Today, we build gardens of raw imagination. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
John Beardsley calls his
recent book, Gardens of Revelation.
It's about a very odd, and often repeated, kind of
human creativity -- an art of ornate, home-made
structures, built from scraps.
You've probably heard of the Watts Towers in Los
Angeles. Between the 1920s and 1954, a laborer
named Sam Rodia built a great artificial garden of
gazebos, open archwork, walls, and towers a hundred
feet high. He used steel rods encrusted with
concrete and embossed with seashells, broken
bottles, and tiles.
Here in Houston we have several such works. One is
a house completely embossed with beer cans. Best
known is one called The Orange Show. A
retired postman, Jeff McKissack, built it in the
1960s and '70s. McKissack believed the orange was
the ultimate health food. It would heal all moral
and physical ills.
The Orange Show looks like an amusement park made
of tile, concrete, and castoff metal parts. It is a
maze of rooms, passages, and levels. Tucked away
inside is a small amphitheater with iron tractor
seats for the audience. "Love oranges and live!"
cries one of McKissack's signs.
A Washington, D.C., janitor, James Hampton, spent fourteen
years scouring trash bins for scrap gold and silver
foil, glass, and metallic bits and pieces while he
created his Throne of the Third Heaven of the
Nation's Millennium. Hampton furnished his
imagined throne room with a dazzling suite that
expressed his religious revelation. It's now come
to rest in the Smithsonian Institution.
Raymond Isidore, a French foundry worker, built his
Maison Picassiette with a chapel, a Throne
of Heaven, and a panorama of Jerusalem. That one,
sitting as it does in the shadow of Chartres Cathedral, has a peculiar
Look around your city and you'll find these
fabrications, but they're often hidden away.
They're built from the stuff we throw away, built
over long years, built with love, built with a
fierce attention to detail, built outside any
accepted canon of art, built of passionate
Look at Tressa Prisbrey's Bottle Village in
Simi, California. She used everything from dolls'
heads to hubcaps to make her Shrine of All
Religions -- her Television-Picture-Tube fence.
I Look at Kea Tawana's ark in the middle of a field
and remember an engineer I knew. He spent years
building a huge aluminum boat in his Idaho barn --
no water around for miles. Only as he finished did
he realize he'd built it much larger than the barn
door. But it didn't matter. All that mattered was
building it. Look around you and you'll see far
more of this nameless visionary art than you ever
dreamt was there.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds