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:

golden spike
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!