In the Skeleton Frames of Burned Out Chevrolets: Thunder Mountain Monument


Hiya, it has been too long since I’ve posted anything. This blog is not over, I just got busy. I think today’s site is a good one and is a relevant artistic statement in light of the craziness going on with the North Dakota Pipeline and the politically contentious times in general. Without further ado, I present Thunder Mountain Monument.

In the late 1960s, Fran Van Zant’s car broke down on the side of the highway in the middle of the Nevada desert. He and his family ended up purchasing the dirt he landed on and commenced to building a home/ commune/ monument to the American Indian. Van Zant, who had some Creek Indian ancestry running through him, rechristened himself Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain and named his creation Thunder Mountain Monument.


Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain (1921 -1989) was in his late forties when he started building his monument in 1968. He was a WWII vet, had raised several children and with a new wife was venturing on starting a new family. For the first decade or so, it became a commune of sorts as other lost souls and people needing help wandered on to the land, stayed and helped build. On the property, the Chief created several shelters, including the main house as seen above a round house and a hostel. The Chief used what he dubbed white man’s trash – detritus found around the area as well as store bought concrete, to assemble the structures and hundreds of sculptures of Native Americans that surround the place.


The lost souls and other transients eventually wandered away. In 1983, a hostel they built was destroyed, presumably by arson. The Chief started adorning the site with anti-government signs. His wife and children eventually wandered away. The Chief was angry, alone and by some reports was starting to feel the physical effects of decades of cigarette smoke. In 1989, Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain took his own life.

The Chief’s oldest son, Dan Van Zant now owns the property. There is a caretaker on site to help with small maintenance, weeding and to keep out ne’er do wells.The family wants to keep the site pristine. I spoke to Van Zant in 2014 and at that point there were no plans to develop it or sell it, “it is what it is.” While there has been some vandalism and decay over the years, a lot of the site remains and it is still a very spiritual and haunting place. There is a print out on site that identifies that environment is meant to commemorate the suffering of the Native American due to white “invaders” and the following centuries of persecution and genocide. The message the art conveys, the story of the Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain and the bleakness of the desolate Nevada desert, make this a very challenging and thought provoking site.


How To Visit:

Thunder Mountain Monument is open 365 days a year during daylight hours. There is a caretaker on the premises and there is parking. A small donation is appreciated to help with upkeep and if the caretaker is around you can buy t-shirts and postcards. There is a fence around the main structure, it is not structurally safe to enter, but other than that, you can walk around the yard freely.

It is located right off I-80, The Imlay exit (exit 145). It is on E Star Peak rd, on the south side of the highway. Imlay is a town of under 200 people, do not expect a lot of utilities. Bring a snack, fill up on gas and use the bathrooms before you show up.

Thunder Mountain is about two hours east of Reno and five and a half hours west of Salt Lake City.

Further Reading:

There is a lot out there written on Thunder Mountain, it is one of the better-known and documented sites. The book Spiritual American Trash by Greg Bottoms, has a chapter detailing Chief Rolling Thunder mountain’s life. Each chapter is about a different folk/ grassroots artist. There is an essay on previous subject Grandma Prisbrey and her Bottle village.

I recommended checking out SPACES Archive. They have a great write up that goes further into its history as well as lots of photos of the site from the 1970s.

The official website has more info, as well as photos inside the main house. Being that the interior is closed off this is really the only way to peek inside.

ThunderMtn01In the Area:

Although it is located right off the interstate, this place is remote and there is not much in the way of nearby attractions (that I am aware of). Mill City, about five miles north along the Interstate does have a gas station. But say you are driving between Reno and Salt Lake, headed to the Bonneville Salt Flats, or headed out to Burning Man, you should make sure to have yourself a good old fashioned Basque feast.

European Basque immigrants started moving to northern Nevada in the mid 1800s. Besides Reno to the west, Winnemucca 35 miles east and Elko, 150 miles even farther east, all have a history of Basque immigrants. They built hotels in the northern desert which had attached restaurants. In some cases the hotel is no more, but the awesome restaurants survive. These Basque restaurants are known for large meals served family style and also for a specialty cocktail – Picon Punch. So, while I can’t recommend any other nearby attractions (please email me if you know of something) I do suggest taking a quick dive in Basque culture.

In Popular Culture:

Burned out Chevrolets

None other than Bruce Springsteen visited the monument while on a cross country road trip in the mid 1970s. This would have been when the site was in full on commune mode. During concerts in the 70s and 80s he would introduce the song Thunder Road, that was partially inspired by the poster of the Robert Mitchum movie of the same name, relating his tale of stumbling across the site. It is hard to tell if the place inspired the song, or it’s title, or if it was just a weird occurrence that happened after he wrote the song. I always thought the line “In the Skeleton Frames of Burned Out Chevrolets”, referred to the Monument and the barricade of auto carcasses surrounding the perimeter.

There  are two other Springsteen art environment connections. According to Jim Bowsher, the creator  of the incredible  Temple of Tolerance in Ohio, several celebrities including Springsteen have visited his site. The other one is pure speculation – I wonder if Springsteen as a youth ever made it out to the Palace of Depression, a Vineland, NJ environment that was tore down in 1969 (that incidentally is currently being rebuilt by fans). Vineland, NJ is about 100 miles from where el Jefe was born. The Palace of Depression plays a big role in the book and movie Eddie and the Cruisers, about a Springsteenesque singer who may or not be dead (not in the vampire sense, but in the did he fake his own death sense). However, I have no proof either way. I am a terrible detective.

So, roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair.

Greetings from Lucas, KS: Art Environment Mecca


Smack dab in the middle of the contiguous United States, really in the middle of nowhere, you will find the strangest, most amazing, per capita city in the country – Lucas, KS.  Population 393, give or take a person or two. Lucas is home to three or four art environments (depending on your definition), a great folk art museum, a terrific meta roadside attraction and the coolest public bathrooms you could ever hope to do your business. All within a three block radius. New York City by comparison has a population of over 8.4 million people, probably at best has  three or four folk art environments, also has a really great folk art museum and a few roadside attractions, but unlike Lucas all their public bathrooms are vile pits.

Lucas is only 15 minutes from highway I-70, which cuts through the middle of the state, but unless you are driving from Denver to Kansas City, Lucas is most likely near nowhere you were planning to be. The closest “big” city is Wichita, KS, which is about 150 miles away. But in a way it doesn’t matter where in the United States you live, Lucas is not technically that far away. Lucas is located only about 60 miles from the geographical center of the contiguous United States (not counting Alaska and Hawaii). Meaning if you cut out a map of America and tried putting a pin in the middle so it balanced perfectly, the pin would just about be in Lucas.

It takes a bit of work to get here, but as Lucas is such a fascinating small town, it is well worth your efforts. For fans of art environments this is an absolute must see.

So, with that being said here is a travel guide to the wonders of Lucas.


The Garden of Eden – 305 East Second Street – Lucas Kansas

You can’t talk about Lucas without starting with this site. Built by S.P. Dinsmoor (1843 – 1932) over two decades starting in 1907, the Garden of Eden is arguably the oldest surviving art environment in the United States. The Garden is one of the greatest icons of the old, weird America, built with fervent individualism with a strong point of view, built with skill and imagination. Infusing concrete with a healthy mixture of populist politics, social Darwinist theory, old timey religion and freemasonry, Dinsmoor surrounded his hand-built cabin with hundreds of concrete sculptures.


He was not afraid to speak his mind, then build it into a giant sculpture and place it on his property. For example, one of the more prominent sculptures is the one in the photo above, with labor being crucified by the bankers, lawyers, doctors and preachers (a big screw you to the man).

Over the century Lucas residents have taken great pride in this site. Dinsmoor’s creation inspired several of his neighbors to start building weird things in their yard, and inspired other artists to move to Lucas.

The Garden of Eden was preserved by the Kohler Foundation in 2011 and is open to the public as a museum. With paid admission you get to go on the property, in the house and also get to venture into the mausoleum where Dinsmoor’s mummified remains rest comfortably to greet curious tourists. Check the website here for hours and admission.

The Grassroots Art Center – 213 S Main st. – Lucas Kansas

Two blocks from the Garden of Eden, on Lucas’ main strip is a fantastic art museum. I don’t know why I am even bothering listing the addresses, this town is only a handful of blocks squared, you won’t get lost.

Lucas has been dubbed the Grassroots art capital of Kansas. Basically, “grassroots art”, is Kansas code for folk, self-taught or outsider art. The term doesn’t carry any of the baggage of those other descriptors. The Center is a terrific folk art museum with pieces by several noted Kansas grassroots artists including Glenn Stark, Ed Root and M.T. Liggett. It is a cornucopia of people thinking outside the box. Admission to the museum gets you a tour of the next two places listed, Florence Deeble’s Rock Garden and The Garden of Isis.

Check out their website for visitor info here.


Florence Deeble’s Rock Garden

There are a few sites in Lucas that were directly inspired by SP Dinsmoor. Florence Deeble (1900-1999), built her art environment in her back yard, only a block from the Garden of Eden. She started creating her rock garden in her late 50s and continued till she passed away at almost 100 years old. Many of the sculptures are inspired by her travels or by the history of Kansas, or Lucas.

When she got older, she kept building and started incorporating other store-bought pieces into her sculptures. Deeble’s environment is a tad crude, but utterly charming and full of personality and creativity. Admission to the Grassroots Art Center gets you a tour of her yard.

The Garden of Isis: Inside Florence Deeble’s old house

Artist Mri-Pilar was so inspired by the grassroots art in Lucas that in 2002 she started covering the inside of Florence Deeble’s house with her unique art. The interior walls are sheathed with silver insulation and weird collages often using doll parts. Very creepy and very cool. A tour of the house comes with your admission to the Grassroots Art Center.

Miller’s Park – 2nd Street, next to the Garden of Eden

Ron and Clara Miller created a rock garden art environment/ tourist attraction from the 1920s to the 1960s. They built rock sculptures of places they have visited. The sculptures were all sold off in 1969 and moved to Hays, KS. Forty years later, after being left to decay they were rescued with the help of the almighty Kohler Foundation. They were preserved and then moved back to Lucas in 2013. They are now adjacent to the Garden of Eden and free to check out daily.

World’s Largest Collection of World’s Smallest Versions of World’s Largest Things (WLCoWSVoWLT)- Next to the Garden of Eden

Artist/ educator/ preservationist/ road tripper and fellow art environment obsessive Erika Nelson has created a very cool roving tourist attraction that delights in roadside architecture, namely the “world’s biggest this or that.” Nelson is another transplant from elsewheres drawn to Lucas’ creative soul and super cheap rural housing prices who bought the house next to the Garden of Eden to act as her jumping off point for her travels across America.

These giant pieces of Americana are everywhere. Every state has them, often built to lure in tourists, or as a point of community pride. Some of the more well know ones include the World’s Largest Ketchup Bottle in Illinois, or the World’s largest dinosaur, aka the Cabazon Dinosaur, as seen in the movie Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure. Nelson has built a mini version of these archetypes of Americana and is displaying them in the windows of her art cars and on the side of her house. Incidentally Lucas is located about a 45 minute drive from one of my favorite World’s largest thing, the World’s Largest Ball of Twine (built by more than one person) in Cawker City, KS. Check out her website here.

And more…

Besides all the attractions listed above, there is the Bowl Plaza, a public restroom on Main street, a block down from the Grassroots Arts Center. This is not a normal bathroom, I mean in may ways it is as it relates to hole placement and flushing gadgets, but each restroom has been covered with tons of bric-a-brac –  an homage to the grassroots art that informs the small burg’s sensibilities. There is a tiny park next to the bathrooms that has more grassroots art.

There is also a great 90 plus year old family run Czech meat market named Brant’s right next door, where they sell incredible bologna, beef jerky  and other sausages. Brant’s is located at 125 S Main St, they don’t have their own dedicated website but  here is a good site for more info.

But wait there’s more… all around town and on the roads going to and from Lucas there is more grassroots art. There are M.T. Liggett totems, and J.R. Dickerman’s Open Range Zoo, basically, several grassroots metal sculptures that litter the roads leading into Lucas. You can find a list of Open Range creatures here.

The World’s Largest Souvenir plate

If you love road trips and art environments then this here is the destination for you. Kansas City or Denver both make great jumping off points as there is a ton of fascinating Americana and grassroots art sites along the way.

So, check out the Kansas map below (Lucas is in about the middle) and then fill up the gas tank, it is a bit of a drive.




…Another Man’s Treasure: The Cathederal of junk


Behind his house in a residential neighborhood in Austin, TX, Vince Hanneman has been building his aptly named Cathedral of Junk going on over 25 years. Most art environments are built using reclaimed materials, found in the surrounding area. Including broken plates or shells used to craft mosaics, or giant rocks from nearby fields, but perhaps no one so eloquently has turned true random bits of everyday discarded trash into a amazing sculpture.

It is a hodgepodge of detritus, totally random outcast objects fit together in some mad brilliant way. It is one of those places where there is so much to see in such a small area, you will surely miss something. Hanneman crafted an amazing feet of craftsmanship and structural engineering. The Cathedral holds up, you can walk in it, around it and there are multiple stairways and paths, so you can even walk on it.


Hanneman started building the mega sculpture in 1989, and besides a bureaucratic tussle a few ago when the Cathedral of Junk was almost returned to that great trash compactor in the sky, he is working on it to this day. The city declared it is a building not a sculpture, they declared that it is unsafe and it is located in a decidedly cathedral of junk-free zone. Additionally, one news article I read said that some of the neighbors were unhappy with the crowds that were pouring in and out of Hanneman’s yard.


But by discarded hook or by recycled crook, Hanneman was able to save the site. And it was a close call, several articles from June 2010 declared that the city won, and the Cathedral was going to be junked shortly (in the traditional sense, not turned into an amazing giant outdoor sculpture). However, a last minute agreement was reached. Parts had to be removed and over several months, volunteers helped him stabilize the site and removed tons of debris. A structural engineer signed off on it and a few rules were set limiting tour groups. This is another great site and it wonderful how the community came together to support an artist in a dark moment. Now you get to go there. Austin prides itself on its weirdness and sadly, over the decades, that weirdness is diminishing. This is a true piece of American tenacity, perseverance, creativity and independence.

Don’t mess with Texas, but if you do Vince Hanneman will take parts of that mess and build an awesome mega sculpture in his backyard. See the visitor rules below and get to dialing.



How to visit:

This is open to the public, but there are no set days or hours. If you want to visit, THERE ARE RULES. Due to several issues, including the need to placate the neighbors and the city, and also due to Vince’s desire for privacy as he is still working on it, and the fact that he is a bit of curmudgeon (in a good healthy way), there are a few discarded hoops to jump through.

You must make an appointment!

He will not let you in if you just show up. Call his cell at (512) 299-7413 . Odds are he will not pick up, in fact he described it as a roulette – you call and if he is in the mood he picks up, if not it goes to voicemail. Keep trying though. I called four or five times per day, for just shy of a week before he finally picked up. Other people I spoke to got picked up on the second or third try (lucky jerks). I spoke to Hanneman for a few minutes, at first I could tell he did not want to deal with some of my dumber questions (“what was your inspiration?”) but then he loosened up and was great to talk to.

  1. Call Hanneman at (512) 299-7413. Do not bother leaving a message, he will not call you back.
  2. Once you finally make it through and agree on a time to visit, Hanneman will give you specific parking instructions. The reason for this is to keep things nice with the neighbors. He will most likely ask you to park a block away from his house, on W St Elmo Rd, and make sure to not block the bike lanes. The cathedral of Junk is located at 4422 Lareina Dr, Austin, TX (it is located in a residential area of south Austin).
  3. He will ask for a paltry donation that covers everyone in your group.

A lot of the sites I write about are basically museums, the artist has passed on and it is being preserved for people to enjoy. This is a living art environment, Hanneman is still working on it and the Cathedral is just getting bigger by the week. It came very close to being shut down – So please, respect the rules, respect the neighbors and respect the artist, and all will be well.

This place is absolutely amazing, it is worth playing by the rules.


The Point of Despair – there is a bench outside the backyard where people without an appointment can sulk

In The Area:

Texas 01
Huntington Sculpture Park

Austin is an amazing place; in fact, it may be my favorite city in America (sorry Portland). I lived there for four years, over a decade ago and other than a cruel summer sun I absolutely loved it. In fact, popularity is one of the issues it is dealing with as it is leading to more and more people moving here and more pieces of the city being swallowed up by over-development. Seriously Austin, get your act together.

For fans of offbeat attractions, wunderkamers, PT Barnum, and dime museums, Austin has three places to transport you back to a time when museums were strange entertainments filled with oddities from other worlds. First off there is the delightful, Museum of Natural and Artificial Ephemerata, a small old-fashioned cabinet of curiosity. I don’t want to give too much away, just check it out. It is a house museum so check their website for posted tours or email/ call them to make an appointment. This place is great.


Also, check out the Museum of the Weird on 6th st. and Sfanthor, on S Congress. I recommend both, especially Sfanthor which is a wax museum of old sci-fi and horror characters and is really well done. The same feller owns them, so you can get a discount ticket to visit both.

Also, do you like barbecue? Austin is the new barbecue Mecca with people literally waiting in line for three or four hours at some places just to shove juicy brisket down their gullets. But you really don’t need me to get you to these places, instead let’s get in the car and drive to the hills.

Texas 07
Giant beef rib at Louie Mueller

In the land around Austin is where amazing barbecue meets history and tradition in old meat markets. Everyone has their favorite spot, but I personally recommend Louie Mueller, which is about 30-45 minutes outside of Austin in Taylor, TX. The brisket and stupidly large beef ribs are some of the best I have ever had. The barbecue is weighed out and placed on wax paper, with minimal accoutrements, then you take it back to the table. Word of warning, since it is by weight and beef ribs are huge, they can get pricey quick – that rib in the picture above was almost $40 alone.  Also, consider heading south to Lockart where you can find three beloved old school bbq joints, Kreuz, Smitty’s, Blacks, or east for Southside Market or Snows. Or Southwest to the Saltlick. There are seriously too many amazing historical barbecue within 45 minutes of driving.

There are amazing art environments in Houston and San Antonio and I plan to get to them sooner or later. But for now I want to mention a very modern sculpture park located near Louie Mueller .The Huntington Sculpture Park located at 212 N. Broad St., Coupland, TX at the corner of Broad and Hoxie. All the pieces are by artist Jim Huntington who crafted these giant granite monoliths. Huntington is a respected artist with pieces in many of America’s premier sculpture parks, including Storm King in the Hudson River Valley of NY. It is open every day (24 hours) and there is a small donation box. It is the type of sculpture-park you expect to find in a big city and not a small rural town.  Louie Mueller barbecue and the Huntington Sculpture Park make for a great day trip.

There’s gold in the thar hills!


In the News: Easter Island on the Hudson’s Creator Passes Away


Ted Ludwiczak, the artist behind a  fun art environment, Easter Island on the Hudson, passed away on May 25, 2016, he was reportedly 90 years old. I had written about Ludwiczak briefly when talking about the Hudson River Valley Art Environment Trail, here. Of all the places on the trail, his was the only one that was actually located directly on the Hudson River.


Ludwiczak, immigrated to America from Poland when he was 29 years old in 1956. He had a optical lense grinding business for the next 30 years, retiring in 1986. Two years later, in 1988, inspiration struck him and he started carving faces into the rocks found on the beach along the Hudson.


Every face is different. Most are happy. He started chipping away using the blade from a lawn mower, but ultimately transitioned into using power tools. As it stands currently the outside of his house is littered with hundreds of these carved faces. They are not nearly as big as their namesake Easter Island Moai, but there are just tons of them all over the place in his front, back and side yard. Ludwiczak’s property butts up to the Hudson and there are more rock heads along the shore for boaters to enjoy.


Last fall I had the chance to visit his house. It was raining outside when I showed up and knocked on the door. Ludwiczak popped out and happily granted me permission to walk around his yard. Typically, in these situations, I like to talk to the artist a bit, but it was nasty out and I didn’t feel like hassling him. . It was a true pleasure walking around the yard; the sculpted smiles were infectious. You couldn’t help but smile back.


Most of the environments I have visited have been around many decades and the builder has long passed. However, I have been lucky to meet several artists still building up their yard. With that being said, a large portion of environment architects are old timers. Many times, like this situation here, the artist started building after retiring from their day job. I have been now to three environments where the artist has gone off to folk art paradise after I have visited (and just to clarify, I am not murdering artists). This includes, Hamtramck Disneyland and Glenn Stark’s environment, both of which I have yapped about in this blog. Hamtramck Disneyland has recently been saved by an art collective (hell yeah, that is so great!), Stark’s statues were taken off his property and the city moved them to a local park.


At this point, I have no idea what the future holds for this place. I hope that either Ludwiczak’s family or some art organization, like Kohler, steps in to preserve the place. But I really don’t see that happening. This was a pretty obscure site, and it never received the notoriety and appreciation that some other sites have. It would be too easy to auction off the faces and sell the property. So get your asses up there before it is too late. I will keep you posted.

So, here’s to Ted Ludwiczak, a self-trained artist, who in his later years for reasons completely his own, decided to gussy up the already beautiful Hudson river, by adding a few hundred more pretty faces and helping to make this world a slightly better place. Cheers!


How to visit:

This is probably time sensitive. I am writing this in late May 2016, and who knows how much longer this info will hold true. Easter Island on the Hudson is located at 14 Riverside Ave, Haverstraw, NY, about a little over an hour drive north of NYC. It is on a residential street right along the river. Most of the statues can be seen from the street. I am not sure if they want people tramping through his back yard or not, but there is plenty to see from the front. If you have a yacht, you can drop anchor right outside his back yard.

Get going while the gettin’s good.

In the Area:

South of Haverstraw is New York City, a large wide-awake apple. There is a lot to do in New York City, it is an amazing place filled with some of the world’s most renown restaurants, night life, cultural institutions and museums. But honestly, I am more interested in what you find in the boonies, so skip it and head north instead.  There are some great museums and offbeat attractions in the Hudson River Valley.


About an hour north I recommend heading to the DIA: Beacon. The DIA is high-concept meta-art (art about  art) at its most artsty artyness. If there was an 80s movie set in the DIA: Beacon everyone would be clothed in black and wearing berets. Housed in an old warehouse everything, all the art, is huge. See the photos above for an idea. If you are a fan of the land art movement you will poop yourself in astonishment. It has pieces constructed by land art luminaries Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer (see the boulder in the wall above). Before heading there you have to read the Yelp reviews, they are hilarious, either people adore it and find it to be brilliant, or think it is ridiculously pretentious, or believe it  to be the dumbest museum ever. Personally, I absolutely loved this place, because they are all correct, it is a beautiful mix of brilliant, pretentious, and dumb.

There are two other nearby attractions I didn’t make it to, because as I mentioned previously, it was pouring outside. They were both very high on my “to see” list, and it means I have to head back out this way. I cannot personally vouch for ’em, but they look pretty awesome.

Bannerman’s Castle lit by the first warm sun of late winter, 2014” by Peter licensed under CC by 2.0

First, there is Bannerman Castle, a deteriorating military surplus warehouse/ castle. It sits on an island in the middle of the Hudson and you can book a tour of the island.  I guess you can’t actually enter the castle as it is in pretty bad shape, but still looks like a pretty great opportunity.

Storm King Art Center NY 2610” by bobistraveling is licensed under CC by 2.0

The other is the Storm King Art Center. It is a large outdoor sculpture park and is reportedly one of the biggest and best in the country. Seriously, go to Google and search, “best sculpture parks in America”, and open every dumb travel list of the best sculpture parks in America and it will be on that list.

And, if you haven’t already, please check out my dumb list about the Hudson River Valley Art Environment Trail, because there are some terrific ones nearby.

In the News: Desert Christ Park Needs Some Help


Desert Christ Park, located in Yucca Valley, in the heart of the southern California desert, is looking for a little cash for some much needed preservation. I briefly mentioned the park in my post about the California Desert Art Environment Trail, here. Antone Martin built the biblical sculptures in the park in the 1950s as a symbol of peace in a time of impending nuclear destruction. In fact he thought that by building them with concrete and steel they would outlast atomic fallout. He originally built a few pieces in Ingleside, CA and trucked them in before moving to a camper outside the church to build on site. Now the statues, all characters from the bible (Jesus and his pals),  cover a hillside beside a small church.


This is a free park and it is always open to the community. For decades, the city of Yucca Valley maintained the statues and the park. That was until some residents felt this was a clear violation of church and state, due to their tax dollar funding their care. They brought in the ACLU and eventually the Yucca Valley parks had to give up the statues.

Eventually, a non-profit group came into help preserve and maintain the sculptures. Whether or not the statues can survive a nuclear holocaust has yet to be determined, but they are not faring well against more mundane obstacles. The statues have been through a lot, including an earthquake, the cruel desert climate and vandals. At one point in the 1950s Martin himself mad that the neighboring church wanted to charge admission knocked most the noses off (other than Judas’). As you can see in the below photos, some of the statues are pretty beat up, missing not only their noses but hands, legs and other body parts.


It is a cool site and a great part of the community. The foundation that cares for the statues is hoping to get $100,000 to put the humpty dumptys back together again.

So check out this article out here.

If you have a couple spare dollars, or the whole $100K and want to help preserve an interesting art environment check out the official site here and donate away.

If you are curious to learn more about the site, art environment enthusiast Holly Metz has written a really terrific essay, here.



Uncoiling into the Sea: The Spiral Jetty


This week, like every single post before it, I am going to write about a large, awe-inspiring piece of art, built in a remote location. Yet, the piece in question is not considered an “art environment”, instead it is a significant example of an art movement associated with the beret wearing city mouse cousin of the poor neglected folk art environment – Land Art. This week I am going to talk about Utah’s Spiral Jetty, created by Robert Smithson (1938 –  1973).

Sometimes known as land art, earthworks, or environmental art, this is art built in nature with the artist using a backhoe instead of a paintbrush. Although they share certain characteristics with my true love, folk art environments, these are a different beast altogether. This is another reason I dislike the generic term “art environment“, for the type of place I generally deal with. They sound indistinguishable yet, they have a very different feel to them (think porn vs. erotica). Land art receives far more appreciation in the art world and gets a lot more commendations in books and movies. And just because land art is more refined and self-consciously artsy, does not mean it is not also pretty great.

Anyways, the land art movement started in the late 1960s by artists trying to escape the confines of the museum. They were going to build in nature, using nature. And they were willing to let the environment,  temperature and the passage of time play its part, to change the art as time goes by.


One of the most distinguished pieces of land art is the Spiral Jetty, located a few hours from Salt Lake City. It is a spiral of rocks that shoots out into the Great Salt Lake. Smithson created the Jetty in 1970 with the help of a construction crew. When it was originally built the Salt Lake was at a lower than usual water level. Two years later the Lake filled in and Spiral Jetty was completely underwater for three decades until 2002.


Unlike a folk art environment, which is typically built by one or two people, often in their own back yards over many years, if not decades, Spiral Jetty was put in place by hired hands in less than a week. It is minimal in design and it really is pretty spectacular. Smithson built it with nature in mind, meaning he realized that it probably won’t last forever, it is not hermetically sealed behind glass in a museum where light, temperature and vandals can be controlled. I have seen dozens of photos of the place from over the years, and it always looks different, the color and depth of the lake the amount of salt buildup. While the Dia Foundation owns it, they have gladly left  it to rot in a corrosive body of water. Although, not as offbeat and idiosyncratic as my beloved art environments, it is a lot more self aware, it is beautiful and a lot of fun to visit.

Down the Rabbit Hole:

It is not hard to find websites, documentaries, museum exhibits and books that deal with place based art. Here are a few sources I really enjoyed that dealt exclusively with land art.

Erin Hogan wrote a travelogue of her experience  leaving the hustle of Chicago to drive her Volkswagen Jetta across America’s West looking for some (and not always finding) the more famous land art pieces , including the Sun Tunnels, the Lightning Field, Double Negative and Spiral Jetty. The book, Spiral Jetta, details her travels. I can’t remember whether or not she bought a Jetta just so she would have a catchy book title or not. That is a $15K commitment to a pun – commendable, I guess. Either way, this is a really quick and fun read and it is a good way to learn about several sites. She writes really nice descriptions, and unlike me she has a decent handle with adjectives and does not simply call everything “awesome.”

There are some good documentaries that are easy to find on Netflix, Amazon, etc. The first, The Gates, details all the hoops that the artists Christos and Jeanne-Claude had to jump through to create a temporary art piece covering New York’s Central Park.

Another great documentary is Levitated Mass, which showcases the artist Michael Heizer, a notorious hard-ass curmudgeon who for decades has been building a giant art piece in the middle of the Nevada desert, simply called City. No one has really seen it yet and it is supposed to be massive. However, the film, Levitated Mass, is about Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and Heizer transporting a giant boulder over several days to create the exhibit at the museum.

If you are interested in Utah’s weird geological terrain, the book Basin and Range, by beloved journalist/ essayist John McPhee, details the geology of the area. McPhee has taken a super boring topic and made it interesting.

How to Visit:

A pair of aliens on the road to the Jetty

The Spiral Jetty is located on the north/ east side of the Great Salt Lake, about 100 miles north of Salt Lake City. The drive takes around 2.5 hours. First, you drive to the Golden Spike National Historic Site. You really should take a pit stop here as this is your last chance to use the bathroom (besides a lake), get cell reception, or to buy bottled water, a snack, or a book about trains. From the Golden Spike you drive around nine miles over unpaved ranch roads. The DIA Art Foundation, who own/ maintain the Spiral Jetty have the best directions on their site here. The directions on the site seem pretty complicated (it has you counting the cattle guard fences) when in reality it is pretty easy to navigate and the signage is fine. Back in the day, part of the charm was not only was the Spiral Jetty remote, it was a pain in the ass to get to.

I had originally heard that the road leading to the Jetty was rough, so when I went I paid the extra expense to rent a 4 wheel drive Jeep. Well that was unnecessary, as the roads were fine for any old car. With that being said, rumor has it that the road can still be trouble just after a snowstorm or a big rainfall.

The Jetty is only as visible as the water level is high, as the site was covered over for about 30 years. When I visited in April 2013, it was, as seen in the above photos, mostly above water.  You can check water levels here, for best results to see the Jetty you want the water levels to be around 4195, probably a little lower if you want to walk all over it. Hooray for drought!

In the Area:

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The Golden Spike has been replaced by a less dramatic yellow piece of wood

Since you have to pass it anyways, unless you come to the Jetty by canoe, you should stop and see the Golden Spike National Historic Site. This is a very important place in the history of America. This is where the Central Pacific Railroad coming from the west met up with the Union Pacific Railroad coming from the east, making a lot of ruthless assholes millionaires and connecting the country in the process. Well you can see the spot where a golden railroad spike was ceremoniously hammered in to connect the two railroads in 1869, a staggering achievement for the era. The trains no longer go through here as they changed up the route. At the site, there is a nice museum, with a short film, bathrooms and a gift shop.

“Creative Common Sun Tunnel” by Calvin Chu is licensed under CC by 2.0

About 120 miles west, located in a barren part of Utah’s remote landscape, is another major land art piece, the Sun Tunnels, created by Robert Smithson’s wife, Nancy Holt. The Sun Tunnels are comprised of 4 concrete tubes with holes strategically bored into the sides. They look very industrial to me, almost like something you would find in an industrial junkyard. However, they are reportedly very beautiful, the way light hits them and filters through the holes, mixed in with the isolated nature of their location are supposed to make for quite a remarkable experience. I never made it to the Sun Tunnels, but they are on my to see list. As remote as Spiral Jetty is, the Sun Tunnels are even more way out of the way, regardless of where you are headed you will never be near the Sun Tunnels. The Utah Museum of Fine Arts has some nice tips for visiting the Sun Tunnels here.

This photo was taken in April, when the Salt Flats are still just a murky salt swamp

Like Spiral Jetty the Tunnels are located several miles away from any official roads. The estimate I can gather they are around four hours from SLC and about 1.5- 2 hour drive from Wendover, UT, home of the Bonneville Salt Flats. The Salt Flats are where annually in the tail end of summer,  car enthusiasts and speed nerds gather to watch experimental cars race against the clock trying to set land speed records. This is supposed to be a ton of fun and a very cool experience (not including the fact that you spend the whole day totally exposed on a blindingly white salt desert during the height of the summer). There is a great Anthony Hopkins movie about the Bonneville time trials, called The World’s Fastest Indian.

Time to start your downward spiral into madness, or Utah.



In the News: Hamtramck Disneyland is for sale, cheap!


I spoke about Hamtramck Disneyland in a previous post here. Basically, it is a great and colorful art environment located in the alley of a working class neighborhood in Hamtramck, MI, next to Detroit. It was built by Dmytro Szylak, a Ukrainian immigrant and retired auto worker, who passed away in 2015 at the age of 92.

The site spans the backyard of two houses that Szylak owned. And now it is for sale and amazingly cheap. Each house is going for $60K, and you have to buy them both, so for just $120K you can own two houses and a beautiful part of Detroit’s folk culture. This is shocking to me since I live in a part of the country where houses START north of $400K for a dump and that does not get you an amazing idiosyncratic large art display; just a crummy house.

Check out these news stories here and here. The second story talks about the struggles to preserve it.

Here is the official listing with Coldwell Banker.

So get out your wallets, there are houses to buy!

This awesomeness could be yours!

This is the Other Place: Gilgal Sculpture Gardens


Not to beat a dead horse, over and over and over and over again, but I always say that  most art environments are either found in sticks, or if they are in a biggish city they are in skid row. The areas that condo developers and Burger King don’t want. That is why the story and perseverance of Gilgal Gardens is so remarkable, it is a visionary art environment, loaded with religious symbolism, tucked away in a neighborhood only a mile or two from downtown Salt Lake City and a few blocks from highly sought after mix-use space.

Gilgal Gardens, named after a stone garden found in the bible, was created between 1945 and 1963 by Thomas Battersby Child Jr. (1888-1963), in his back yard with some assistance from his son-in-law Bryant Higgs and sculptor Maurice Edmund Brooks. It was called by locals the Secret Garden for many years, and today, while no not secret anymore, is safely tucked away back from the sidewalk, easy to miss.

Joseph Sphinx

Child was a prominent member of the community, working as a contractor and stonemason and a bishop of the Mormon Church. This is an example of why the blanket term “outsider art environment” often doesn’t cut it. Child while very creative and perhaps a bit obsessive, but he was a total insider and prominent member of his community. This visionary garden was basically his retirement project. One of the things I love in general about art environments is how unique each one is. The overall craftsmanship at different sites ranges significantly. At many environments, while still amazing, the sculptures are pretty rough or rudimentary. That is why many of these sites are lumped under the category of “self taught” or “naive” artists. On the other hand, Child’s work at Gilgal, while unconventional, is very exacting. He used an acetylene torch to achieve these results and was able to create a tranquil garden with surreal and almost otherworldly sculptures.

The sculptures littering the garden stem mainly from Child’s imaginative interpretation of the bible and the Book of Mormon. The most famous piece, which looks like it escaped from the world’s greatest putt-putt course, is the above Joseph Smith face carved onto an Egyptian sphinx. The Sphinx represents mystery and the need for faith. The other pieces have amazing names and include Captain of The Lord’s Host (guy with rock head, as seen below), Daniel II: Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream and Elijah’s Cave. Besides the dozen or so statues are around 70 engraved rocks with inscriptions from various poems, books and other missives.

In the art environment world Gilgal Gardens is one of the greatest examples of a community rallying together to save an environment. After Child passed away in 1963, the site was purchased by a neighbor, Grant Fetzer and was not really touted as either a tourist attraction or public park. For the handful of people who knew this place even existed, called it the Secret Garden. But it was also a late-night teenager hangout who realized its potential as nice place to smoke grass and drink beer – they called it Stoner Park. You really can’t blame ’em, right? During this time It really wasn’t being well kept and over the decades it started becoming overgrown with weeds and suffering from vandalism.

Gilgal6In 1993, the current owner’s eight children took control of the property but did not have much interest in it. By 1997, one of the Fetzer children was attempting to sell the prime real estate to condominium developers. After many passionate ad hoc preservation grassroots campaigns organized and then imploded, the group the Friends of Gilgal Gardens (FOGG) was formed. FOGG consisted of professors, State representatives and others, including former potheads from the Stoner Park days. The Friends went into overdrive realizing that they had to raise money to purchase the property before the developers took control. They were able to collaborate with the Mormon Church, local government and a San Francisco based organization, the Trust for Public Land. FOGG was able to build up Gilgal Garden’s brand and the City of Salt Lake was interested in making it a public park. The process took over three years from plan inception to purchase, but FOGG, in collaboration with the city, the county, the Church and a trust group were finally able to turn the Gilgal Gardens into a public park. Because of their amazing efforts you can (and should) go see one of America’s most unique visionary environments.


The thing I love about Gilgal Gardens, besides its inherent the fact that the statues are so creative and beautiful, is it was the only place I saw (and I may be way off here) that readily appreciated the more unusual iconography and folklore from the Mormon religion.

Quick and probably spotty history lesson: The genesis of the church and of its founder Joseph Smith originated in the Burned-over District in New York. Central New York in the 1800s was filled with the Holy Ghost and everyone was caught up in ribald religious fervor. Revivals were the rage and people were either converting or starting their own church. 1800s New York was ripe with prophets. This, not Utah, is where Joseph Smith hatched his big Mormon egg in 1830. Other religions, or branches of religions started in the burned over district, including the Spiritualism movement (talking to ghosts, etc. there is still a town full of mediums in Central New York, named Lilly Dale that you can visit and have your fortune read), the Shakers, the 7 day Adventist, Jehovah’s witnesses and the Utopian society the Oneida Community. The Burned Over District is where the old, weird America met that old time religion.

Captain of the Lord’s Host

Off the top of my head, maybe outside of Puritan New England, I can’t  think of an American town of this size, whose roots are so squarely tied into a particular religion. I personally was really hoping that Salt Lake City had more of an arcane or magical vibe, filled with religious symbols. But it doesn’t, on the surface, SLC is totally squaresville. It is a clean, austere and very, very conventional. Expect to see a lot of smiling well groomed white people. Yet LDS doctrine is full of some, how do I say this without being a dick – unconventional folklore and rituals…. (OK, sidebar – I really don’t want to be disrespectful to anyone’s beliefs. All religions are full of supernatural stories. Think about the burning bush, people turning into salt, talking snakes, etc. These stories don’t seem crazy because they have the benefit of being thousands of years old and we are simply used to them. With that being said, the LDS church is less than 200 years old and their dogma is pretty far out when seen by us outsiders). You get the feeling that the mainstream Mormon elders really do not want to flaunt the more unusual parts of the Church. Even Temple Square, the big tourist attraction is very nice, but not at all mystical. In fairness, non Mormons, or “gentiles”, in the local vernacular, are not allowed inside the main temple, which may very well be a sorcerer’s lair, covered floor to ceiling  in hermetic images, forgotten alphabets and the petrified remains of Cthulhu. Well, actually the part about the forgotten alphabets is true. That makes Gilgal Gardens so spectacular, it is filled with large, wonderfully constructed, visionary statues. It is exactly what I wanted to see in Utah, all nicely preserved in a fantastic art environment.



Down the Rabbit Hole:

Utah filmmaker Trent Harris, who has made such offbeat cult classics like the Beaver Trilogy and the road-trip movie Rubin & Ed, both starring genius/ madman Crispin Glover, includes Gilgal Gardens in a few scenes in his movie Plan 10 From Outer Space. Plan 10 is a super low budget sci-fi, conspiracy movie where the hero is trying to discover the “secret of the bees.” The movie is filled with Mormon folklore and symbolism, as well as panty sniffing, aliens, secret clubs where everyone dresses up like martians and weird dance moves. Harris has a keen eye for all the oddness trapped under the thin veneer of Utah’s ultra-normalcy. He also wrote a quirky slim travel guide to his home state, called Mondo Utah. All his books and movies can be purchased at his website.

If you want to learn more about the LDS religion, I highly recommended two books. The newer of the two, Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer, is a fantastic read that covers many topics. Included in the book you will read about a murder, the formation and history of the LDS church (who no longer support polygamy), a deep dive into the folklore of the religion. A large focus of the story is on the offshoot polygamist cults like the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), who are no longer located in Salt Lake City. I can’t speak on whether the Mormon Church is happy with this book or not, it does appear to air the LDS’ dirty long-underwear in public. I loved this book, it is fascinating.

The other book, more gentle in tone, a bit older, but still interesting is Wallace Stegner’s  Mormon Country. Here Stegner has different essays about Mormon history and culture and explains things like the deseret alphabet and why the streets in SLC are so wide.

For a funny intro to the LDS church I recommend the hilarious and profane yet informative episode of South Park, entitled All About Mormons (season 7, episode 12). You can watch it on Hulu, or buy the DVDs or however, you watch old TV episodes.

Gilgal7How to Visit:

Gilgal Gardens is located at 749 E 500 S, Salt Lake City, UT. it is open to the public as a park daily, April – September 8 AM to 8 PM and October – March 9 AM to 5 PM (closed Christmas, New Years, Thanksgiving). Check out their website for more info. There is no admission charge; it is operated as a public park, so come wander about.

In the Area:

The Mormons notoriously don’t drink alcohol or coffee, nor smoke cigarettes, so instead they eat a fuck-ton of sweets. Which means there are some killer bakeries in the area.

I have two recommendations that you cannot ignore if you are in Salt Lake. First off, there is a cafe name Les Madeleines that makes a fancy European croissant type pastry called a Kouing Aman (pronounced queen a-mahn). Only a few of bakeries in the States even try to make these things purportedly they are a complete chore. Since having one in SLC I have tried a few here in the San Francisco Bay area and they pale in comparison. Whatever nonsense that goes into these things is well worth it, they are delicious.

Another place for sweets is Bruges Waffles and Frites, with two locations. They make killer Belgian waffles (with big bites full of special  Belgian sugar) and french fries. I thought their fries were fine, but their waffles are the best I have ever had.

Church History Museum

If you are in the area you might as well visit Temple Square, where you will find the world famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Mormon Temple.  Across the street from Temple Square is the Church History Museum, and regardless of your feelings about the church it is pretty interesting, with some cool objects.

To me there were two prevalent themes for the state of Utah, themes that dictated why the state is so unique – the first being religion, which I have already touched on and the other theme being geography. There is quite a bit to say on the subject of the Utah’s physical and salty makeup. I am going to break this blog post up into a two-parter.

Stay tuned, travel nerds. Coming soon, I am going to talk about a large outdoor sculpture that isn’t an art environment, but rather its fancy snootier cousin – land art.

Next time – see you in nine miles

Clearing the Way So Men Can Ride Around on Goats Without Being Hassled by their Wives: The Painted Forest

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Inside the Painted Forest

In the small rural community of Valton, WI (roughly 40 people) you will find one of the most fascinating and obscure relics of the old, weird America – The Painted Forest.

Overly long note on the term, “the old weird, America”, because I tend to throw it around a lot. Author and critic Greil Marcus coined the term in his book Invisible Republic, which was eventually rechristened the Old, Weird America in later printings. The book is about how Bob Dylan channeled the spirit of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, while recording what would become the Basement Tape sessions. Smith’s vinyl anthology is a collection of old country, bluegrass, blues and other music for uplifting gormandizers. It includes folk music from Smith’s collection that captures life in the early 1900s America. This was the era of barnstorming baseball teams, freak shows, dime museums, the dust-bowl, rail riding hobos, the three card monte, tent revivals and medicine shows. And for the sake of this blog post, it was the heyday of the fraternal organization (aka secret societies). And not to be too gleeful and nostalgic, the old weird America was also a time overwhelming racism, sexism, xenophobia, poverty, disease and ignorance (but let’s just think of the good stranger parts).

Anyways, I am a sucker for almost any book, movie or CD that carries the term, “old, weird America” in the tagline, advertising or reviews. I love Old, I love weird and I love Americana. How can you go wrong? But I will admit, the term is pretty unfair to the time period, it wasn’t old or weird at the time, it was just America. It is only old and weird in retrospect, because it is obscure now. Most the topics the balladeers in Harry Smith’s anthology squawked about have completely faded in memory, other things still exist, but in a mutated form, i.e. the three card monte becomes internet scams against the elderly, and the freak show becomes reality TV. it is a loaded term, probably overused and not fair to history, but I love it nonetheless and will continue to use it and will happily buy any media you create if you put it in the title (just send me an email and I will give you my money). Digression over.

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This inconspicuous building in the middle of nowhere houses one of America’s strangest and most esoteric murals

Back to the subjects at hand, the Painted Forest, the artist Ernest Hupeden and the secret society/ fraternal organization the Modern Woodmen of America.

Ernest Hupeden (1858-1911) was a German immigrant who moved to America in 1878. He was a transient and it is unclear why or how he ended up in a small rural village in central Wisconsin. He would travel around and paint paintings for people in exchange for money or alcohol. He painted small portraits on glass bottle, pie tins, and other odds and ends, but his grandest creation was undoubtedly the panoramic mural he painted between 1898 and 1901, that has since been dubbed The Painted Forest. This was commissioned by the Valton chapter of the Modern Woodmen of America (MWA), and over a century later still covers the walls of their long abandoned meeting hall.

Nowadays, the MWA are a life insurance company, but they began their life as a fraternal organization. The name Modern Woodman did not derive from the originators being woodmen, but it is more symbolic meaning they are clearing the forest for society members to build homes, communities and achieve security (through insurance). Like other secret societies of the day, it was a place for men to get together, probably drink, smoke, talk about boobs, plan charitable events, make business contacts and due to the collective power of their members, secure life insurance for all the members. Membership in fraternal orders has dwindled considerably since the late 1800s/ early 1900s, when roughly 20-40 percent of American males were members of some or multiple orders. Other popular societies with great names include the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the Odd Fellows, the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine -aka the Shriners, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Pilgrim Knights of Oriental Splendor. Heck, even Fred Flinstone was a member of a secret society – the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes.

Valton’s MWA camp commissioned Hupeden first to do a battle scene above their stage, reportedly paying him in room and board. They then had him paint a giant floor to ceiling panoramic story that covers the whole of the interior, which he finished in 1901. What Hupeden painted is a remarkable and slightly eerie tale starting with a man riding a goat (which represents an initiation ritual), injured and alone in the forest, who survives through thick and thin with the help of the Modern Woodmen (to simplify the story). Parts of the painting are strange, including a future look at what they assumed might become of Valton, including a bustling downtown. There absolutely is no bustling part of Valton, population of less than 50 people with at best a bustling growing Amish population. There are other scenes, some strange and esoteric and others grisly, including a scene of MWA members being burned at the stake. Hupeden passed away in 1911, found frozen in the snow, ten years after finishing his masterpiece.

This building and the reason we get to enjoy its mysteries today is due to the preservation efforts of the Kohler Foundation. Decades passed between the time it was a MWA lodge and it was saved by the Kohler Foundation in the early 1980s. During the time in between it was used as a community center yet all that time the Valtonians never thought to have the walls painted over.

painted forest 4
A hoodwink

But wait, there’s more, and things get even stranger. They also exhibit some amazing objects from the MWA and secret society antiques and costumes, including some offbeat “side-degree” initiation apparatuses. Besides the things I talked about that these secret societies like to do, like providing insurance and drinking beer, they liked to pull pranks on initiates. They had formal and proper rituals, so the initiate could reach a new degree (think Grand Poobah), but for fun they also performed pseudo initiation rituals, for what were called “side-degrees” – not official degree rankings. One of the most famous side-degree initiation rituals was goat riding. See the picture up above of the goat on three wheels, well the initiate would hop up on the goat blindfolded (wearing what was called a “hoodwink”, which is why now to be “hoodwinked”, means to be tricked). The other members would tool him about the lodge till he fell off and presumably everyone would laugh at him. Other side degree initiation rituals include a breath test, where the initiate/ sucker would blow into an apparatus to test the strength of their lungs, which would then shoot flour into the blower’s face.

The Painted Forest is a remarkable piece of vernacular art from the turn of the 20th century. The Kohler Foundation ultimately gifted the site to Edgewood College, who look after it to this day. I absolutely loved visiting the Painted Forest; it is a preserved peek into a very mysterious part of America’s past. Hupeden’s artwork and the subject matter are so fascinating. There really is nothing else like it anymore. Although, it has limited hours (see below), it really is worth going out of your way to check out.

Start riding!

painted forest 5

Going down the Rabbit Hole:

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Cabinet of fraternal curiosities

There are a couple of books I recommend if you desire to take a deeper dive into the strange world of old, weird, fraternal organizations. First off, there is a beautiful new (late 2015) coffee table book concerned with the art and relics of secret societies from the early parts of the 20th century, called As Above, So Below. It is filled with great photos and a great history lesson.

The other two books are about the ridiculous hazing apparatuses, like the ride-able goat, many of which were created by an Illinois based company – DeMoulin Bros. The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions and Catalog 439: Burlesque Paraphernalia and Side Degree Specialties and Costumes. They are both fun, strange reads. Catalog 439 actually reprints a full DeMoulin Brother’s catalog from 1930, that is just chock full of crazy side degree pranks and games, including lots of things that either explode or send an electric shock to the newbie.

If you want to see DeMoulin Bros Side degree objects in person you either have to either befriend David Copperfield, who apparently has a sizable collection of their goods hidden from the public in his magic fortress, or visit the DeMoulin Museum, in southern Illinois. The museum is about an hour drive from St. Louis, MO. DeMoulin Bros are no longer in the secret society business, they now make marching band costumes. If you are in Texas, check out the Webb Gallery, in Waxahachie, a little over 30 minutes south of Dallas. The book I mentioned previously, As Above, So Below, is based around Bruce and Julie Webbs, the gallery owner’s fascinating collection.

How to Visit:

The Painted Forest is located Valton, WI at the intersection of 6th St and Painted Forest Dr. It is a tiny community and you will have no problem locating the MWA building once in Valton. It is about a 45-minute drive west of the Wisconsin Dells and 1.5 hour drive northwest from Madison, WI. Unlike the other members of the Wandering Wisconsin art environment trail, which are open daily, visiting times are limited. It is open on Saturdays between Labor Day and Memorial Day, between 1:00-4:00. Outside of these limited hours, Edgewood College, the site’s caretakers, can at times open up the Painted Forest by appointment. Check out their website for contact information.

In the Area:

This is rural farm country, but there are some amazing places within an hour or so drive.

First off, the Wisconsin Dells, 45 minutes due east, is an old school tourist mecca, replete with natural wonders and several water parks. In the general Dells area there are two prime examples of a Wisconsin dining tradition – the Supper Club. Supper Clubs are slightly upscale restaurants and bars that are as the name implies only open for dinner. They are known for their steaks, seafood and an only in Wisconsin drink, the brandy old fashioned. Like fraternal organizations I think the brandy old fashioned is mostly enjoyed these days by old timers but they are actually pretty decent. Ishnala, is a supper club located in a state park on the edge of a lake. It has amazing scenery. Del-Bar, the more urban of the two, located on a busy stretch of road in the Dells, was designed in the early 1940s by a protege of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and is built in the prairie style. Both have good food and a great atmosphere.

Forevertron 1
The Forevertron

Just south of the Wisconsin Dells is where you will find the Forevertron, one of my very favorite art environments. I realize that I overuse terms like “amazing” and “inspirational”, but the Forevertron, built from the scraps of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi wasteland, is one of the most amazing, inspirational art environments in this whole dumb world. Simply, it makes me happy to be alive.

Power on!


The Case of the Blemished Boulders: Samuelson’s Rocks


John Samuleson was a Swedish immigrant, a miner, a homesteader, a murderer and the inspiration of a totally over the top fantasy story. Also, and the reason I am writing about him, he built one of the oldest surviving art environments in this country.

Before Twitter and Facebook, if you had something to say you had to chisel it into giant boulders located in the far reaches of the desert where only a small handful of people would ever see them.  Starting in 1927, while working at a gold mine and homesteading in a desolate area of the Mojave Desert, Samuelson started scrawling his thoughts into the giant boulders next to his camp site. During the midst of the depression he was chiseling his feelings about morality, religion and the major capitalists of the era, like Andrew Mellon, into hard stone. He was admittedly embarrassed about his poor grammar and spelling skills, but this was decades before thousands of strangers on the internet could mock him in the comments section.

But the question is – how did Samuelson, a sailor and Swedish immigrant, end up in the California desert digging for gold anyways?


The answer may surprise you. For you see, he had the “sleeping sickness”, that would come on any time it rained, knocking him out for days on end. So he figured since it rains less frequently in the desert he should make his way west.

OK, but how did he get this sleeping sickness?

Well after being shanghaied out to sea, he escaped his captors and ended up on the shores of Africa, where he was captured by a tribe that spoke to monkeys and even had a bona fide monkey-man among its members. From here the story gets crazier and includes a ledge made of gold that was guarded by intelligent killer ants. To make a long story short, Samuelson was able to gain the ant’s trust, and was about to pilfer lots of gold as well as the tribe chief’s daughter. But after some trials and tribulations and pissing off the elders, he was forced to eat the “bread of forgetting” – which did not fully erase the jungle escapades from his memory, but was the cause of his sleeping sickness whenever it rained.

Now how do I know this? Well because an L.A. based lawyer and avid desert comber purchased the rights to his story for $20 (the part with the monkey man/ killer ants/ bread of forgetting), turned it into a so so pulp adventure and sold it to Argosy magazine, a major pulp fiction magazine, for a few hundred bucks. And that author was Erle Stanley Gardner, friend of crossword editors all over the land, who would go on to write the crazy popular Perry Mason books, which were turned into the hit show starring Raymond Burr about a crusading lawyer who would take complex cases and solve crimes in the middle of a trial.

Gardner met Samuelson while he was on one of his desert jaunts in the Mojave. At first Gardner didn’t believe Samuelson’s fakakta story and feared that it was something Samuelson had himself read in some paltry adventure rag. After the story was published he figured that the sci-fi geeks of the 1920s would read his story and call him on it, pointing out that he ripped off some other story. But nope, Samuelson’s story was never contradicted.

Samuelson’s Bed

Decades later in the 1940s, after Gardner struck it filthy rich from his Perry Mason books, Samuelson murdered a man in Compton after an argument. He then went straight outta Compton and straight into the hoosegow. After a spell in prison and an insane asylum he ended up in Washington state where he died in 1954 at a lumber camp.

While maybe not the most thrilling site artistically, it is just a bunch of rocks with one man’s ramblings etched into them, it is  historically interesting as it is a great look into the mind of a desert vagabond and the populist political spectrum of the 1920s. It is also a blast finding them. More than almost every other place I meander on about, it gives you the feeling of discovery, that Indiana Jones aha moment (if all Indy had to deal with was a one mile hike over flat ground in a beautifully preserved and protected National Park). It should be pretty obvious by now that I don’t go out into nature much.

Wake up you tax and bond slaves and visit beautiful, sunny California

For more information on Samuelson’s Rocks I highly recommend this blog post by Phil Pasquini.

Also, I really enjoyed Erle Stanley Gardener’s desert writings and his Perry Mason books are quick fun reads. You can pick up used copies of his travel essays, including the one about Samuelson, in the book Neighborhood Frontiers. The short story that Samuelson’s story inspired, Rain Magic, can be found in several compilations. I found a really cheap copy of it in Alien Earth and Other Stories, which includes stories by Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov.

How to visit:

Samuelson's Rocks
Samuelson’s Rocks up ahead

Samuelson’s Rocks are located inside Joshua Tree National Park. The park is always open. Admission is currently $20 for the whole carload, so pack ’em in, clowns. The park is about two hours east of Los Angeles, two and a half hours northeast of San Diego and 45 minutes north of Palm Springs.

Odds are pretty amazingly high that you won’t just stumble upon the Rocks, the park is huge. Directions provided at your risk. They are sort of tricky to find as there are no signs pointing the way.

The short version directions: drive into the park for a bit , keep your eye out for a Joshua Tree standing next to a handful of small rock outcroppings and a lot of sand and dirt and then get out of your car and wander into the desert. Fun fact – According to the park’s website, Joshua Tree is home to 25 varieties of snakes.

If you plan to visit please be careful, the desert heat can often get well over 100 degrees. Getting lost or being unprepared could mean injury or death! Bring lots and lots of water, maybe bring a GPS. Check out Joshua Tree’s website for other safety considerations.

Here is the slightly more comprehensive version: If you want the shortest possible hike, from the northwest entrance gate, you drive almost exactly 3.5 miles down Park Boulevard from the entrance gate where you pay. Set your odometer (The GPS coordinates for the pull off are 34.06116, -116.22692). Pull off to the side of the road. Look to your right, you will roughly see a giant pile of rocks over a mile southwest of where you are standing.  The good thing about pulling off over here is that there is a slight trail towards Samuelson’s Rocks that you can follow.

From here you start hoofing it over pretty flat ground for about 1.3 miles. The slight trail will take you  half way to a wash, here the trail veers off, but you will be able to clearly see a giant mound of rocks about 3/4 mile further to the southwest. Once you get close you will see writing chiseled into one of the larger rocks. The GPS coordinates for Samuelson’s Rocks are 34.04722, -116.2425. If you hit the mountains you have gone too far. For a slightly longer walk you can drive to the Quail Springs Picnic Area, which is an official turnout about six miles from the west entrance gate, from here you wander about 2.5 miles northwest. I have included a map at the bottom of this post.

Once you find the mound, the journey is not over as there are eight chiseled rocks to find, most are easy, but a few are trickier to find, they are all on the same little rocky hill. Finding them all is part of the fun. I have intentionally only put up a few photos of the rocks so you can discover them for yourself.

In the Area:

Well for one thing you are smack dab in an absolutely amazing National Park. You might as well explore/ hike/ rock climb/ fight mountain lions/ picnic.

There is a ton of great stuff to see outside of the park in Joshua Tree (the town) and Yucca Valley.

There are the other art environments I previously talked about on the California Desert Art Environment Trail. The closest being Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Museum, which is in the town of Joshua Tree, about 10 miles from the park entrance. Contact the foundation that cares for the environment here, they will gladly email you the address.

Also, Desert Christ Park, in the town of Yucca Valley, is only about 11 miles from the Park entrance.


From Desert Christ Park drive about 5 miles further west into the mountains where you will find Pioneertown; a small town front that was actually built to be a backdrop in old westerns movies. The western facade hides an actual real working town. During the day there are small quaint shops. But at night the only thing really going is Pappy and Harriett’s. It’s a large, really popular roadhouse, that has live music throughout the week and pretty decent food. It is amazing for people watching – you get bikers (Harley not Schwinn), hippies, desert outcasts, L.A. hipsters and confused tourists. For such an odd, large out of the way place it does get really packed, so call ahead for reservations.

Sky Valley Swap Meet

The Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, 29 Palms area is pretty strange and remarkable place. Luckily for us there is the High Desert Test Sites, a very cool group of desert artists who have mapped a lot of the weird and strange places, stores (including an amazing weekend swap meet). If you are going to be in the area I recommend checking out their website for other points of interest.

I really am just scratching the surface of the interesting things to see in this area but I fear this post is already getting too long. Hopefully, in another post I will mention the Integratron and Giant Rock, in nearby Landers, CA.

Go get yourself new hiking boots!

Map to Samuelson’s Rocks

California environment map