This blog is really meant to celebrate and document this odd piece of Americana, as well as to promote these places and encourage others to see them. It is more visitor/ tourism focused then art focused. I am a big dummy when it comes to art, art history and art criticism, so you won’t hear me yapping too much about technique, training or materials. But, I will try to give an impression of the artist and why he or she took the time to start building, and probably a bit of history behind their creations and what they were getting at. Very few of the artists that decided to build a giant dinosaur in their backyard earned more than a few bucks from their efforts, if anything. I salute these people and their rebellious spirit, their mania and their idiosyncrasies.
The goal of this blog is to be a cheerleader and not a critic. You probably wont find me trying to disparage any artist or their manias. I might rip into an asshole politician who has tried to have an environment demolished, but never a creator. There are a lot of art environments with strong religious and political motifs, whose sentiments I do not agree with, but these really don’t bother me. I often find these places to be the most interesting. I will let you know which sites I absolutely love and if there is a place that does nothing for me, and there are a few, I probably just wont bring it up. Exploring, documenting and researching art environments has brought me a lot of joy, I hope it does the same for you to.
With that being said, here a few personal reasons why I think art environments are so incredible and why you should get off your dumb couch and go visit one (or start building one in your backyard so I can come visit).
They are authentic and unique and make for a very cool experience
I am not going to quibble over the definition of “authentic”, or what makes some art more authentic then others, but I will argue that these places are often truly one of a kind and showcase an individual’s unique perspective on this world. They were not created by a committee, or under the guidance of focus groups.
Remember these are often big installations, taking up a lot of acreage. It is like entering a painting. One of my favorite quotes is from the Taschen book Fantasy Worlds, by John Maizel’s, where he writes, “A visit to a major visionary environment is an overwhelming experience…The visitor walking through an environment is actually within the fantasy world the artist created. Surrounded on all sides by powerful creative vision, the viewer has stepped into an alternate reality, a reality that is no figment of the imagination but one that actually exists.”
Another writer,Willem Volkersz, in identifying the experience for visitors says, “When we walk into such gardens or structures, it is as if we are wandering through the right side of the artist’s brain, full of mysterious nooks and crannies.”
Many art environments have a story to tell. At different sites you are privy to the artist’s mania, sense of whimsy, their obsessions and personal beliefs. You are surrounded by their outrage and their joy. At some sites you really can’t escape their moral, political and religious convictions as well as their take on the news of the day or the folklore of their community.
They are often off of the literal, and the figurative beaten path
You really have to go there to truly experience them. A photo does not do any art environment justice. To put is simply, it is fun to go journeying into the land behind. You are an urban/ rural/ suburban archaeologist, a low rent Indiana Jones (with GPS, smooth roads, protein bars and smart phones and without the hassle of gun totting Nazis, monkey attacks or a whiny Shia Lebouf, etc). My search for these places has taken me deep into parts of the country I would have ignored otherwise.
You can sometimes meet the artist
Some sites are older and the creator has passed on. Often these sites are managed by the family, or either a non-profit or for-profit group. But there are several places where the creator is alive, living on site, who loves to shoot the shit with strangers.
A note on visiting art environments
Some art environments are run like tourist attractions or museums. Sites like the Watts Tower in Los Angeles and The Coral Castle in Florida, have nice websites, posted hours, gift shops and tours.
Some are still personal property, but the owner is cool with having people walk around (often during daylight hours), like the Temple of Tolerance in small town Wapakoneta, OH.
Some can be seen from the street and you don’t need permission. Just stay on the sidewalk, like the Sign Field in Mullinville, Kansas.
Others are on private property and you should try to get permission before you tramp all over the lawn. Most artists are proud of their work and love to show it off, but not all the time. Be respectful of their privacy and consider offering a small donation for upkeep.
Some art environments sadly are not accessible under any circumstances. This is totally up to the artist or landowner (booooo, but I get it).
Remember, many environments were not created with your comfort in mind. There may be not bathrooms, parking lots or handrails. They are not ADA compliant. There may be broken glass on the ground and weird smells in the air. They have not been sanitized for your convenience. This just adds to the sense of adventure.
One of my main goals is to identify the best ways to visit these places and to keep updated about any changes, and changes happen all the time in the art environment world.
I am always looking for new environments to discover. Please feel free to contact me with updates about the places I talk about, to correct my many forthcoming mistakes, or to clue me in on places I’ve missed. Also, unless noted, all photos are by me.
Get to it.
Maizels, J. (2007). Fantasy worlds. Cologne: Taschen.
Volkersz, W. (1992, Summer/ Fall). Private spaces, public places: Thoughts on outsider environments in Europe and North America. Public Art Review, pp. 24-26.