists,” said Friend. “Creating from the heart because they can’t help themselves.”
Hers isn’t the first tiny museum in the area — artist Judith Klausner installed one in Union Square in 2014. After the pandemic hit, Boston artists Eben Haines and Delaney Dameron started up Shelter In Place Gallery, showing art in a tiny virtual gallery.
The Friend Smithsonian Museum is for in-person viewing. Sutro shipped her drawings from her home in North Adams.
“Martha had invited me to exhibit. This last year has been so strange, I thought, ‘Why not do it now? Do something totally unusual,’ ” Sutro said over the phone. “I got a box and put a lot of drawings in, and round grinding stones — she could put the ink or drawings on top.”
The artist sees Friend’s installation of her drawings as sculptural. “It’s a little bit of a wacky way to show work, but it goes perfectly with the rest of her property,” she said.
Friend’s house is just as captivating inside, full of her collections — aluminum kettles, plastic elves, outsider artworks — and her own assemblages, crafted from found objects in her studio basement. For one piece on view in a front parlor, she outfitted an antique baby carriage with a dashboard full of gauges and a tractor seat. For another, she attached a doll’s head and limbs to an old banister. That sculpture stands, rather unnervingly, by her staircase.
She doesn’t show her work much, except at Somerville Open Studios, which didn’t happen in 2020 and was largely restricted to outdoor and virtual venues last May. But Friend keeps making art. It’s all part of her larger vision for her home. She and her husband, Ed Smith, bought the place 29 years ago and raised their three children there.
“This was a pretty broken-down house when we got it. And it was expensive at the time. Nobody was paying $280,000 for a house in Somerville then,” she said.
These days, she’s thinking about the future.
“The reality is, I will die someday. So what to do with your collection? I could always donate,” she said. “But the whole house is what I’ve been working on, so what do you do?”
In the meantime, inside and out, she keeps adding flourishes and curiosities. Like outsider artists and children, Friend works straight from the heart.
“I think that’s why I’m so drawn to [outsider art],” Friend said. “Some of it is just so joyous. It’s maybe a little obsessive-compulsive.”
“Whatever it is,” she added, “it comes from a place deep inside, and I totally understand it.”
At Friend Smithsonian Museum, 135 Highland Ave., through Sept. 30. www.marthafriend.com/mf_friendsmith.php