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.

Cathedral of Junk: Austin, Texas

(© Erich Schlegel/Corbis)

Vince Hannemann never meant for his Cathedral of Junk to become anything more than the fulfillment of his own artistic expression. Started in 1989 with just “a bunch of hubcaps on the fence” in Hannemann's backyard, this ever-evolving structure has become a place for junk to find its higher calling. Peering around the many different pieces that make up the Cathedral, visitors can find old telephones, bicycle parts, CDs, shards of porcelain, light fixtures, bottles and pretty much anything else that would qualify as junk. Yet instead of going into a landfill, this trash has now become a part of something greater—a personal artistic masterpiece. When asked what it all means to him, Hannemann has been known to scoff. Frankly, he says, it doesn’t matter what it means to him. Art isn’t in the eye of the artist, it is in the eye of the beholder.

In 2010, the Cathedral of Junk was under the threat of being torn down after neighbors and city officials became concerned about the stability and safety of the structures. With the help of volunteers, including construction workers, lawyers, architects and engineers, the structures were stabilized and earned the proper permits from the city. Today, visitors can still make their pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Junk, provided they make an appointment first.

Rubel Castle: Glendora, California

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Michael Rubel never liked his mother’s parties, even if they did include 1960s Hollywood royalty and personalities such as Alfred Hitchcock, Jack Benny and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The noise, commotion and constant visitors invading his family's 2.5-acre citrus farm in Southern California bothered him. To escape it all, he started building his own private residence on the farm out of discarded bottles collected during those parties. From then on, he didn’t stop building.

In 1968, he began construction on his masterpiece—Rubel Castle, or as Michael sometimes called it, Rubelia. Using salvaged concrete, found stones, broken bottles and motorcycle parts, he built his abode over 18 years. The Castle's highest point—the Clock Tower—reaches 74 feet, with the entire complex stretching over 22,000 square feet. He didn’t do it alone, however. When word spread that Michael was building himself a castle, hundreds of volunteers came to help cement and construct what would become a point of DIY pride for the Glendora community.

Prior to his death in 2007, Michael arranged for the Glendora Historical Society to take over operations of his castle, and the society still offers tours today. In 2013, Rubel Castle achieved historical recognition from the State of California.

Elmer's Bottle Tree Ranch: Oro Grande, California

There's a unique type of forest along Route 66 in California—a forest of bottle trees.

Elmer Long began constructing his bottle tree ranch in 2000 in memory of his father. As a kid, he helped his dad amass a large bottle collection as the two searched in trash dumps together. When his father died, Elmer inherited the bottles and decided to build a monument to his dad. Now, with nearly 200 “trees” in his ranch, the display is at once beautiful, majestic, sad and inspiring. “I don’t throw anything away," Long says. "It’s nothing but memories.”

Today, the site is open from dawn to dusk and visitors can see the vibrant bottles twinkle in the desert sun and chime in the desert wind.

Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens: Summerville, Georgia

Howard Finster wasn’t just prolific. He was unworldly. From 1976 until 2001, Finster made 46,991 pieces of art, all marked with the exact date and time they were completed. Many of his works dealt with themes that were out of this world, including pieces about the existence of heaven and his thoughts on alien life. Finster became so well-known as a folk artist that bands like REM and the Talking Heads enlisted him to design album covers. But Finster’s crowning achievement may be the art on display at his home and gardens in Summerville, Georgia, about 90 miles northwest of Atlanta.   

Scattered around Paradise Gardens are artworks filled with broken mirrors, shards of colored glass, utensils and plastic toys. There is even a mound of bicycle parts in the middle of the property, delicately and artfully placed.

When Finster passed away in 2001, his home and gardens fell into disrepair, but there has been a movement to restore them. Over the last decade, the gardens have been manicured, structures restored and artwork cleaned. As an acknowledgment of the importance of this place and Finster to the art community, in 2012 the National Park Service put Paradise Gardens on the National Register of Historic Places.

The gardens are open six days a week with tours available. Additionally, Airbnb offers the chance to spend the night at the legendary artist's abode. Finster Fest, the annual fundraiser for Paradise Gardens, will take place on May 30 and 31.

Watts Towers: Los Angeles, California

(© Micha Pawlitzki/Corbis)

In the south Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, an area known for violent riots in both 1965 and 1992, 17 steel structures tower into the sky, the tallest reaching nearly one hundred feet. Built over 33 years by Italian immigrant Simon “Sam” Rodia, they are said to be “the world’s largest single construction created by one individual.” Made out of steel, mortar, wire mesh, pipes, broken glass and even sea shells, these towers are not only an artistic accomplishment but an engineering one as well.

Little is known about Rodia’s early life and why, exactly, he decided to build 17 huge towers. He immigrated to America in his early twenties at the turn of the 20th century, and lived all over the lower 48 before settling in Los Angeles around 1921. It was about this time that he began the project that would make him famous. As for his aspirations, Rodia is believed to have once said, “I wanted to do something big and I did it.”

The Watts Towers are now a California State Historic Park and one of only a few examples of folk art currently on the National Register of Historic Places. Docent-led tours are given several times a week by the Watts Towers Art Center. The house Rodia lived in while building the towers is also open for visits.

Tinkertown Museum: Sandia Park, New Mexico

Along the Turquoise Trail of New Mexico, hidden in the hills and behind rows of trees, sits the Tinkertown Museum. Created over a 40-year period by sculptor, artist, wood carver and collector Ross J. Ward, this 22-room “museum” was given its name because Ward said he could never stop tinkering.

As a self-taught artist, Ward got his start painting backdrops and models for carnivals across the country. In 1983, he put down roots in New Mexico and opened up his house to showcase his art and collections.

From miniature wood-carved 1940s circus dioramas to a collection of wedding cake toppers to a wall constructed in part by 50,000 broken glass bottles, each room highlights Ward's personal sensibility and his hard work. A sign on the wall tells the visitor, “I did all this while you were watching TV.”

In 1998, Ward was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease and died four years later. But the Tinkertown Museum is still inviting visitors today, with Ward’s wife, Carla, living next door and making sure the museum, and Ward’s legacy, lives on.  

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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