Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Visitors to Ephemerata Gardens often ask us how long we've lived here, how long did it take to get this way? How many thousands of hours tinkering? What sightseers see is only a snapshot of something non-visual: ways of living in atmospheres. Landscape patches are composed of different tempos and rhythms, the blur of hands seeding and weeding, the speed of root growth and heron migrations, the slow collection and decomposition of garbage. Yardist symbiont people become contented busybodies, endlessly encrusting landscape patches with aesthetic layers as the years fly by. Isaiah Zagar in the Magic Gardens grew three left arms because he works so fast: "My work is marked by events and is a mirror of the mind that is building and falling apart, having a logic but close to chaos, refusing to stay still for the camera, and giving one a sense of heaven and hell simultaneously." Far from being in control, a living machine's engineer just tries to keep up with emergence, just one of the processes that holds the superorganism together.

Over a dozen years every surface in Spunky Monkey Ranch became permeated with art. Visitors entered the land through a twelve-foot arch cobbled out of deadwood, skis, crutches, and scavenged wood panels painted with a bright monkey face and vibrating letters spelling out the yard's name. A smaller arch spanned the path down to the creekside bamboo grove. Held together by wire and tension, the arcs bristled with gravity’s potential, poised on falling apart; they want to move. They match David Pratt’s body – a shaky livewire, hands and boots tapping out excess energy. He likes to work fast to override making too many decisions, swinging lengths of wide transparent tape over a pile of collage scraps so static electricity sucks up an image. Slapped directly onto picture frames, compositions emerge with a depth of multiple layers, some obscured. Art lives off the frame, swallows it up, the same way Susan’s mosaics live on house walls and garden paths. They match her, too – still and patient. Susan has a quiet presence that blends in, then pops out with simple joy and generosity. Spunky Monkey Ranch embodied Susan and David’s still and jittery ways of being.

When they moved out to Further Farms in Elgin, some people were shocked that David and Susan could abandon the art environment and just leave everything to its fate. David and Susan accepted it as part of the place’s lifecycle. David wondered, “How can I take it with me when it all lives here? It’d be like dragging a heavy load around by my neck. I’ve never stuck around anywhere long enough to build a foundation like Vince has” at the Cathedral of Junk. David keeps moving, starting over. Maybe Further Farms will emerge as a foundation, maybe not. While their “everything must go” yard sale moved as much art, plants, and materials off the Ranch as possible, the rest stayed or got tossed. Vince helped move the mosaic Monkey King on his throne. What about the small portable pond? “Well, if it looks like it belongs here, it stays.” It belongs to the place, and maybe some other artist will tend to its life there (which is what happened to the mini-Old West town at Spunky Monkey Ranch in the first place). If not, it goes the way of all mortals and falls apart. Like any garden, it needs tending to exist. Art environments take on a life of their own, but need a spunky cultivator to repair things as gravity, weather, rust, plants, and animals shuffle forms around. Aesthetic patterns materialize through processes of constant recomposition – tending a place’s emergence, laying down layer after layer of endless care and repair. From one day to the next, art environments are never the same.

Before Spunky Monkey Ranch, Susan and David ran the Alternate Current ArtSpace in a rented building on the same South Austin lot. Opening in 1991, this live-in art gallery hosted unjuried gallery shows that art critics and careful curators described as “cluttered.” It was a hodgepodge place where anyone could show art. Themes for group shows were inclusive and quirky: “The Mojo Show,” “White Trash/Black Helicopter,” “He Said/She Said.” Their last show in 2002 focused on 9/11 only nine months after the event. Alternate Current aimed at being a habitat to encourage and support south Austin artists and connect them to an older generation of creative people. Both the gallery and the Ranch were places that gathered an eclectic public of artists, musicians, gardeners, filmmakers, and their kids into a welcoming intergenerational scene.

Like the Alternate Current art gallery before it, Spunky Monkey Ranch reveals the fluidity of places, how fast they change, the inescapable vulnerability of aesthetic patterns in time. In “The Vulnerability of Outsider Architecture,”* Roger Cardinal laments the loss of vernacular art environments as an almost inevitable fate. Given their improvised aesthetic compositions like mosaics or structures held together by gravity, these singular places share an in-built precariousness of form. Without their perpetually tinkering creators (who abandon them in pursuit of lower rent, or are institutionalized, or die, or commit suicide), the places swiftly fall to pieces. Often built of junk, the public can see them as eyesores or rat farms; arsons and vandals assault some places, while municipalities dismantle others on the grounds of code violations or health hazards. Very few are preserved by nonprofit institutions (like the Orange Show Foundation in Houston). As an art historian, Cardinal mourns not only their "extinction," but “that extinction should lead to oblivion: we can only guess at the number of outsider sites which have vanished across the years. The only consolation is that a number of demolished structures enjoy an afterlife” through visual documentation (2000:172). A powerful mode of melancholic narrative presents itself in vanished or decayed expressive forms, lost arts, and extinct species of beauty. The affective pull of lost places, or their potential loss, motivates preservation – the avoidance of "extinction" of singular atmospheres that will never grace the world again.

Is there really any way to freeze these places? Aesthetic patterns in vernacular landscapes cannot be preserved without preserving the process of perpetual emergence, the relationship between spunky monkeys and their homes. If "outsider architecture" takes form through the pleasures of unfolding processes – tinkering, gardening, creating, scavenging, dreaming, partying – preservationists should follow by shifting attention to the vulnerability of action. This reframes preservation and destruction as generative actions in themselves. Rather than a melancholic vision of the loss of place, the vulnerability of art environments helps us to see these landscapes as momentary triumphs of doing or living against the odds -- despite thermodynamics and capitalism. At the same time, animating places through historical narratives helps us understand what drives the pattern of vulnerability itself. Rent goes up. Economic development patterns recognizable as gentrification and code regulation bring about the abandonment and destruction of these precarious urban landscape patches.

Meanwhile, out at Further Farms, Susan’s mosaic and collage patterns begin to encrust the kitchen walls. The trailer’s living room offers plenty of wall space for a gallery of David and Susan’s paintings, collages, and mosaics, as well as art they’ve collected over the years. The sunny open spaces outside called for gardens, and the farm is taking shape as veggies watered with caught rain in raised beds of cinder blocks and car tires. Vince helped assemble fence wood and windows into junkitecture walls for the carport turned studio workshop. The circle of lean cedar elms suggested a sundial, and every equinox and solstice David is out there at sunrise calibrating a solar calendar out of metal poles and mortar chunks gathered from the land. A skeletal metal arch unfolds near the sundial with a chair up top like you could sit there and enjoy a fine view. David calls it "the East Gate to the Garden of Eden, or the West Gate, depending on which side you’re on." The potluck gatherings that connect generations of creative people and families continue at Further Farms with Thanksgiving dinners and Easter egg hunts, when people come together to catch up, share home-cooked food, and play some music. And then there is the new pattern of driving from the exurbs into town, where Susan works for the City, and David has seasonal work with the IRS or as a movie extra. Life is quieter out there, stars brighter, and the art of wildflowers, deer, and hawks graces the fields.

The busybody is ready to mosaic, aching to dig. The relationship between the busybody and living garbage surges with a dream or possibility. Never finished, always ready to start over or go further into what is emerging.

*Roger Cardinal, “The Vulnerability of Ousider Architecture,” Southern Quarterly 39, no. 1-2 (2000): 169-186.

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