Half embedded in the soil in front of a squat Dale Place home sat a planter converted from a small red plastic toy truck. Next to it was a series of tilting log stumps and an assortment of colored glass and plastic bottles. Beyond that, the front yard is strewn with more toys — hubcaps spray-painted bright colors, more bits of plastic, colored glass and lights, all arranged around a silver angel, its face sculpted out of plastic and its wings made from dismantled hubcaps, wire and springs.
It was dark and chilly, and rain coated the elaborate front-yard display. But on the walk up to the house the front door opened, a portal emitting a warm, yellow glow. Inside sat the home’s owner, wearing a black vest and rounded glasses, and stroking a plump black and white cat on his lap.
Surrounding him were more arrangements, various wooden knickknacks, handmade angel figurines, small, elaborately decorated Christmas trees and a variety of brass instruments shining from the orange tea light candles burning in lanterns hung from the ceiling and in small glass holders on his coffee table, meant to resemble sleeping cats.
“You probably think I play an instrument,” the owner, longtime Valley Stream resident John Urgo, said, standing up and reaching over to pick up a trombone.
“He only plays one note,” his girlfriend, Laura Godler, joked.
He put his lips up to the instrument and let loose with a long, flaccid sputter.
Urgo, 65, an amateur artist, is a Valley Stream Historical Society board trustee. His narrow, first-floor bathroom serves as his studio, he explained, because of a lack of space elsewhere in the small home and because, he said, “It has the best light.”
Urgo creates art for fun, he said, but at various points throughout the year he volunteers to make sculptures and decorations for children’s events at the society’s Pagan Fletcher Restoration House. His most recent — a Christmas-themed display replete with decorated trees, a life-sized Santa, Mrs. Claus, a smiling girl and a scowling boy, was readied for the society’s gingerbread house contest earlier this December.
The events give him structure, he said, keeping him on task with his work. Currently, he is busy sculpting a life-sized George Washington head in preparation for the society’s Presidents Day event in February. But beyond that, inspiration can strike at any point.
Stepping out behind the house revealed another elaborate installation, a blinding constellation of string lights poking out of the dirt among more pieces of colored plastic and glass. Urgo said he loves spending time gardening, being outside and getting a chance to chat with neighbors, but expressed disappointment at his garden’s state in the winter, when many of its plants have browned and wilted. He ran the withered leaves of a summer plant through his fingers commenting, “There’s a season for everything.”
A little more than a decade ago, Urgo’s life was marked by tragedy when, after celebrating a birthday, he and his late wife, Virginia, were struck by a drunken driver, killing her and leaving him gravely wounded.
“John came back to art late in life after his wife died,” Godler noted. The two met in a thrift shop after Virginia’s death while Urgo was collecting materials for his pieces. Godler introduced him to the Artist Craftsmen of New York, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting creativity across a variety of disciplines, and he won the organization’s first prize in sculpting during his initial two years with the group.
Beyond Urgo’s yard, and occupying roughly a quarter of his garage is another piece, a monochromatic steampunk display, built on top of a mini bar, stretching to the garage wall and consisting of a variety of refuse — all spray-painted silver — including robot toys, hubcaps, and automobile grilles. It is illuminated by white lights, and peppered with the colored glow of neon bar signs.
Urgo had been working on the sprawling piece since July. He’s currently seeking a neon Blue Moon sign to round off the work, and while showing it off, he picked up a novelty beer hat, now made a dull silver, and placed it on top of a small radio next to the bar, and turned it on. Over the speakers crackled “Fly Like the Wind,” by Christopher Cross, and he returned inside, stepping past a blocky sculpture torso of the Tin Man sitting on a table in his cramped kitchen. It was another of his pieces made for the historical society for its Halloween “Wizard of Oz” event.
“He’s really taken a liking to us,” said Valerie Esposito, also a historical society trustee, colleague and friend. She said Urgo has been essential to helping prepare the society’s events in recent years, which are mostly geared towards children. She noted a sculpture Urgo made of a Tuskegee Airman for an educational event highlighting the contributions of the historic group of African-American World War II fighter pilots. “It really looks good,” she said of the bust, “and he’s always helping me with decorations.”
“He’s just so full of enthusiasm,” she added, “and he’s a really clever guy.”
Urgo came to art early in life, when as a child in Valley Stream he would collect the cardboard boxes discarded by a florist on Merrick Road. “You can make great stuff from cardboard,” he said, enumerating the uses he found for the scraps — a fort, a miniature baseball field, a map, scenes from the 1965 Civil War comedy show “F troop,” of which he was a fan.
“He’s a very hands-on kind of guy,” Godler noted.
Later on, Urgo tried his hand at entrepreneurship, opening two video rental shops in the early 1980s, one in Malverne, and another in Valley Stream. They proved popular early on, he said, recalling that customers would line up to get a membership. But like many of its kind, the video stores gave way to chains, which themselves succumbed to the pressures of video streaming, mail rentals and automated rental machines.
Now, Urgo works part-time at a florist, but it is his artwork, he said, that gives him the greatest pleasure.
“It’s fun,” he said of creating, which he particularly delights in displaying for children. “... It’s not about the money, it’s about being happy, and it’s nice to see the smiles on kids’ faces.”