When I was twelve, my parents took me to see an eccentric house in Wheeling, West Virginia. Plastic statues in clashing scales and jubilant disarray erupted from the house’s property lines: reindeer, jack-o-lanterns, Santas, teddy bears, flamingoes, nutcrackers, Jesus, Joseph, swans, Mary, and Magi, all interspersed with American flags. The owner had created a rickety grid-work of grotto-like displays extending around the home’s perimeter, a polyptych taken over by American holiday icons. Banners fashioned from the lids of spray-paint cans created a riot of loose parabolas. A yellow Golgotha emerged from a landscape of plastic poinsettias and cattails. In a crowded string of single-family homes, this house refused to lead a muffled existence. It was an avalanche of the aggregate, an epiphany of lawn ornamentation, an obsession writ large on the environment.
I find the image above in the bottom of a disorganized box of family photos. It’s part of a huge stack; my mother (or was it my father?) had photographed the house from every imaginable angle, with obsessive zeal. A few pictures feature me in front of the house, an awkward pre-teen in a pink sweatshirt and oversized glasses.
The job of sorting (or not sorting) family photos falls to me, in my late twenties. I’m an only child. My mother has died, and my father’s brain has coiled into a mass of neurofibrillary pile-ups. Along with the photos, an onslaught of objects. My parents were collectors; now I own collections.
Obviously the owner of the house was a collector, too. I want to consider him or her fully, perform what imaginative guesswork I might. As I do, I hear a chorus of objections raised about the house itself, its clown-like presence. The obsessive creation of a hoarder? The homeowner clearly diagnosable with a spectrum of psychological disorders?
But what I want to know, more than anything, is if we can consider this house as an inquiry into aesthetics instead of a war against taste. I want to know what my parents thought of this house, why they devoted over two rolls of film to it, far more than they used for the average family vacation. I want to understand if collections can spare us from sadness.
In the 1950s and 60s Tressa Luella Prisbrey uses 1,000,015 bottles to construct fifteen bottle homes and eleven garden follies on her 1/3 acre lot in Simi Valley, California.
Intermixed in the mortar forming the bottle homes, follies, and pathways are: keys, guns, locks, scissors, headlights, glasses, paper clips, bullet casings, toothbrushes, forks, beads, plates, glass IV tubes, TV screens, Clorox and Milk of Magnesia bottles, license plates, and a recipe for French salad dressing.
She builds because she needs room for more collections: pine cones, shells, horseshoes, golf teas, lipstick cases, 17,000 pencils.
She sources her found objects from the local dump, driving in an antiquated Studebaker. She sorts meticulously through heaps of refuse.
As she builds, six of her seven children die:
Velma is dying of cancer at age 35. She asks her mother for a rose garden. Prisbrey lugs castaway headlights home in the Studebaker, stacks them in shiny circles and places rose bushes in the center. Earl becomes sick with cancer; she builds a bottle home for him to rest in. When he dies she fills it with shells.
Prisbrey assembles discarded dolls’ heads from the dump and mounts them on stakes at the edge of her property.
Clustered together like pansies, they form a shrine.
A Primer on Outsider Architecture
There are a number of houses like the one in my picture, all loosely clumped under the heading of “outsider architecture,” and part of the larger world of visionary architecture. Works of outsider architecture highlight (for some, with bathos) the collector’s impulse. Rejoicing in flotsam, outsider architects gather old bottles, pieces of ceramic and porcelain, sea shells, fossils, and found objects. With these outsized collections, they start building. And so the collections flow into baroque environments: bottle homes, mosaic towers, fossil palaces, garden follies. It’s an obsessive pursuit, as most collecting habits are. 140,000 pieces of plate, 22,000 Clorox bottles. The point is to create personalized architecture, visionary domestic space unmediated by the eye of a trained architect.
On Collections and Sadness
At an elemental level, accretion of anything, whether mutual funds or plastic reindeer, can be seen as a buffer against decay. Building a collection, then, is just one of the many ways we fight entropy, and outsider architects fight entropy with a vengeance. Ordering their collections into ornate buildings is essentially their way of telling obscurity to fuck off, of taunting the return to dust. Walter Benjamin made marvelous notes about collectors for The Arcades Project (some of which find their way into “Unpacking my Library,” Benjamin’s meditation on the delights of his book collection). He centers on two essential collector-ly attributes: first, the collector’s aforementioned need to “accumulate” in the face of approaching death. The collection is an illusion of stability, one that gives us a tangible sense of identity, construction and progress, in opposition to the endless flux of matter, to dizzying reminders of impermanence.
But Benjamin saw a further value to collections: the unexpected associations that form when an object leaves the sphere of the practical and enters the aesthetic sphere of a collection. By putting an everyday object into a collection (and then perhaps affixing it to a house), we unleash the hidden power objects possess when released from the prim ordinariness of Function: the power to make us nostalgic, to make us pine, and most importantly, to evoke involuntary memories.
Much like the house my parents found, much like Prisbrey’s Bottle Village, works of outsider architecture are beguiling jumbles. They settle comfortably into a series of visual paradoxes: disorderly yet ordered, gleeful yet sad. Bypassing wit or irony, they simply leave us caught, rapturously, in a land of strange and generous gestures. Focusing in on any small section of Prisbrey’s Bottle Village leads us to the “magic circle” Benjamin describes, a curated juxtaposition bordering “on the chaos of memories.” Looking at streams of refuse and mosaiced pieces of plate, eyeglasses eerily sunk into cement, and small porcelain dolls swirled in ecstatic patterns, we float on a sea of obscure reminders.
The Surrealist Breton describes in Nadja an accidental encounter with an ordinary object at a flea market, which led him “to an almost forbidden world of sudden parallels, petrifying coincidences...of harmonies struck as though on the piano, flashes of light that would make you see, really see.” The Surrealists embraced chance encounters among everyday objects, and in a way you could see them as self-consciously working themselves back to the point where outsider architects start, using defamiliarized contexts as a means to bypass western expression, as a way to access something more primal, more dream-like, and paradoxically more real.
I’m building a case (circuitously, inspired by my architects) for the multiple looks my parents evidently gave the house in West Virginia. It might be an excrudescence, but a thought provoking one. I’ll admit that I like the way it looks. It’s the kind of house that might give Martha Stewart a heart attack. It objects, via amplification, to the aesthetics of most suburbs, and I roundly object to their aesthetics as well. The house and I are co-conspirators. We both want things to be different than they are. We both find collections one satisfying way to accomplish that. And if you’re still wondering if our homeowner is a hoarder instead of say, a collector, why don’t we just annihilate the difference between a collection of holiday tchotchkes and a collection of Benjamin’s books, between detritus and treasure? Why not think of a museum as a culturally-sanctioned form of hoarding?
When my mother died, her objects took on a strange and overwhelming significance. She had been a lifetime collector of books and vintage postcards, of various topical collections such as opera glasses and signed works by Edward Gorey. I kept all of her beloved collections, and as a consequence my small apartment in Brooklyn took on an additional 2,000 books, over 100,000 vintage postcards, a cat, a parrot, and myriad small animal figurines, the latter bemused exiles that line my closet shelves. I could have taken inspiration from outsider architects, placed the animal statues in mortar, assembled a shrine at the front of my brownstone. One of my neighbors had already set the example, covering the entire facade of her brownstone on Wyckoff Street with small figurines, found objects and mosaics made of pieces of glass and plate. Instead, I just went into my closet and cried, at once comforted and betrayed by what remained of my mother’s rapturous and indefinable personality. The stuff we collect might be an insufficient amulet, but for some of us it’s better than nothing.
It’s unsurprising that some people react unfavorably to works of outsider architecture. It’s not uncommon for neighbors to complain about the sites, initial astonishment waxing to embarrassment and disdain. Sticking dolls’ heads on stakes and shards of spent pottery on walls, forming hand-built towers, and erecting undulating palaces of junk are all activities regarded as strange ambition.
Looking at the catalogs sent to my home, I find it easy to understand why outsider architecture sites can be so distinctly destabilizing. The catalogs show me it’s wonderful to have stuff, mind you, as long as it’s tastefully hidden in a $600 credenza from West Elm—or substitute the design or furniture store of choice along the sliding scale of your disposable income. Magazines like Real Simple or Martha Stewart Living give us glossy solutions to consumption--ingenious ways to spend more money and keep under wraps the overflux of stuff we already have. The focus is on organization, simplicity, and how to spend money on organization and simplicity. In these terms, affixing a profusion of anything to the outside of the home, whether Clorox bottles, reindeer, or a rock collection, is distinctly disruptive, a crass admission of the true state of our messy lives. Yet outsider architecture sites, in embracing their enormous and decidedly unhip collections of stuff, give us healthy reminders of all we discard. In their tenderness for the lost and overlooked items of consumption culture, their works are not unlike works of Schwitters or Twombly, giving us a nostalgia for the castoff, for the marginalized, for what can’t be hidden by gloss.
On Collections and Happiness
“The pictures are like heavenly choirs composed of waifs and strays, down-and-outs, odd balls in even holes, each allowed its own voice which then combines with the others in surprising harmony.” - Danto on Schwitters
There’s a man who spends his days sitting on the sidewalk of my Brooklyn neighborhood who makes me unreasonably happy every time I see him. Adopting a lonely strip on Columbia Street by the piers, he creates temporary and sometimes mobile outdoor environments out of a basic constellation of found objects. Some days he pushes a shopping cart filled with discarded stuff: shoes, newspapers, cardboard boxes, two liter bottles, cans of cat food. He brings a singular visual energy to the arrangement of these objects, a chaotic still life of urban detritus. The shopping cart has an umbrella attached, and over the umbrella he drapes a noisy rainbow striped blanket, slowly making his way down the street under its canopy. This rainbow blanket is the idée fixe of his arrangements. He wraps it around his head, or it becomes his cape, his cloak, encircling him and his oversized army pants along with a few other bright textiles. With so much drapery, he looks like a desert nomad, but with the volume and gravitas of a prophet. He often careens around on a bike overloaded with bags, perilously steering with one hand and holding the umbrella aloft in the other, his layers of clothing floating in and around him in surreal equilibrium.
He is Eshete Woldeyilma, and I think of him as an outsider artist, a man, as DuBuffet put it, “unscathed by artistic culture.” An Ethiopian refugee who fled the Mengistu genocide thirty years ago, he walked over a thousand miles through the desert to escape to Sudan before eventually making his way to New York. Injured in a construction accident, he now lives on welfare and food stamps. He comes to the Columbia Street Waterfront District everyday from his housing in Manhattan primarily to feed an extended family of stray cats living in the construction zone on Columbia Street. He considers them family. All of his cats are named after world leaders, from the eldest, Cleopatra, to the youngest, Churchill.
In pointing out that Eshete is an outsider artist, I do not mean to romanticize what is likely a life of poverty and hardship. Instead I’m trying to give credit where it’s due. As I drive to work each day, my sporadic sightings of him are enough, indeed sometimes the only thing, to draw me out of the fog of loss and malaise in which I frequently find myself. I shift from my own dismay, quiet and muffled, and instead think of him: losing, losing, walking, losing. At the end of all the losing he clings to an outsized rainbow blanket, a blanket he commands as a multifaceted prop to magnify and shape existence. At the end of the losing there’s a family of cats, with whom he shelters, surrounded by a careful collection of castaways. In one of his letters, Aldous Huxley describes the search for visionary experience via colors, art, jewels, anything bright, telling us that “shiny objects remind the subconscious of what is there, at the mind’s Antipodes, and being so reminded, the subconscious turns away from the ordinary world towards the visionary world.” Eshete wields his rainbow blanket as a weapon against the mundane and the expected. He survives with flamboyance, with joyful and idiosyncratic distortions of the environment. Because he often sits in a battered armchair on Columbia Street, he is sometimes framed by the impersonal skyline of Manhattan. A disenfranchised king, imperiled, full of grand gestures, he lives a visionary existence on a small stretch of sidewalk, an outsider architect without a building.
A section of one of my mother’s poems I found, after she died:
The more eloquently they build the longer
they live. Birds, outrageous birds,
outlandish hearts...longer they live.
-Vicki Kennelly Stock
Jennifer Stock is a Brooklyn-based composer, writer, and video artist. She recently completed a doctorate in music composition as a Chancellor’s Fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center, and she regularly contributes pieces on music, art and technology to the blog I Care If You Listen.