This is the Other Place: Gilgal Sculpture Gardens

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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Next time – see you in nine miles
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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.

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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!

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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.

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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

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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?

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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 almost 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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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.

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Pioneertown

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

 

 

 

In the News: Graceland Too has been rescued

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Graceland Too, September 2013 – The middle of a new paint job

Here is a very cool news story, one I didn’t expect. In Holly Springs, MS about an hour from Memphis, TN, the legendary home of Graceland One, was a very unique tourist attraction dubbed Graceland Too. This was the home of Paul MacLeod, who sadly passed away in 2014.

In a nutshell – among obsessive Elvis fans, MacLeod may have been the most obsessed. He turned his humble abode into a shrine to the King’s castle, Graceland. The house mirrored Graceland on the outside and was filled, hoarder style, with Elvis memorabilia on the inside. And it was one of America’s most amazing and bizarre tourist attraction. MacLeod gave tours 24/7, literally you could bang on his door at four in the morning and he would get up (fueled by power naps and coca cola) and give you a tour for a measly $5. Holly Springs, MS is not too far from Ole Miss University, so drunk/ stoned college kids would show up at all times and MacLeod was happy to oblige.

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MacLeod singing for us to kick off the tour – September 2013

Wifey and I were lucky enough to take the tour in the fall of 2013. MacLeod walked around his house pointing out the insane amount of Presley related ephemera, all the while poking me really hard in the chest, telling Elvis stories, answering Elvis questions and telling us how much his collection was worth.

After he passed away of natural causes (only a few days after he shot a man in his house, a strange story in and of itself), his collection was auctioned off.  Well at this point it would have been safe to assume that the Graceland Too experience was over. Paul was Graceland Too.

But, and this is really cool news, his house went up for auction and was purchased by the non-profit The Friends of Graceland Too, for $5,500. It seems they have plans to save MacLeod’s legacy and return the house to being an attraction. I really hope they are able to recapture some of the magic. It will be hard, because MacLeod was the main event; the Elvis paraphernalia and the house were just the arena in which he could do his stuff.

So check out the article here.

I will try to keep you up to date on when Graceland Too is back up for business.

 

 

In the News: Bottle Village needs your help

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Bottle Village – July 2014

As a feature of this blog I have decided I will start posting shorter art environment related news items.

Hear ye hear ye, – Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village in Simi Valley, just outside of Los Angeles needs money. Preserve Bottle Village, the organization that now cares for the site has started a GoFundMe campaign. Bottle Village is a very significant site for several reasons. First, is that it is one of the few art environments built by a woman, Terresa “Grandma” Prisbrey (1896 – 1988). The site was pretty beat up by the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Bottle Village was eligible for a FEMA grant to help with repairs, but a local politician denied them the funds calling it a waste of tax payers money. Many politicians vastly underestimate the tourism potential that art environments bring to a community and they completely ignore a site’s historical and cultural significance to the area.

Well Bottle Village has set up a GoFundMe campaign to help stabilize the bottle houses that Prisbrey built. This is really great project and they seem to be making some nice progress. So spread the word and if you have a few spare shekels weighing you down consider contributing to Bottle Village and helping to preserve a great and important undervalued piece of Americana.

Click here to go to the GoFundMe campaign

Also, Bottle Village is open to the public a handful of times a year for tours. Check out their website HERE. They usually post upcoming tours several weeks, or months in advance.

If you have news about an art environment, whether it is being repaired, being torn down, needs savings, needs money, is now closed to the public, is now open to the public, etc, please let me know. If there is a site I missed on my big MAP, or I have incorrect or missing info, please let me know.

It’s not a Mirage: The California Desert Art Environment Trail

It is time to start talking about California. The Golden State has a lot of documented art environments, over 20 all told. Probably more than any other state. The vast majority of these places are located in the southern part of the state, which sucks for me, because I live in the northern part. There are a handful of terrific sites in the greater Los Angeles area, but the rest are found east of the city in the desert. Or deserts, plural, including the Mojave (high desert) and Sonoran/ Colorado desert (low desert) and the small towns scattered throughout. Basically, the eastern half of California is mostly either mountains, military bases, mines or meth-labs. In between is mostly a lot of nothing except rattlesnakes and scorpions duking it out in the empty night; meaning a lot of land for people to build whatever strikes their fancy without their neighbors kvetching.

The summers in the desert are brutal, with most days over 100 degrees. The nights not much better. It takes a certain ruggedness to live in these areas (except for perhaps Palm Springs, which is a beautiful resort town with amazing architecture and lots of swimming pools). This area is fan-fuckin’-tastic! I absolutely love this part of the country. I would move here in a heartbeat if we could just dim the Sun a bit in the summer (I am a giant baby when it comes to weather). For as barren as the desert is, it is all that much more spectacular, as the ratio of coolness and weirdness is off the charts.

So, the California desert art environment trail is roughly 250 miles and you could probably comfortably hit all nine spots in a long two to three day weekend. San Diego, Los Angeles, or Palm Springs all make great launching pads. But for the ultimate experience I say shack up in the city of Joshua Tree. There is so much to see and do in the area beyond these nine art environments that that it is probably best to just move out here, buy a yurt and slowly take it all in. Eventually, I will have longer posts to go into more detail about the sites and all the other cool non-art environments in the neighborhood, but for now, here is a little overview.

Starting from the north and heading south.

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Elmer’s Bottle Ranch – 24266 National Trails Hwy, Oro Grande, CA

Elmer Long built his bottle tree ranch to showcase the 1000s of bottles that he and his dad had collected for years. This site is located along the Mother Road – Route 66, between Victorville and Barstow. Bottle Trees are long metal poles with shafts sticking out, with a beer or soda pop bottle resting on the metal branch. I initially was not all that excited to visit the ranch as I have seen bottle trees before, but man-o-manoshevitz, this place is great. There are a few hundred bottle trees, creating a dense glass forest. There are no set hours and from what I have read, it is open if the gate is open, but I get the impression it is open pretty regularly. There is a donation box.

CAdesert3Noah Purifoy’s Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum – Joshua Tree, CA (email the foundation for the exact address)

In the late 1980s Noah Purifoy (1917-2004), moved to the town of Joshua Tree in the high desert to create his masterpiece. Purifoy would not fall into the “self-taught” category. He was a working artist, who had exhibited his assemblage artworks at museums and was actually a founding director at the Watts Tower Art Center in Los Angeles, making him no stranger to art environments. His museum covers several acres and is chock full of various sculptures made from found materials either from around the area or brought to him by visitors. This is a great site. It is open 24/7, but the foundation that cares for the site does ask that you make an appointment. Check out their website and shoot them a quick email and they will send you the exact address.

CAdesert91Desert Christ Park – 56200 Sunnyslope Drive, Yucca Valley, CA

Next to a church, the sculptures, as the name implies, are all biblical. Frank Antone Martin created them in the 1950s. Created from concrete and steel, covering various scenes from the good book, this site is open daily from dawn to dusk and is only about a 20-minute drive from Noah Purifoy’s museum. These two sites and Samuelson’s rocks are in the same general area, the high desert. Check out their website here.

CAdesert96Samuelson’s Rocks – Located in Joshua Tree National Park

John Samuelson, a Swedish immigrant, lived and worked in the desert in the 1920s  in what is now Joshua Tree National Park. Samuelson carved his political/ philosophical ramblings on eight boulders around his homestead, which at the time was in the middle of nowheresville. This place is a true joy to visit, first off, it is a about 1.5 miles off any roads in the park so you have to hoof it (over pretty flat ground, but nonetheless). Then you find a little hill covered in boulders (if you don’t get lost and fall in quicksand first) and then you have to wander around looking for all eight carved rocks. I am typically not the outdoorsy type, but I absolutely love Joshua Tree Park. The Park is open 24/7. The rocks are a bit tricky to find. Bring lots of water, a compass, and some chupacabra repellent.

Next week I plan to write a longer entry about Samuelson’s Rocks and will include directions, so please be patient.

CAdesert93Cabot’s Pueblo – 67616 Desert View Ave, Desert Hot Springs, CA

From Samuelson’s Rocks, you head south into the low desert (or “down below” as residents of Joshua Tree/ Yucca Valley call it). Here, in Desert Hot Springs, just north of Palm Springs, Cabot Yerxa, staring in 1941, built his home in the manner of a Hopi-inspired pueblo. One thing, which I will jaw on about in a future post, is a that a lot of early folk art environment academia (which basically started in the late 1960s) dealt with art environments that were actually unique homes, hand-built built by a single person. I think the days of the folk art architect are over. Building codes are just too strict and you can’t really get away with just constructing a house whatever way you see fit. Almost all the art environments built in the later part of the 20th century up to now are typically sculptures crafted outside the house. Sometimes rooms are gussied up, but I think the days of an untrained builder with no blueprints creating their personal domicile are over. Cabot’s Pueblo is open to the public for tours, check out their website for hours.

CAdesert97Robolights – 1077 E Granvia Valmonte, Palm Springs, CA

Located in an affluent neighborhood in Palm Springs, Kenny Irwin now in his early 40s has been building amazing robots in his parent’s yard for decades – since he was a kid. What is most shocking about Irwin’s art is its location. Most art environments are found in the boonies, or if they are in a city, they are usually in more impoverished neighborhoods. Irwin’s yard is in a really nice part of town, only a block from what was once Frank Sinatra’s desert retreat/orgy pit.

This is a true fantasy world. Walking into his yard you are surrounded by giant monochromatic robots and assorted space creatures cohabitating peacefully in a winter/ Christmas themed universe. This place is awesome, fascinating, chaotic, totally unreal and unexpected!

Annually, Irwin opens his yard evenings around Christmas time for a holiday themed robot lightshow, thus the name Robolights, open during the Christmas season. Also, you can visit the site throughout the year with an appointment by calling 760-320-1500. When I texted him he replied the same day inviting me over. He does ask for a meager $5 donation to help with upkeep. As always, be respectful this is private property.

Update: July 2016, Kenny is having major issues with the city of Palm Springs and currently they are not allowing him to have visitors and the annual Robolights show may stalled out. The best source of info seems to be his Facebook page, which you can reach here. So check out his site before rushing over there.

CAdesert7Galetta Meadows- Sculptures by Ricardo Breceda – Located throughout Borego Springs, CA

Sculptor Ricardo Breceda was commissioned by Galetta Meadow’s landowners to create these pieces and thus to me it does not exactly conform to the art environment definition. However, other people do list this site alongside other art environments, so who am I to argue. There are over 130 sculptures littering the sand over a rough 10-mile area. This is another great one folks, (I fear that I am being overly gushy in this post, but seriously half of these desert sites are my among my absolute favorite art environments/ places in this world). The town of Borrego Springs is completely surrounded by Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. An attraction does not have to be remote to be cool, but it helps and it is pretty awesome to drive for miles through the desert void to then stumble across a metal zoo. Once you get here be prepared to be amazed. Breceda’s statues are mostly of critters that you can find in the desert today (horses, scorpions), or critters from desert days past (dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, dragons).

There is a map on the official website, showing the location of all the sculptures. You can also purchase guides and maps in town, or on Amazon.com before you hop on your pack mule. Most of the pieces are found off Borrego Springs road.

CAdesert2Salvation Mountain – Niland CA

Salvation Mountain is perhaps one of the most famous of America’s art environments and it is easily the most crowded one I have ever visited. The acclaim is deserved; it is one of the world’s greatest visionary art environments.  Leonard Knight (1931-2014), literally built a rainbow mountain out of hay, adobe and thousands upon thousands of gallons of paint in no-man’s land, not far from the Salton Sea (a very strange part of the country). It is unique, upbeat and positive. While it is overwhelmingly Christian, with a large cross and the words, “God is Love” emblazoned on the mountain, Knight was non-denominational in his beliefs. No dogma. Churches and other religious groups had tried to buy or co-opt the site and Knight always turned them down, as he felt that the site is his own personal beliefs and is meant to be viewed, shared and enjoyed by everyone. Knight passed away in 2014 and now volunteers and a non-profit organization have kept the thing going against all odds. It is free to visit, but donations are appreciated. Open daily, from dawn to dusk.

CAdesert99Desert View Tower and Boulder Park – In-Ko-Pah Rd, Jacumba, CA

Here you get a twofer. First, a classic tourist attraction/ rest stop, the Tower, built between 1922 and 1928 developed by Bert Vaughn, built along the interstate route between San Diego and Phoenix, AZ. The Tower is an old school attraction and gift shop where the selling point is the amazing view from the top. And next to that is an art environment, the Boulder Park, which was built in 1933 by an itinerant out of work engineer named Merle Ratliff, who carved several of the boulders to look like animals and skulls. You pay your admission at the Tower and then you can go scrambling about through Boulders. There is a small charge, but it is well worth it. The Tower is open most days, but I recommend calling (619) 766-4612 to confirm they will be open.

So take care, polar bears. Time to get some sun.

Prepping for the Rapture: Prophet Isaiah Robertson’s house

New York is a really big state. A few weeks ago I blogged about several sites along the Hudson River in the southeast corner of the state, so for no really good reason this week I have decided to yap about a really colorful site, with a really interesting mythology, in the northwest corner of the state – Prophet Isaiah Roberston’s house.

Prophet 1

Prophet Isaiah Robertson was born in Jamaica and after living in Canada moved to Niagara Falls, NY in 2004. A few years later he started building a true “visionary” art environment surrounding the exterior of his humble abode. In interviews Robertson, a self-trained artist, has said that this environment is the work of god and not of man, and that prophecy guided his hand. As you can see from the photos, the site is very colorfully painted and includes some really terrific and intricate woodwork. Prophet 2

What at first, looks simply like a rainbow of painted crosses, opens up into a myriad world of symbolism. Wifey and I were taking photos and talking to the Prophet’s neighbors, who happened to love the site, when Robertson drove up in his big black pickup truck. He was extremely friendly and gave us a little background on the site and also went into depth explaining the symbols that he crafted into his house’s vivid facade. There are, as to be expected a lot of crosses, but also identifiable iconography from other religions besides Christianity, including Stars of David and Islamic symbols.

In a video interview, Robertson points to his house and says, “So everything here my brother is a reading of the old testament prophecy and the new testament prophesy.” And it is all in there, from the seven seals, to the Ark of the Covenant to the crucifixion. For a self-trained artist, who is motivated by vision to create, he has crafted a site rich in conceptual metaphors.

Educator, photographer and fellow folk art environment enthusiast Fred Scruton has done an amazing job of documenting the Prophet’s site over the years and all the symbols. Please check out his website, for a really detailed and thorough overview of the place.

Prophet 3Robertson is the first “prophet” I have ever met and this title stems from a fascinating and dense mythology (prophecy) that he has weaved through his environment. He foretells that during the end times, all souls will pass his house on their way to the Falls, which will be turned into a pit of fire. Here , your soul will be judged. On Goat Island, a small island on the American side of the Falls and part of the State Park, god will separate the sheep (baaaa) – the followers, from the goats – the rest of us. The goats will be tossed into the burning pit (booooo). Although he figuratively spouts fire and brimstone while touring the house, he does it in a friendly, matter of fact way. I would probably fall into the goat category, yet at no time did I feel unwelcome, or uncomfortable. Just the opposite, Robertson was kind, welcoming and very pleased at being able to share his artistic creation, his prophesy and his ideology.

Prophet 7
The cross that all souls will go by during Ragnarok

Of note, Robertson prophesized that the end of the world was going to take place in 2014… Woopsie. But just in case he is on to something, I recommend visiting his house while Niagara Falls is still a beautiful series of waterfalls and not waiting till Armageddon, when your soul will fly by the site on its way to judgement. At that point, you will probably be too preoccupied to take nice photos. This is a good one folks, it has really beautiful craftsmanship and a great story, so don’t skip it.

Prophet 4
If it’s good enough for this guy, it is good enough for me

How to visit:

The Prophet’s house is located at 1308 Ontario Ave., Niagara Falls, NY. The environment is completely viewable from the sidewalk. Prophet Isaiah does enjoy sharing his stories and his art with people so feel free to knock and see if he is around. As always, this is private property so be respectful.

Niagara Falls is about thirty minutes from Buffalo and an hour and a half drive from Toronto, Canada. It is about four hours from Detroit, MI (you have to drive through Canada) and is actually farther, over six hours, from New York City.

In the Area:

There is a giant waterfall about three miles down the road.

While in no way is the waterfall a lost wonder, or the type of place I babble on about on this site, it is rather magnificent. There is city of Niagara Falls in Canada and another in USA, divided by their namesake Falls. It is funny, because Americans are typically known for being gaudy, obnoxious and loud and the Canadians are shy, pleasant, every day people who live in harmony with moose and bear. But at Niagara Falls the script is flipped and the Canadian side is a big flashy tourist trap and the American side is a well groomed, understated state park. That’s right Canada, SHOVE IT UP YOUR DUMB MAPLE LOVING BUTTS. America has out-pleasanted you!

On the American side –

I recommend checking out the state park. Both the Maid of the Mist boat tour, where you wear a cheap raincoat and go almost under the large Horseshoe Falls and the Cave of the Winds, where you walk along a set of wood stairs almost directly under the American Falls, are fantastic. The namesake cave is long gone, but Wooden Stairs of the Wind does not sound as cool. Both have been tourist attractions for over a century and both give you free rain ponchos (a rare treat for poncho collectors).

Niagara 2
Cave of the Winds

On the Canadian Side-

They also have the same boat trip under the falls, but it is operated by a different company. While they do not have Cave of the Winds, they have a similar attraction named Journey Behind the Falls.

The attractions at the Falls (either side) are about as touristy as you can get without there being a giant Mouse strolling about, but don’t let that deter you, this is a pretty amazing area. You’re not too cool to enjoy a giant perma-rainbowed roaring waterfall, are you?

On the Canadian side there is an area called Clifton Hill – several square blocks of wax museums, fun houses and Tim Horton’s doughnut shops. This is the area that really gives the Canada side the bad rep as being Americanish. But wax museums are cool by me, so check the area out. A little museum history: before museums got into actually trying to be educational collecting institutions many were what were called “dime museums.” These dime museums were composed of freak-shows, cabinets of curiosities, wax museums and also they put on simplistic morality plays (about subjects like the dangers of alcohol and women getting the vote). I see wax museums as a link to the old, weird America (even when in Canada). Sadly, many of Clifton Hill’s wax museums have gone out of business in the last decade. Support your local wax museum.

Niagara 1
Daredevil Exhibit

People for years have been making containers, getting in them and going over the side of the falls. Some die, others get a modicum of fame that is worthless in this internet era. You can see a handful of these crafts at the Niagara Daredevil Exhibit. Although small, I highly recommended this place for fans of spectacle.

Buffalo –

Niagara Falls is only twenty to thirty minutes away from Buffalo, NY, which is a pretty rust belt city with some cool things to do. Having grown up in the Detroit area, I can really appreciate a city like Buffalo. This is a city that was once a major industrial boomtown that went to seed and is now slowly going through a rebuilding phase.

As far as attractions go, they have a history museum, car museum, an art museum and a nice Frank Lloyd Wright house, but there are two stops I highly recommend.

First off, City Hall in downtown Buffalo is a beautiful art deco building (I am a sucker for art deco, so you may have to endure me yapping about it from time to time). Guided one-hour tours are available every weekday at noon.

Also, I am a sucker for World’s Fair and Buffalo had a big exposition (fancy way of Niagara 4saying World’s Fair) in 1901. In fact President McKinley was assassinated at the fair by an anarchist (which I was surprised to learn was not a punk rock kid from the mid 1980’s who wore combat boots, listened to the Exploited and drew scratchy letter A’s in their trapper-keepers). The Buffalo History Museum has a nice exhibit about the expo, they even display the gun that was used to shoot the president. But, and here’s the catch, the exhibit is not located in the normal museum, it is located a mile away in their Resource Center. You have to make an appointment to view the exhibit, but people work there during normal business hours, so just give them a call a few days, to a week ahead.

Niagara 3
Anchor Bar

Buffalo is a killer regional food/ road food stop. Their main claim to fame is their Buffalo wings, which were invented at the Anchor Bar. While it may be a tourist trap the wings at the Anchor Bar were great and there is a ton of history. There are bunch of other places known for their Buffalo Wings in town, one of the more popular is Duffs. True Buffaloeans (is that right?) also love their grilled hot dogs at Ted’s, and an item I am partial too, a sandwich called beef on weck. Beef is roast beef, weck is a salty roll, and together they make for a delicious sandwich (just add a little horseradish). The two most popular places are Schwabl’s (awesome old-school ambiance) and Charlie the Butcher’s.

Go get saved in Niagara.