While we can certainly appreciate fine art, contemplating a contemporary painting on a wall in a hushed gallery or admiring a roped-off sculpture of antiquity while being jostled by hundreds of elbows does have its limits. Sometimes, we want the raw, the unrestrained, the roadside-y, the rough-around-the-edges, the real. A fully immersive art environment that’s at turns beautiful and unsettling, awe-inspiring and maybe just a little bit otherworldly.
Although something of a dying breed, a sizable number of large-scale folk art installations and visionary environments can be found scattered across the United States (there seems to be something in the water in California, Wisconsin, Texas and Georgia), many boasting state and/or national historic designations. Some are bona fide tourist attractions; others are more lonely, out-of-the-way affairs that may have you think you’ve driven straight into the plot of the latest Rob Zombie film. And while tricky to properly define, folk and visionary art environments are generally, but not always, the work of self-taught, often marginalized artists; they’re often obsessive and deeply personal in nature and the product of years, sometimes decades of work. They often involve the extensive use of indigenous and recycled materials and, without fail, they’re always intensely imaginative.
We’ve rounded up 10 unforgettable examples of American folk/visionary/outsider art environments that have captivated, bewildered and inspired visitors over the years. And because 10 is such a restrictive number, we’ve also included a shortlist of 10 more weird and wonderful self-made worlds. And please do add to our list in the comments section — tell us the name and location of a visionary art environment that’s stuck with you.
Coral Castle (Edward Leedskalnin) — Homestead, Florida
Photo: Tigrilla yvette Soler/Flickr
You needn’t poke around too much to discover that Florida is a really weird place with Miami-Dade County’s Coral Castle serving as a monument to the eccentric, the esoteric and the downright confounding.
Often referred to as the Sunshine State’s very own Stonehenge, this mighty limestone edifice composed of over 1,100 tons of sculpted stone (technically not coral, but a type of local sedimentary rock) was built over the span of nearly 30 years starting in the early 1920s by Latvian immigrant Edward Leedskalnin for Agnes Scuffs, the teenaged runaway bride who left him alone and heartbroken shortly before they were to be married. A monumental feat of engineering as is, it’s how Leedskalnin erected Coral Castle that continues to mystify to this day. A slight man standing 5 feet tall, legend has it that the reclusive Leedskalnin built Coral Castle and its myriad hand-carved-from-stone features (rocking chairs, a sundial, a Florida-shaped table, etc.) alone in secret during the middle of the night. Somehow, he arranged the gigantic stone blocks, each weighing several tons, with (allegedly) no human or mechanical assistance.
Popular theories include reverse magnetism, levitation or some sort of supernatural abilities possessed by Leedskalnin who remained mum about his building techniques, only to say that he had discovered the same building techniques used to erect the pyramids. Basically, no one really knows what went down. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984, Coral Castle now operates as a museum that’s popular with lovers of the paranormal and sneering British rock stars.
Forevertron (Tom Every) — Sumpter, Wisconsin
Photo: Joseph Kranak/Flickr
Oh you know, just another massive scrap metal structure (the largest in the world, apparently) built from carburetors, junked appliances, antique X-ray machines, factory parts, a pair of 19th century Thomas Edison dynamos and the decontamination chamber from the Apollo 11 that just happens to double as a spacecraft built by a Victorian eccentric with a penchant for large-scale recycling and intergalactic travel. They’re a dime a dozen these days, right?
A mind-boggling, proto-steampunk tribute to the Industrial Era that defies easy description, the 300-ton kinetic Goliath known as Forevertron is the impossible-to-miss crown jewel of Dr. Evermor’s Art Park in Sauk County, Wisconsin. The good doctor was born Tom Every, a former demolition expert who, upon retirement, sold his business and adopted the alter-ego of a batty 19th century inventor hailing from the British village of Eggington.
Armed with an elaborate mythology, a surplus of salvaged materials collected over the years and the support of his beloved “Lady Eleanor,” Every started in on the construction of a 50-foot-tall intergalactic vessel in which to catapult himself into the heavens, far from “the phoniness of the world". He explains: "I became Dr. Evermor around 1983 when we started to build the Forevertron. I was a bit upset with the world, not so much the economic conditions as the judicial system and things like that, and I wanted to perpetuate myself back into the heavens on this magnetic lightning force field." Although Dr. Evermor has retired his welding gear and rarely frequents his creation these days, the park itself is worth the detour — pack a picnic lunch and spend a couple of hours soaking in the scrap-happy, sci-fi weirdness.
Garden of Eden (S.P. Dinsmoor) — Lucas, Kansas
We’re pretty sure that the Garden of Eden is the only folk art site on this list in which the highlight of the tour for many visitors is paying respects to the mummified corpse of the artist, Samuel Dinsmoor. He’s been packing ‘em in from an aboveground glass coffin in the backyard since 1932.
Added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1977 and included as one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas Art, Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden is a kooky early 20th century homestead that includes a cabin built from limestone “logs,” the aforementioned backyard mausoleum and more than 150 concrete sculptures that reflect the political (he was a hardcore populist) and theological leanings (he was a bit of a religious fanatic) of Dinsmoor, a Civil War veteran and retired school teacher with a knack for biblical statuary and entrepreneurship.
Located smack dab in the middle of Kansas, the teeny-tiny community of Lucas has long celebrated its outsider art heritage. Dubbed the “Grassroots Art Capital of Kansas” by former Governor Bill Graves, it’s kind of like a folksy, Midwestern version of Marfa, Texas, that likens itself as “sorta' like Norman Rockwell meets ‘Northern Exposure,’ with a bit of ‘Twin Peaks’ thrown in ...” We’re sold. Aside from the Garden of Eden, other must-sees in town include Florence Deeble’s Rock Garden, the Grassroots Art Center and the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things.
Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village (Tressa Prisbrey) — Simi Valley, California
Photo: Laurie Avocado/Flickr
Perhaps the world’s preeminent dump-scavenging senior citizen, the late Tressa Prisbrey was a woman with a singular vision: to build a series of structures using only found/free materials in which to safely house her collection of 17,000 commemorative pencils while also keeping the stench and dust emanating from a nearby turkey farm at bay.
Although severely damaged by the 1994 Northridge earthquake and currently closed to the general public for safety reasons (limited tours, however, are available by appointment), the “fanciful wonderland built from castoff materials” otherwise known as Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village remains one of the country’s premiere folk art environments – a work that’s inspirational, ingenious and just a touch terrifying (we’re referring to you, doll heads).
Work first began on the Bottle Village — a national and California Historic Landmark that consists of 13 different structures along with walkways and other features primarily constructed from glass bottles and mortar — in 1956 when Prisbrey was a sprightly sexagenarian. She continued to collect and built through the early 1980s. Along the way, both the village and its creator, a kindly old lady with a knack for plucking treasures from the local landfill, garnered worldwide recognition. During her stints at proprietor and later caretaker of the Bottle Village, Prisbrey enjoyed nothing more than showing off her handiwork to agog tourists and remained humble in spite of her folk art celebrity status. She once said, “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.”
Heidelberg Project (Tyree Guyton) — Detroit, Michigan
Photo: Matt Hickman
Yes, Detroit is in shambles. But the cash-strapped city is also home to some great restaurants, a strong urban gardening movement, a killer used bookstore and one of the most profound open-air folk art environments in the entire country.
Like the other entries on our list, it’s difficult to describe Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project as it’s much more than a physical place in which to view “art” – it’s an all-consuming experience that grabs a hold of you the minute you set foot on the project site in a rough (read: crumbing buildings and vacant lots aplenty) patch of Detroit’s east side. It’s unsettling, uncomfortable, raw, haunting, jarring and incredibly beautiful. So what is it? Founded by Guyton nearly 30 years ago as a means of reclaiming an area otherwise defined by urban decay through the power of community and creativity, the Heidelberg Project, now operating as a nonprofit arts education organization-cum-tourist destination, simply describes itself as a “two block area full of color, symbolism and intrigue.”
Although the landscape of the project itself has changed dramatically due to acts of arson that claimed several buildings over the course of 2013, the project is best known as an assemblage of abandoned lots filled with mounds of artfully arranged domestic detritus and crumbling homes that have been painted in bright colors and festooned with a variety of salvaged items, most notably stuffed animals and dismembered baby dolls. (Sadly, “Party Animal House,” pictured, was the most recent home to be destroyed by arson). Although many view the destruction of some of the Heidelberg Project’s most iconic “pieces” as a discouraging setback, Guyton is undeterred and very much in a Phoenix-esque state of mind. He tells the New York Times: “Heidelberg has always been an evolution. I was always saying to use what’s in front of you, discarded objects, and it’s the same thing with those structures burning down. I’m going to use them to create something greater. I see that. I believe that.”
Pasaquan (Eddie Owens Martin) — Buena Vista, Georgia
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
As the story goes, Eddie Owens Martin, a New York City-based artist/hustler/pot dealer/bartender/fortune teller extraordinaire who was born in 1908 in rural Georgia to sharecropper parents, experienced visions while suffering from a “high fever” in which he was visited by a trio of benevolent inhabitants hailing from an alien planet from the future called Pasaquan. In his visions, the unearthly visitors instructed him to return to his birthplace of Georgia and “do something.” And by do something, they meant make art.
So return to Georgia Martin did. In the mid-1950s, Martin changed his name to St. EOM, retreated to his native Marion County and began work on Pasaquan, a 7-acre visionary art mecca composed of numerous vividly hued pagoda-esque structures, psychedelic murals, painted concrete totems and thousands of pieces of individual art. Presiding over it all was St. EOM, a hirsute seer who resembled a cross between “Walt Whitman, Sun Ra, the Aztec emperor Montezuma, Lord Buckley and Boy George.” Needless to say, Martin stuck out just a bit when he traveled into town to pick up supplies (perhaps it was the feathered headdress and braided beard?).
Although Martin took his own life in 1986, Pasaquan continued on as a public art environment owned and operated by the nonprofit Pasaquan Preservation Society. That being said, Pasaquan, in dire need of serious repairs and restoration work that extend beyond the financial reach of the volunteer-based Pasaquan Preservation Society, is closed for the time being. However, the Kohler Foundation — the folk art preservation-centric charitable arm of the Wisconsin-based bath and kitchen fixture behemoth — recently assessed the compound, giving supporters hope that Pasaquan will be restored and reopened so that future generations can experience the far-out artistic vision of St. EOM.
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens (Isaiah Zagar) — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Photo: Kevin Burkett/Flickr
If you keep your eyes peeled for walls that are shiny, sparkly and bursting with life, it’s not difficult to miss the work of public mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar in and around South Philadelphia. However, you haven’t truly experienced the work of Zagar unless you step inside of (or lose yourself inside of, rather) Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.
Erected by Zagar over the span of 14 years across three city lots on bustling South Street, the PMG describes itself as a “mosaicked visionary art environment, gallery, and community arts center.” It’s a place that also defies easy description. Sure, it’s magic but it’s much more than that — it’s disorienting and dramatic; beautiful and totally bonkers; awe-inspiring and even spiritual. This astonishing labor of love is also a welcome departure from Philly’s Yankee Doodle Dandy brand of tourism — the PMG’s mirror-, tile- and bottle-clad labyrinth is an extraordinary place to leave behind the outside world for an afternoon and immerse oneself in one man’s singular artistic vision.
And if a trip to Philly isn’t in the cards, do check out “In a Dream,” an award-winning documentary chronicling the life and work of Zagar directed by his son, Jeremiah.
Nitt Witt Ridge (Art Beal) — Cambria, California
Photo: Joseph Francis/Flickr
Find Hearst Castle to be too opulent, too polished for your tastes? Drive south about 15 minutes along State Route 1 until you hit the seaside village of Cambria. From there, keep an eye out for the three-story hillside home constructed from beer cans, toilet seats and seashells. It’s hard to miss.
A castle of an entirely different sort, Nitt Witt Ridge was hand-built by grade-A misanthrope and former town garbage collector Art Beal (aka Der Tinkerpaw aka Captain Nitt Witt) over the span of 50 years using cement, stone, wood and salvaged junk — lots and lots of salvaged junk: car rims, beer cans, glass bottles, trashed TV sets, tile, and whatever else Der Tinkerpaw could get his, well, paws on.
Several years after Beal passed away at the age of 96, the home was purchased by its current owners/caretakers Michael and Stacey O’Malley — that’s who’ll show you around if you book an appointment-only tour of this California Historical Landmark-registered property. Michael O’Malley explains the effect that Beal’s gloriously ramshackle lifework, often dubbed the “poor man’s Hearst Castle,” has on visitors: "(People) go through a transformation up here. They go ‘I don't know about this place’ and then when they're done ... I get a lot of people (saying) 'Hey, this was better than Hearst Castle.' "
Salvation Mountain (Leonard Knight) — Niland, California
The Salton Sea is a photographer’s dream. That is, if said photographic is into capturing haunting, post-apocalyptic landscapes that portray environmental ruin and economic despair.
But in the midst of the washed-out ruin porn that’s come to define this lonely stretch of inland Southern California near the Mexican border, comes a photo-worthy sight so garish, so deranged, so optimistic and full of life that you’d think you’d driven into an entirely different dimension somewhere along Route 111. Nah, you’ve just arrived at Salvation Mountain.
Essentially a giant manmade hill constructed bit by bit from adobe that’s been covered in thousands of gallons of latex paint and inscribed with more than a few churchly sayings and bits of scripture; you needn’t be a believer to be in complete and total awe of this sprawling work of cross-topped folk art. Just think of it as an upbeat, faux-topological version of a Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap bottle and you’re somewhat close. Leonard Knight, the humble Vermont native and failed hot air ballooner who spent three decades of his life erecting this magnificent monument to love (specifically, god’s love) while living out of the back of a truck with no electricity or running water, passed away in Feb. 2014 at the age of 82. Still, Knight’s spirit very much lives on in the form of a hard-to-miss hill in the California desert that Senator Barbara Boxer was moved to call “a national treasure.”
Watts Towers (Simon Rodia) — Los Angeles, California
The Hollywood Sign. Griffith Observatory. The Santa Monica Pier. Pink’s. The Getty Center. Angels Flight. Watts Towers.
While that last one may not be as instantly recognizable as its fellow photo-op-fabulous Los Angeles hotspots, Watts Towers is indeed a bona fide Southern California landmark … and a nationally recognized historic one at that. With its two main spires rising nearly 100-feet over South L.A.’s Watts district, the towers are actually a series of 17 sculptural elements erected on a triangular residential lot (now a California State Park) by Italian-born construction worker Sabato “Simon” Rodia over the span of 33 years, from 1921 to 1954.
Constructed with steel pipes and rods wrapped in wire mesh, coated with mortar and embellished with an array of materials including glass, ceramic tiles, seashells and bottle caps; if it weren’t for the reputedly nasty and vandalism-prone neighbors that ultimately sent him packing, Rodia very well could have kept on adding to and improving on this staggering artistic achievement built, mind you, in his spare time. Sure, the neighborhood around Watts Towers is a bit dicey but that’s no reason not to make the pilgrimage to this dizzying monument to the American Dream built by one very determined immigrant who proved that with hard work, determination and access to a boatload of scrap construction materials, anything is possible.
10 more incomparable visionary art environments:
Bishop Castle by Jim Bishop: Rye, Colorado
Broken Angel House by Arthur Wood: Brooklyn, New York
Kenny Hill’s Sculpture Garden: Chauvin, Louisiana
The Mindfield by Billy Trip: Brownsville, Tennessee
The Orange Show by Jeff McKissack: Houston, Texas
Paradise Gardens by Howard Finster: Summerville, Georgia
Rubel Castle by Michael Clarke Rubel: Glendora, California
The Wegner Grotto by Paul and Matilda Wegner: Cataract, Wisconsin
Wisconsin Concrete Park by Fred Smith: Phillips, Wisconsin