Urban Explorations Urban Explorations

Seven Works of Art to Visit That Use Discarded Junk to Create Masterpieces

One person’s trash is another person’s artistic inspiration

(Image courtesy of Flickr user Kārlis Dambrāns)
smithsonian.com

From a Picasso worth $179 million to a child’s macaroni necklace, art can be many things. The definition has been debated for centuries and will continue to be for centuries to come. The tools of the artist can also be diverse—some artists use brushes, others their tongue; some use canvas, others use toast; some use paint, while others use trash.

The use of unconventional materials is a frequent theme in visionary art, sometimes also called outsider art. The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, defines visionary art in part as “art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training." Visionary art environments take this form to the next level, creating a completely unique, wholly imaginative space in which self-trained artists convey their artistic vision. 

While visionary art environments exist all over the world, Americans have a particular predilection for them. Here are seven places around the United States where discarded junk has been turned into artistic masterpieces, and all of them are open for visits this summer.

Noah Purifoy's Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum: Josuha Tree, California

Ten acres of strange structures constructed entirely out of junked materials—broken toilets, crooked chairs and mattresses with their springs protruding—sits in the middle of the wind-swept Mojave Desert, a short distance away from Joshua Tree National ParkNoah Purifoy’s Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum feels like a literal ghost town, and not just because there is usually no one around; many of the structures feel like they've actually been lived in. Creating a sense of vanished life has always been Noah Purifoy’s forte.

In 1966, he created the work “66 Signs of Neon” using charred debris from the 1965 Watts Riots. He was also a founding member of the Watts Towers Arts Center (which today looks after Watts Towers). In 1971, he made an installation consisting of a one-bedroom apartment designed to look as if it was inhabited by 11 people.

In 1989, at the age of 72, he moved to the desert to complete his final work, the Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum. Many of the materials used for the structures were collected in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts as well.

Purifoy died in 2004, leaving these structures as his legacy. The site is open dawn to dusk, with pamphlets at the entrance encouraging visitors to guide themselves.

About Matt Blitz

Matt Blitz is a history and travel writer. His work has been featured on CNN, Atlas Obscura, Curbed, Nickelodeon, and Today I Found Out. He also runs the Obscura Society DC and is a big fan of diners.

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