Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Somehow my sense of the good life got pinned on Ephemerata Gardens and the Museum of Ephemerata, a sort of do-it-yourself Disneyland that I dream one day will become my way of making a living. People say, "You should start a non-profit, move into a store front! Make it into a business!" But my role models are people like Grandma Prisbrey, Reverend Howard Finster, Isaiah Zagar, Ross Ward, and most close to home, Vince at the Cathedral of Junk, all of whom wound up living off micro-tourist donations and other support from visitors to their little worlds without setting out to do so. It just happened. Of course there are plenty of cautionary tales of people whose art environments engulfed them in an insular retreat, like the hermits Emory Blagdon in his Healing Machine and Legler in his Valley of the Moon.

Around the time Jen and I reopened the Museum of Ephemerata in Tucson in 1999, we visited the Valley of the Moon on the outskirts of town. In the 1920s, George Phar Legler, a postman who raised rabbits on his land, built up hillocks of desert plants, foothills clustered with little fairy and gnome houses made of smooth river stones cemented together. A little dirt path through the miniature town leads to the Wizard’s Tower, BunnyLand Theater, and the Enchanted Garden, a waterfall grotto with built-in seats. It opens into an underground house called the Cave Room that exits beneath a waterfall.

Following his Spiritualist beliefs, Legler built the Valley of the Moon as a healing environment where people could go to rejuvenate their bodies and minds by exercising imagination. Every week he offered free guided tours: “Fairy Tours” that appealed to children’s magical sensibilities and “Metaphysical Tours” that unpacked the mysteries of life to adults. After Disneyland was built in 1955, a reporter for the Tucson Citizen opined, “Should Disneyland cover the entire State of California, not one corner would speak to childhood as does this imperfect, perfect little theater.”*  In the early 1970s some high school students found Legler, then in his 80s, living in the Cave Room, subsisting on vitamins and milk to appease his chronic stomach pain. The students’ families adopted him and started the Valley of the Moon Restoration Association. Legler lived to 97, long enough to see his lifelong project listed on the Arizona Register of Historic Places and preserved by an association that would care for his environment into the future.

The Valley of the Moon’s enchanted concrete structures recycled the fantasy architectures built on the estates of European elites in the 18th and 19th century. They built grottos of ferns and fake stalactites, as well as landscapes dotted with follies--artificial ruins overgrown with plants, inhabited by gentle fauna. Aristocrats delivered tours of their estates and curiosity cabinets to visiting dignitaries in performances of power, of owning the whole world. By the end of the 20th century, these microcosms had broken away from the realm of the rich to become mass leisure spaces--Coney Island’s parks, Disneyland, and a slew of knock-offs, second-rate theme parks, and seedy roadside attractions. Fantasy worlds also drifted into the yards of people like Legler, possessed by some vision of an other world that manifested in gradual accretions of concrete and masonry work where fairies and bunnies lived.

In Gardens of Revelation: Environments by Visionary Artists, John Beardsley makes the case that such “visionary environments represent a survival in popular culture of a form long out of favor in the institutional world”: the cabinet of curiosities (19).** Some visionary environments (like Tinkertown outside Albuquerque, or the Orange Show in Houston) are built as mini-museums, while others cobble together and embed collections of wondrous objects into the environments themselves. “Survival” points to how Beardsley sees curiosity cabinets as genealogical origins in a line of cultural forms that went extinct as far as institutionalized collections are concerned, but that still survive in vernacular patches. In 19th century anthropology and folklore, “survivals” were cultural forms that should have been wiped out with industrialization and rational thinking, but that still existed among backwards peasants and uncivilized cultures as shreds of the past, living fossils that never went extinct.*** The old practices and forms barely surviving civilization could be salvaged and preserved by folklorists and anthropologists (often driven by intense concern to save something unique from disappearing forever). They were seldom seen as survival tactics in themselves, struggles to recover ways of life from being trampled under a march of progress into a future that deemed them obsolete.

Beardsley continues, “both gardens of revelation and Disneyland involve entering another world” (19). In tours of the Museum's “impermanent collection,” we flow from Wunderkammern to dime museums and Coney Island, implying that the enchantment of curiosity cabinets survives in amusement parks of all kinds. But for Beardsley, the overly-simulated, nostalgic, and sanitized environments of themed spaces atrophy imagination by replacing local culture with corporate schlock. Disney worlds avoid and repress the countercultural sensibilities expressed in visionary art environments. Theme parks exist to profit off fantasy, whereas visionary environments exist regardless of money. As Tressa Prisbrey says of her Bottle Village, “Anyone can do anything with a million dollars. Look at Disney. But it takes more than money to make something out of nothing, and look at the fun I have doing it.”****

Although Beardsley sets up Disneyfied spaces as the anti-gardens of revelation, the well-funded tinkering of Imagineers directly inspires some homemade projects. As one do-it-yourselfer writes on his 'how to' website, "You, too, can have the best of Disneyland in your own backyard. After all, Disneyland was essentially Walt’s backyard."***** The Orange Show’s Jeff McKissack wanted his creation to rival Disneyland as a roadside attraction; he was in competition. In Hamtramck, Michigan, near Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project, Dmytro Szylak started making his “Ukrainian Disneyland” on the roof of his two garages after retiring from the General Motors factory. At the Museum, we’ve borrowed Disneyland tactics like hiding fences in plain sight, camouflaged as d├ęcor. Our Pepper’s Ghost illusion was partly inspired by the Haunted Mansion’s ballroom scene of transparent dancing ghouls. Rather than being the opposite of bad Disneyland, some vernacular environments consciously adopt the park’s aesthetics and tactics with admiration (albeit without massive funding or status as mainstream tourist destinations).

Such places are do-it-yourself amusement parks of informal economies that slip into utopian gift economies--DIYsneylands created not to make money, but because habitats for dreaming and tinkering are wonderful places to call home. The immersive process of making them is better than being in any theme park on earth (not to mention, free). They become something to live for and belong to, a relationship of creativity, care, and upkeep that brings an inhabitable future into being at the humble scale of a small patch where you can imagine growing old. They might attract tourists, and entertaining visitors becomes another adventure. Once ‘discovered’ by popular/institutional/mainstream culture, things can change for better or worse. Being made public can vault their makers out of their houses, into the official art world of gallery shows. Or ruin their privacy and make them want to tear it all down. Or threaten them with code violations and the dreaded bulldozer. Or it doesn’t matter and they keep on tinkering like nothing happened. Above all, what is happening in DIYsneylands is lanscape play, a kind of affective labor that immerses players in a layered environment that is at once ecological, aesthetic, historic, and noetic, without any of these layers being “the point.”

Yard art environments are generally viewed as large-scale forms of folk art that express aesthetic and technical abilities rooted in class, ethnic, and religious identities, instead of the economically and academically established realm of fine arts. Jill Nokes sidesteps this usual framing of ‘vernacular art’ by approaching such places as “vernacular landscapes” (3).****** ‘Vernacular’ indexes amateur, self-taught, indigenous, or local forms, practices, and knowledges (as opposed to, say, invasive forms, standard practices, or expert knowledges). Nokes traveled Texas searching for peculiar homes and gardens transformed by their inhabitants into “powerful [gestures] of hospitality and sociability” that convey “the story of a person’s life” (5, 13). She focuses on what vernacular landscapes mean to their creators, but how do these landscapes work as urban ecosystems, parts of the City of Living Garbage? What kind of learning and teaching do they assemble? Some of the art yards in Nokes’ book operate as vernacular forms of ecological restoration. They transform urban wastestreams into wildlife habitats and act as informal educational institutions as community gathering places. These patch dynamics are not planned so much as emergent, sweeping up their makers into unanticipated worlds. "Do-it-yourself" isn't quite right... a person's life becomes part of a singular landscape, able to act only through relationships with many others--living garbage, plants, the knowledges and feelings of like-minded yardists...

Whatever you want to call them, and whatever these places do and don’t have in common, otherworldly yards and houses have proliferated in hundreds of sites across America: some big, some small; some young, some decrepit; some well known, others as yet ‘undiscovered’; all vulnerable. There seem to be as many books, magazines, websites, blogs, and online galleries about these places as there are places. Self-taught photographers go on pilgrimages to see the work of self-taught artists and architects. Fans of these places make a life out of visiting them on roadtrips. I’m ready to retire, get an RV, and hit the road myself. Of course, being discovered and catalogued brings the people behind the places in touch, and some become extremely knowledgeable about their fellow art environments. They get caught in a spiderweb thrown across roadside America, trapping unwitting passers-by in DIYsneylands similar to something they’ve experienced before, but not as fastidiously engineered by teams of experts. Not as permanent as Disney’s sturdy, constantly repaired facades, and much smaller--a city block or house lot. Not quite as sprawling as zoos, botanical gardens, or restored ecologies you may have visited, but overgrown and crowded with plants and animals nonetheless. And most remarkably, made of cast-offs, bric-a-brac, junk no one else would touch. A million wandering forms of life gather and find a common home here. As the venerable Reverend Howard Finster put it on a hand-painted sign of blocky letters in Paradise Gardens:



*George Phar Legler Society, “Valley of the Moon,”
**John Beardsley, Gardens of Revelation: Environments by Visionary Artists, photos James Pierce, New York: Abbeville Press, 1995.
***Stocking, George W., Jr. Victorian Anthropology. London and New York: The Free Press, 1991, 164-78.
****Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village,
*****T.R. Shaw, “Backyard Imagineering,”
******Jill Nokes, Yard Art and Handbuilt Places: Extraordinary Expressions of Home, Austin: UT Press, 2007.

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