…Another Man’s Treasure: The Cathederal of junk

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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

In The Area:

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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.

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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!

 

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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!

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This awesomeness could be yours!

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

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.