On the second day of of this 12 day series, let’s take a look at a book from the other end of the gardening spectrum. As The Western Garden Book is practical Gardens of Revelation: Environments by Visionary Artists (How Artists See) is thought provoking. I remember seeing this book in my gardening book of the month catalog and couldn’t wait to get it. Weird gardens, it was about weird gardens. I have to admit that I am a big fan of unusual gardens. Gardens decorated over time, sometimes a lifetime, with odd art or artfully place found objects. I’m intrigued by what it is that drives a person to such an obsession. But Gardens of Revelation doesn’t examine gardens, rather it examines environments as described by John Beardsley in the introduction:
I had a general sense of what I would be describing: handmade environments that express a personal moral or religious vision, typically fabricated of found materials by people who aren’t necessarily identified by themselves or by other artists. These environments are made to surround and even engulf the home; they often have obsessive character and are the result of many years of work.
I’m the type of person who someday wants to take a road trip and see all the weird attractions like the biggest ball of string, largest frying pan, or the Giant Budweiser Beer silo. So this book is right up my alley. Often times the ornamentation is created with repurposed materials. One such location is Bottle Village in Simi Valley. Well ahead of her time, Tressa “Grandma ” Prisbrey’s would be considered chic and eco-friendly for her use of discarded items in her construction, instead of strange and eccentric. In 1956 at the age of 60 Prisbrey transformed her 1/3 acre into a village of wishing wells, shrines, walkways and random structures. It wasn’t necessarily mere artistic expression that drove her to construct these buildings out of bottles. No, her needs were practical because she needed a place to house her pencil collection (she had over 17,000 at the time) and she needed to block out the smell of a nearby turkey farm. After her death in 1988 a more somber aspect of her life presented itself in her history. Prisbrey married at the age of 15 to a man who was 52 and had seven children by him. Later she left him and spent her life living at various locations across the country and raising the children by herself. Six of her children, her husband and her fiance all preceded her in death. With all it’s maternal and spiritual symbols (wishing wells, good luck symbols) Bottle Village might be more of an expression of grief than an artistic venture.
Arthur Harold Beal, alias Capt Nit Wit or Der Tinkerpaw is the odd creator of Nit Wit Ridge, a home constructed of well… garbage. Located in Cambria, California about 30 minutes South of San Simeon, it is often referred to as the poor man’s version of Hearst Castle. Beginning around 1928 and continuing for 51 years, he collected junk, trash, and recycled goods to use in the construction of his castle. He collected washer drums, car rims, shells, tile, and even car parts. One item that is used in abundance was Busch beer cans. Either there was a cheap bar nearby or Capt Nit Wit liked to have a brewski or two while he worked. If you’ve got a hankering to see some artfully placed junk, the current owners, Michael and Stacy O’Malley do give tours.
Like many castles, Coral Castle seems to have been constructed with a woman in mind. Edward Leedskalnin was jilted by his 16-year-old fiancée Agnes Scuffs before moving to Dade County, Florida where he built his dream home. Never allowing anyone to view him building, stories surfaced from teens saying that he moved the blocks of stone about like “hydrogen balloons” and when asked during castle tours how he built it, Edward would only reply that “it wasn’t hard if you knew how.”
Whether a way to work through grief, forget about a lost love or merely build something on a budget, the gardens featured in the book are range from slightly odd to downright crazy. I often wonder as I relocate my gargoyle statue with a broken wing to another portion of the garden or plant succulents in discarded vent pipes if this is how it starts. One up-cycled item and soon the neighbors are worried about their property values. Or is this the reason home owners associations started? Whatever the cause of the obsession, the results can be fascinating. As you flip through the pages of the book it’s almost like peeking inside the mind of a crazy person.
Who should you gift this book to? Those who are fascinated by artistic passion verging on obsession.