Today, we build gardens of raw imagination. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
John Beardsley calls his recent book, Gardens of Revelation. It's about a very odd, and often repeated, kind of human creativity -- an art of ornate, home-made structures, built from scraps.
You've probably heard of the Watts Towers in Los Angeles. Between the 1920s and 1954, a laborer named Sam Rodia built a great artificial garden of gazebos, open archwork, walls, and towers a hundred feet high. He used steel rods encrusted with concrete and embossed with seashells, broken bottles, and tiles.
Here in Houston we have several such works. One is a house completely embossed with beer cans. Best known is one called The Orange Show. A retired postman, Jeff McKissack, built it in the 1960s and '70s. McKissack believed the orange was the ultimate health food. It would heal all moral and physical ills.
The Orange Show looks like an amusement park made of tile, concrete, and castoff metal parts. It is a maze of rooms, passages, and levels. Tucked away inside is a small amphitheater with iron tractor seats for the audience. "Love oranges and live!" cries one of McKissack's signs.
A Washington, D.C., janitor, James Hampton, spent fourteen years scouring trash bins for scrap gold and silver foil, glass, and metallic bits and pieces while he created his Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation's Millennium. Hampton furnished his imagined throne room with a dazzling suite that expressed his religious revelation. It's now come to rest in the Smithsonian Institution.
Raymond Isidore, a French foundry worker, built his Maison Picassiette with a chapel, a Throne of Heaven, and a panorama of Jerusalem. That one, sitting as it does in the shadow of Chartres Cathedral, has a peculiar poignancy.
Look around your city and you'll find these fabrications, but they're often hidden away. They're built from the stuff we throw away, built over long years, built with love, built with a fierce attention to detail, built outside any accepted canon of art, built of passionate self-expression.
Look at Tressa Prisbrey's Bottle Village in Simi, California. She used everything from dolls' heads to hubcaps to make her Shrine of All Religions -- her Television-Picture-Tube fence.
I Look at Kea Tawana's ark in the middle of a field and remember an engineer I knew. He spent years building a huge aluminum boat in his Idaho barn -- no water around for miles. Only as he finished did he realize he'd built it much larger than the barn door. But it didn't matter. All that mattered was building it. Look around you and you'll see far more of this nameless visionary art than you ever dreamt was there.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Beardsley, J., Gardens of Revelation: Environments by Visionary Artists. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1995.
My thanks to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and Architecture Library, for suggesting the topic and making this new book available to me; and to Heather Moore, now with the University of Virginia Libraries, for introducing me to The Orange Show.