WAUKESHA — When James Barany’s dad died this March, he wanted to do something to remember him by.

Since his dad was a big outdoorsman, Barany started searching online for gypsy vardos, ornate wooden wagons that were popular with travelers in the 1800s.

He took one look at the prices for premade vardos and said: No way.

After that, it didn’t take long for the light bulb to come on.

An artist and professor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD), Barany quickly decided he was going to have to build his own vardo camper.


COVID therapy

For the last four months, Barany has been quietly constructing that camper in the driveway of his home at the corner of Oakland Avenue and Broadway.

“I think I started at the end of June. I have been out here for a little bit here and there. Sometimes for eight hours at a stretch, sometimes for 15 minutes,” Barany said Wednesday. “I call it my COVID therapy project.”

At first Barany thought he would just make a “fun camping trailer,” but the more he started researching, he said, the more he realized he could “really go to town” on the project.


 “Everyone said I was crazy, but I said, ‘give me a month or two,’” he said. “My family expects all of this from me. This is my life. I’m on one project, and then I’m on another.”

Decked out in cedar shingles, porthole windows, ornamental corbels and other touches, the exterior of the trailer is now nearly completed.


Teaching moment

Once it’s all done, Barany will start working on the interior, which will sleep three comfortably and also boast a wood-burning stove, cabinets, and other amenities.

“Inside it will be all reclaimed pallet wood that I am going to plane down. There will be multi-colored drapes; all the things you would expect,” he said. “The only thing it won’t have is a privy, because then it just becomes a bathroom.”

As a finishing touch, Barany and his family have even made a sign for the trailer, naming it Leander, after his dad’s middle name.

“Our joke is: ‘Leander will meander,’” he said.

When it’s all done, Barany plans to use the completed trailer as a workshop tool for his students at MIAD, and also give a few tours for some of the boys in his wife’s Cub Scout troop.


Jack of all trades

Although he doesn’t have a formal background in carpentry, Barany said a lifetime spent in the arts has helped him pull the project off. In addition to building the Little Library outside his home as gift to his wife Diana, and a treehouse for his kids, Barany also paints giant murals — and sings professionally with the Florentine Opera. “We’re farmers — jacks of all trade,” Barany said of artists. “You have to be."