“Some people say this is sculpture but I didn't go to no expensive school to get these crazy notions.” – John Milkovisch, creator of the Beer Can House
Folk artists who use their homes as their canvas are a special breed. From Ferdinand Cheval, the French postman who spent 33 years of his life building the wildly fanciful Le Palais ideal (The "Ideal Palace"), to Simon Rodia, whose 17 sculptural spires comprise the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, these visionary non-conformists do their thing in defiance of convention.
What drives them to such demonstrative extremes? In the case of John Milkovisch, the answer was somewhat unclear even to himself.
“It’s just a pastime. But sometimes I lie awake at night, trying to figure out why I do it,” he once said of building his extraordinary Beer Can House. "I guess I just thought it was a good idea. And it's easier than painting."
The project began in 1968 when Milkovisch, an upholsterer for the Southern Pacific Railroad, began embedding thousands of marbles, rocks, and metal scraps into concrete and wood to create an artificial landscape to replace the lawn and garden.
The motivation? He was “sick of mowing the grass.”
In the 1970s, as the aluminum siding craze was enveloping homes from coast to coast, Milkovisch decided to make his own using the empty beer cans he had been storing in his attic for years. He cut open the cans, flattened them, and began covering his home with them. And he didn’t stop. Over the next 18 years the home was consumed by the beer can cladding, which, like all siding, acted both as decoration and protection from the elements. Garlands created from beer-can tops became curtains of wind chimes, which also lowered the energy bills. Not even the shed behind the house (pictured below) could escape a fate of cans.
"Ripley's Believe It or Not" estimated that more than 50,000 cans were saved from the landfill in this monument to recycling. That’s an estimated six-pack a day over the course of 20 years; neighbors and his wife, Mary, are said to have helped in this noble effort (someone had to do it, after all).
Milkovisch died in the mid-1980s, and Mary continued living there until her death a decade later. In the meantime, the neighborhood has gone from working class to upscale, but the quirky home remains nestled within the new condos and lofts – thanks to the efforts of the nonprofit Orange Show Center for Visionary Art. The local organization bought the property 10 years ago and has worked to both restore and preserve the home. It is now open to the public, where it attracts fans from all over.
We think Milkovisch would be pleased.
“They say every man should leave something to be remembered by. At least I accomplished that goal,” he said before his death.
The AP reports on the beer can extravaganza in the video below.
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