Sunday, January 18, 2009

Building a Visionary Environment

For many years my wife, Nita, and I have had the dream of building a habitable, sculptural art environment. An art environment (also called a visionary environment) is a permanent, large-scale, art installation that reflects the visions and inspirations of the people that have created it. There are many of these around the world mostly hidden away in rural areas where neighbors were unlikely to complain.

The photo above is one of the structures at Eliphante - an art environment in Cornville, Arizona.

Most of the environments of the past were created by dedicated, even obsessed, individuals who spent upwards of 20 years building them. Many of the creators were unschooled in the arts and some did not even think that what they created was art.

One of the most famous examples of a visionary art environment is Watts Towers, in Los Angeles, CA. It was built over 33 years by Simon (Sam) Rodia. He built tall towers out of re-bar and scrap wire that he found and then cemented them with shells, broken 7-Up bottles, broken dishes and other bits of colored pottery that he found. The only thing he had in mind was "to build something big." When it was done, he gave the property to a neighbor and moved away, never to return.

In the 1959 the City of Los Angeles declared the towers unsafe and tried to pull them down. They couldn't do it. The towers were too well-built. The only thing that happened was some of the mosaic pieces popped off. The site was saved from the wrecking ball and, now, Watts Towers is the smallest National Monument in the United States - 1/10 of an acre.

An example of a religiously inspired environment is Salvation Mountain. Leonard Knight has poured and painted over 100,000 gallons of paint on a mud hillside for over 20 years. He has sculpted caverns out of hay bales, tree trunks, and painted adobe. The whole hillside is covered with religious slogans revolving around the idea, "God is Love."

Salvation Mountain, near Niland, CA, was begun in the mid 1980's when Knight decided that was the place to build his monument to God. Sometime in the 1990's the site was declared a toxic hazard and seemed destined for destruction. In 2002 it was entered in the Congressional Record as a National Treasure. Leonard, now in his late 70's, can be found painting on his mountain most days during the winter months.

A few art environments are the work of inspired sophisticates, rather than art world outsiders. The Tarot Garden, in Italy was created by Niki de Saint Phalle, a famous mosaic artist. Along with another well-known artist, Jean Tinguely, she created a garden of gigantic mosaic covered structures that represent the major Arcana of the Tarot Deck.

The Tarot Garden was begun in 1979. During much of the construction Niki lived inside the Empress, one of the largest sculptures. The site was opened to the public in 1998 after almost 20 years of work. Niki de Saite Phalle has created sculpture gardens internationally. One of them is in Escondido, California - Queen Califia's Magical Circle. Niki died in 2002.

- to begin building a habitable, expanding environment of whimsical buildings, gardens, pavilions, and sculptures. We need a place to build it. We are hoping there is someone out there with 3 or more acres of flat-ish land that they can spare, in a location somewhere in the Western U.S. that has good rainfall, soil, and growing season for gardening. It would be a plus for the site to be within or near a progressive, artistic community that would be supportive of our efforts or, at least, not complain about having something unusual in their midst.

The photo at left is a garden gate Royce welded together out of found objects. See more of Royce's steel work at Cosmic Steel.

We expect that it will take 20 or more years to achieve the scale and wonder that could turn the site into a destination for the public. With our combined artistic and construction skills - Nita with concrete and mosaic and myself with steel, I know we can create something grand and unusual. We hope our creations will also make people smile and maybe even be uplifting or inspiring to others.

The photo at right is Nita's latest project - a mosaic wall on the roof deck of The Raven Cafe, in Prescott, AZ. See more of Nita's concrete and mosaic work here.

To read more about our dream, about us, and about how you may be able to help, Click Here.