This week’s entry: Visionary environments
What it’s about: While some artists are content with an empty canvas or a block of clay, some think big, creating installations that the viewer actually moves through and experiences. These environments are often considered outsider art, as many are built by artists without formal training, just a strong personal vision writ large.
Strangest fact: One remarkable folk art construction was created by a retiree who was simply looking for a place to put her stuff. Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey was born in 1896, married at age 15 to a man 37 years her senior, had seven kids in 14 years, and eventually settled down with her third husband in Simi Valley, California. By age 60, she had amassed a collection of 17,000 commemorative pencils, and intended to build a small cinderblock building to house them. Finding cinderblocks too expensive, Prisbrey scouted the local dump, and found numerous glass bottles. A poorly worded stretch of the Wikipedia page implies she immediately came home with more than one million bottles; it’s more likely this is how many she accumulated over the next 25 years. Until she left in poor health at age 86, Prisbrey continued building up her Bottle Village, creating structures and adding sculptures entirely using recycled materials.
Biggest controversy: Many of these works were not recognized as art at first. The Watts Towers were the work of Sabato Rodia, an Italian immigrant to Los Angeles who built a collection of steel and concrete towers between 1921 and 1954, the tallest of which stands at 99 feet high. He created his own construction methods and materials for the towers, embedding the base of each with mosaics of porcelain, glass, and found objects. Rodia fought constantly with the city over permit issues, and Los Angeles decided to bulldoze the towers shortly after Rodia stopped work and left town in 1955. Oscar-winning film editor William Cartwright and actor Nicholas King bought the property and formed a preservation committee, which convinced the city to do an engineering survey to determine whether the structures were safe. A crane was brought in to attempt to topple one of the towers, and the tower—only built 2 feet into the ground—was so strong that not only did it not budge, the crane broke. The city backed down, and the committee oversaw the towers and opened an adjacent museum, until Los Angeles finally recognized the Towers as a landmark in the 1970s, and has overseen their preservation ever since.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Artists have built honest-to-goodness castles to suit their visions. Ferdinand Cheval was a 19th-century French postman who, upon tripping over blocks of sandstone on his mail route, began collecting the stones by basket and then wheelbarrow to build Le Palais Idéal, a castle he essentially built by hand over the course of 33 years. In Colorado, Jim Bishop began building a family cottage, but when his neighbors said it looked like a castle, he ran with that idea and with help from his family built Bishop Castle, whose highest tower rises 160 feet tall.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The scrap metal sculpture designed to propel its creator “into the heavens on a magnetic lightning force beam” didn’t quite manage that feat. The sculpture in question is Dr. Evermor’s Forevertron, built in the 1980s by Wisconsinite Tom Every, who created fictional Victorian inventor Evermor as his alter ego and the sculpture’s ostensible creator. The 300-ton sculpture is a veritable history of American machinery, incorporating lightning rods, components from 1920s power plans and an ammunition factory, two Thomas Edison dynamos from the 1880s, and the actual decontamination chamber used by the Apollo 11 astronauts. Every was also involved in the construction of the world’s largest carousel, part of another of Wisconsin’s visionary environments, House On The Rock.
Also noteworthy: There are visionary environments around the world, and as a result, the page has a Wiki Wormhole first: links to pages that don’t appear in English. Germany’s Junkerhaus, a heavily ornamented house built by Karl Junker, only has a page in German. French Wikipedia hosts pages on the Maison Picassiette, a house Raymond Isidore covered in frescoes within and mosaics without; the Tour D’Eben-Ezer, a handmade stone tower based on Ezekiel’s biblical vision of New Jerusalem; and Robert Tatin, who filled a field with sculptures made from colored cement. The Google-translated versions, while not always grammatically sound, can be downright poetic, as the translation says of Isidore, “Its end of life, in its saturated area mosaics, was tragic. His inspiration dried up, exhausted himself, he wandered aimlessly, the tottering mind.”
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Nearly every link on the page leads to either a fascinating artist or a remarkable construction. If you’ve exhausted those links, there’s also one for the broader category of outsider art.
Further down the wormhole: Friedensreich Hundertwasser was an Austrian artist and architect, and a rare name on this list who had both formal training and recognition from the art world. As he aged his work focused more and more on architecture, through which he sought to build more environmentally friendly buildings, and decried the straight line, which he considered sterile and unnatural. One of his strongest influences was fellow Austrian Gustav Klimt, whose paintings combined the female form with abstract elements. Upon his death, he left behind numerous unfinished paintings. We’ll look at artists, writers, and others who have left behind unfinished creative work next week.