A folk art environment is like turning the soul of an artist inside out and putting it in the front yard for the entire world to see. Most of us like to let the world know how we feel about things to a certain degree, but rarely do we place our thoughts in our yard like this and open ourselves up for critiques from our neighbors and passersby.
Bruce and I set out 35 years back to seek and collect things that are hard to find: books, records, people, places, and the marvel of handmade objects. For many years we have conducted a gallery dedicated to art that’s often narrative, naïve, and obsessive or bold in design, form, or color. Our business cards say, “We sell soul.”
Through our searches in the mid 1980s, we were first introduced to Rev. JL Hunter in South Dallas. Rev. Hunter had a tree in his backyard that had been cut down due to a lightning strike. When the tree was being chopped, Rev. Hunter stopped the cut at his height and carved and painted out what he saw as a human figure in the remnant. Rev. Hunter’s tree was the first yard show we identified. His work was everything we were looking for in the handmade, and we were then catapulted into knowing the maker and the vision of the creative process.
In the 1970s and 80s in the Dallas area, there was also Willard Watson—The Texas Kid’s yard over by Love Field airport. Willard’s yard looked like an old Wild West graveyard crossed with a pimp’s office plus a dose of the love of nature. It was filled with Willard’s creations using found elements that transformed into figures and forms, giving it the air of a voodoo scene. Willard’s yard and house were used as a set in David Byrne’s film True Stories, as Pop Staples played the spell caster of true love.
Art environments are created mostly from a handful of core reasons: they can be a silent but bold welcome sign from the lonely; a testament from the religious; a megaphone of a social message; or born from tragedy and used by the artist to cope and recover. And because Texas welcomes the absurd in our culture and the outlandish in our characters, it is no wonder it is home to incredible art environments, some that should encourage a dedicated road trip.
We recently set out on a short trip to see a few vibrant Texas environments. Our first stop was El Paso.
1. Ho Baron
El Paso, Texas
El Paso is as west as you get in Texas, and this isolated big city is ripe with art environments. The art scene of El Paso is rich and multicultural but has little outside influence, and local opportunities to exhibit work are limited. Artist Ho Baron lives on a corner lot of one of El Paso’s major streets and chose the yard of his craftsman era home for his own sculpture park. His concrete and bronze sculptures create a natural environment among the landscaping, beckoning the viewer to engage with Ho Baron. Born in Chicago in 1941, Ho was raised in El Paso where his father ran the famed Dave’s Pawn Shop, known for its extreme taxidermy and circus gaff collection.
While living in Philadelphia, Ho took a modeling/mold-making class, then later returned to El Paso and purchased his current home in the early 1980s to start work on his environment. He refers to his work through Carl Jung’s theories of universal creative unconscious, and his pieces evoke the feeling of idols to another world. The work reminded us of art environments we had visited in France years ago such as Les Rochers Sculptés in Saint-Malo or Robert Tatin’s work at Cossé-le-Vivien. Each piece of Ho’s bears the strong image of a figure created in armature, then molded for bronze or cement casting. Every piece is a joyful and haunting totem with a powerful hint of the surreal.
2. Casa de Azucar
El Paso, Texas
Not far from Ho Baron’s environment of sculptures is Rufino Loya Rivas’s yard, years ago dubbed Casa de Azucar by neighbors. The Sugar House started as a very simple house, once abandoned and unkempt until Mr. Rivas purchased it in 1971. He promised his wife he would turn the house into something beautiful that she would be proud of. After the first couple of years of work on the inside, Mr. Rivas started building the first shrine of Virgin de Guadalupe in the front yard. He used the economical route of cement and taught himself to build molds from all sorts of household items, then cast and stacked them to build columns and forms that create each niche. Mr. Rivas, born in 1933, is a fifth generation El Paso-Juárez denizen and worked all his life as an operator for Levis Strauss. He would come home from work each day to catch the last couple hours of light and relax by working on his yard show, which he dedicated to the city of El Paso. After the first niche, he started on the front fence of columns and structures, all the while using light blue and white to portray a clean contrast to the sandy terrain. The colors and shapes are a perfect blend to represent a place of reverence and devotion. Over the past 25 years, Mr. Rivas has added fences on all sides of his huge lot, several other shrines, and the addition of pink tones. Now in his 80s, Mr. Rivas still works most days maintaining, painting, and cleaning the environment, ensuring its place as a beautiful glowing cake-top in the desert landscape of El Paso.
From El Paso we took the lovely drive of I-10 heading back southeast towards Austin. Sometimes we travel across the world to see something amazing, yet we can miss what is similarly impressive in our own backyards—the Cathedral of Junk by Vince Hannemann in Austin is a place we’d known of for years.
3. Cathedral of Junk
True to the title, it’s made from just about any interesting junk you can imagine—discarded electronics, all kinds of household detritus, and enough crutches to form a giant futuristic sanctuary to the healed. Vince is an artist who relocated from Santa Fe to Austin in the early 1980s for income and not the music scene, which beckoned so many during that period. He started his structure in the backyard of his rental house, only later purchasing the home as he continued to build. But as his structure grew, so did his problems with the City of Austin. They enforced height limit of 35 ft., easement borders, and attempted to regulate visitors, but Vince stayed true to the path of his voracious intent. He has a bit of a surly disposition and outcast personality, but he welcomes visitors in droves to see his personal paradise and to awe at its engineering, scale, and artistic attributes.
4. The Beer Can House + The Orange Show
Other Texas environments we dearly love and have visited many times are The Orange Show and The Beer Can House, both in Houston. Postman Jeff McKissack worked in isolation on his ingenious, colorful theme park to the health benefits of oranges from 1956 until his passing in 1980. He used common building materials and found objects to make a wonder of mazes, mosaics, walkways, and an amphitheater, all with the colors orange and white.
The Beer Can House is another art site maintained by the Orange Show Foundation and well worthy of a visit—a diamond between modern, towering condos. It was started in 1968 by John Milkovisch to keep busy after retirement. He covered his home in flattened beer cans, creating his own form of aluminum siding and made garlands with the cans for decorations that twinkle in the wind.
Resources for the Preservation of Art Environments in the US
In Texas, there is The Orange Show Center for Visionary Art which preserves, promotes, and documents visionary art environments. orangeshow.org
Architect Narrow Larry keeps a well-documented website of art shows across the country. narrowlarry.com
- SPACES was a group started in 1978 as an organization for saving, preserving, and documenting art environments worldwide. SPACES archives will be housed, and its work continued, at Art Preserve, the world's first museum dedicated to art environments at the Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, which opened in June 2021. spaces-art-environments.org / jmkac.org/art-preserve
Julie and Bruce Webb met in 1984, and it was love at first sight. They have spent a lifetime together researching Southern culture through every creative outlet. Road trips have been the fuel for a life where the search for the miraculous is always in blossom. Their love for outsider art is the cornerstone of Webb Gallery in downtown Waxahachie, Texas where strong original vocabulary of form and good times have kept Webb Gallery shining bright since 1987.
Photos: 1. Ho Baron, Chac Mol, El Paso, Texas. Photography by Fred Scruton. / 2. Rufino Loya Rivas, Casa de Azucar, El Paso, Texas. Photography by Fred Scruton. / 3. Vince Hannemann, Cathedral of Junk, Austin, Texas. Photography courtesy of Julie and Bruce Webb. / 4. John Milkovisch, The Beer Can House, Houston, Texas. Photography courtesy of Julie and Bruce Webb.