Southern California is, true to its reputation, the “land of opportunity” if you’ve got something you want to do that you just haven’t been able to do elsewhere.
If you want to build a mountain out in the middle of the God-forsaken desert, you probably can. Dream of living in a cabin made out of coffee cans? No biggie. Decoupage your garage in old beer bottle labels? There’s probably a handbook for that.
But even though this is more or less a “safe zone” for letting your freak flag fly, some people’s own personal unique expressions can have a polarizing effect on their neighbors. Such is the case with folk art: it can be ugly, disordered, and unfinished; but it can also be colorful, whimsical, and downright magical.
Check out these six great folk art environments to decide for yourself:
On your way to or from Vegas, make a detour along the National Trails Highway to walk through a grove of stalks and spokes and colored glass, known as the Bottle Tree Ranch. Repurposed soda and beer bottles in every color spin in place, glass rattling against metal gently, rhythmically, like the lapping of waves. For some, it’s a peaceful clinking, along with an occasional windchime and cowbell. Close your eyes to feel the hot wind on your face, and listen to the trains go by as the metal spins and creaks and broken glass crunches underfoot. Before you decide whether it’s junkyard art or just junk, make sure you say hi to Elmer, if he’s out and about (which he isn’t, always), and hear the stories from the guy who decided that green glass could, in fact, grow on trees.
Folk artists’ use of bottles isn’t limited to just trees – or the desert. Up in Simi Valley, there's a place made nearly entirely out of every kind of bottle imaginable. Grandma Prisbrey constructed her Bottle Village out of soda bottles, Chlorox bottles, blue bottles, green bottles, brown bottles, and various ephemera, all held together with mortar. You might find broken shards of china, a baby doll head or foot, or other unexpected materials embedded along retaining walls, pathways, and other areas throughout the site, which covers a third of an acre. Like many folk artists, Grandma Prisbrey taught herself the construction techniques; but she started relatively late in life, at the age of 60. And, true to the art form, she was never quite done with it, even after 25 years, 15 structures, and tens of thousands of bottles she’d collected from the nearby dump. Bottle Village battened down the hatches in anticipation of winter 2015/2016 storms, but they plan to reopen for tours in May 2016.
3. Watts Towers
Perhaps the most unusual part of the LA skyline isn’t among the Downtown high rises, but in the small neighborhood of Watts. In fact, the image of those mosaic-tiled folk art towers rising up from South LA has become so intertwined with the image of LA itself, it’s hard to imagine that Simon Rodia’s larger-than-life sculptures of steel rebar, porcelain, tile, and glass had once been condemned and ordered for demolition. It took the tile mason over 30 years to construct Watts Towers, and apparently he did such a remarkable structural and architectural job that they’ve withstood a stress test of a 10,000-pound load. Shortly after he finished the Towers (which is surprising, since outsider art like this is frequently never completed), he gave them to a neighbor and moved away. They changed hands a few times and survived an all-too-familiar preservation battle, and they’re now under the stewardship of the Watts Towers Arts Center, which has been their guardian since 1961. The Towers are not only open for tours, but also community events and educational and arts programming. If you’ve only seen them from afar, you haven’t really seen them – not until you stand right underneath, and look up through them.
If the Crescenta Valley had its own version of Watts Towers, Dunsmore Park would be it. The City of Glendale converted the grounds of the former Mount Lukens Sanitarium (later known as Dunsmore Sanitarium) into parkland in 1957, leaving the community house, rock gateways, and retaining walls. And those walls – made of local granite and fragments from Montana, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico – are, in their own way, a work of art. At least, they’re folk art, featuring a hodgepodge of found materials embedded into mortar like scissors, wheels, gears, horseshoes, pliers, faucets, and decorative tiles. The rock art walls were the pet project of the owner of Dunsmore Sanitarium, Milton Hofert, and no one’s really sure how much help he got from some of the tuberculosis patients who weren’t quite so “done for.” The walls appeared sometime in the 1940s and 50s; and by now, vandals and scavengers have pocketed some of the antique embellishments for their potential collector's and resale value, leaving only an impression of what was once there. Anything that's left – and there is plenty to see – is probably pretty firmly planted in there, though you can be sure that someone has tried to wrestle it out.
5. Tio's Tacos & Sanchez’s Beer Bottle Chapel
People who drive between LA and Joshua Tree often complain that there's nothing to do or see in between. I say, Au contraire. Case in point: Behind Tio's Tacos in Riverside, there is a magical garden made mostly of beer bottles, mannequins, statues, rubber masks, and other found materials and ephemera. Among the folk art attractions here are coffee can chandeliers, a musical band made of robots, a pensive gnome, and a tree made out of beer kegs. Most of the floor / sidewalk is lined with mosaic tile, leading to a teepee made out of cement and beer bottles. Sanchez’s Beer Bottle Chapel – named after the artist behind the garden, Tio's Tacos restaurant owner Martin Sanchez – is actually an active chapel, where various services are held. Go and say a prayer, get married, memorialize someone you love, and then grab some tacos. You’ll find Sanchez at the restaurant, or in his house next door.
To put it most succinctly, Nitt Witt Ridge in Cambria is one man's castle, made out of another man's trash. It’s literally a house made of garbage. Its builder, Captain Nitt Witt as he was called (also known as Tinker Paw), was Cambria's local garbageman, and most people think that very little of the trash he collected ever actually made it to the dump. Rather, he put it all into the construction of his house, whose primary building materials were empty cans of beer, pull tabs, and toilets, along with some salvaged wood, rocks, shells, and homemade mortar. The captain lived in this living landfill alone his whole life; and despite his lifelong bachelor status – probably because the Captain reportedly only showered once a year and never cleaned – he incorporated lots of "his and hers" elements into his decor. Nitt Witt Ridge has been landmarked as an example of the folk art movement, but after the Captain was sent to a nursing home, the house stood abandoned, fell into severe disrepair, and was subjected to looting. The man who bought it in the '90s for $40,000 has taken the care to fix leaking roofs, provide security against trespassers, and conduct tours for curious visitors. Although you can see quite a bit from the street, it’s worth taking the tour so you can see the hot water heaters that were stripped of their insulation, towers of tire rims, and jars of oddities in the backyard.
BONUS: Salvation Mountain
Leonard Knight's Salvation Mountain is a manmade mountain of trash and papier mâché and paint that was also once an ever-growing mountain of salvation. This was Leonard's home. He lived there, out in the middle of the desert, in a town near the Salton Sea called Niland. And he was adding a new coat of paint to it daily, welcoming curious visitors, until he passed away a couple years ago at age 82. Without Leonard at the helm, Salvation Mountain does live on to broadcast Leonard's message: "God Is Love." But while it was constantly receiving a fresh coat of paint while Leonard was alive, it’s now in a state of arrested development and preservation limbo. Go see it before the elements – or vandals – get to it first.