E.T. Wickham and the State of
American Folk Art Environments

Daniel Prince
President, Self Taught Artists Resources,
Nashville, Tennessee


   Nature or Nurture  

By being in the “out of doors,” folk art environments immediately pose questions about whether the artist is nurturing his image of the environment or relying on nature to take the lead. The greater the attempt to go with the natural flow the less we see of the artist’s own vision. The more the artist makes his own style distinct, the more we see his hand and/or the cultural lay of the land. Whether it is in French formal gardens, religious shrines and cemeteries, American beach parks, sculpture plazas, Zen contemplation paths, Italian grottos, or English follies, the dichotomy between nature and man


A Zen master might choose simplicity of form and a harmony with nature to make the spirit of his “work”, albeit nearly invisible, known. A topiary gardener crafting bushes, flowers, and landscapes for Louis XVI would exhibit man’s overarching and rococo ambition. The Zen master forges an organic bond with the scene, high-lighting man as just another natural being. The taming shears of the topiary gardener demonstrate how through social convention and practice man can subjugate nature. The strong evidence of human presence tends toward the creation of an artistic style, while tipping the balance toward the sublimation of human influence is a bow to nature’s prerogatives.

An example of “Zen” for American sites would be the rock carvings of W. T. Ratcliffe and Burt Vaughn in the desert of Jacumba, California. The shapes the rocks present naturally make the carvings almost too subtle to notice. Only from certain angles does one see the faces, lizards, or cactii. Indeed, all manner of animal and plant images emerge. This, in part, has to do with the bright desert sun bleaching out tool marks and wiping away shadows. The rock carvings at their most plastic have the feel of poured concrete. At dusk the angles of the bas-relief appear from the contours, grimace, laugh, scowl, and then fade into the night.1

Contrast this to the artifice of Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles. The three principal towers reach to ninety-nine and one-half feet, raising their spires imperiously over the one-story bungalows in the neighborhood. The outside surfaces of the concrete “strands” that weave up into the heights contain millions of found-object embellishments. Pebbles, bottle caps, beach glass, tool parts, and broken ceramic dishes were used. Anything given or lying around that Rodia could put on the structure he did. It makes for a highly textured decorative surface. The French revere this site because it falls for them into their well-established category of Art Brut. They see the work in its formal aspects as having some of the same attributes as environments like Ferdinand Cheval’s concrete Palais Idéal, with its similar encrustation of objects in a concrete-stone matrix.2

It is hard to define Wickham’s site as either natural or nurtured. The line of figures on one side of the road is on a slightly higher plane than the garden-like grouping on other side. Originally, the lined-up sculptures stood out crisply against the grassy field behind them, their height emphasized by the fact that they were elevated on pedestals.3 An “anchor” hanging off the end of this line is the self portrait of Wickham himself, mounted on a bull. It appears that he planted the stand of loblolly pine that shades this last piece. Was it a test to see how the rest of figures would look when or if they became overgrown after his death? Or was it to show a contrast between figures taken from history and the myth Wickham was creating for himself? As the gentlemen from textbooks take their places in a dignified manner, Wickham and bull cavort—slightly hidden—between fact and fairy tale. While they stand stolidly in place, he takes his ride to “the wild and woley (sic) west.”4 Before leaving, he made sure, with hundreds of tons of concrete, that everyone knew he had been there.

Wickham kept one side of the road cleared and landscaped in the form of a memorial park. He let the other side go wild and let nature predominate in a seemingly haphazard way, even though he was still crafting the scenery in subtle ways. He let one bush grow fully around a figure so that it seemed as if it were guarding the site and spying on visitors. On this side of the property, where he built himself a cabin, Wickham erected statues on religious themes. But the overall message is as much mystery as revelation. Here nature vies with art for our attention. It hints that there might be more sculpture hidden in the trees or behind his cabin, but doesn’t invite you back there. On one side man has his history, and on the other nature has its secrets. When I wrote about the site for American Art Review in 1975, I was impressed by the figures “looming out of the earth.” Over twenty-five years later, I am equally impressed by how the jumble of foliage embraces the sculptures on the other side of the road, which it seems to have adopted as its own.5

  Rural Geography  

One of the wonders of Wickham’s artistry is that, as straightforward as it seems, it is filled with an innate tension. The location itself is fraught with ambiguity. On one side of the road is a clearing filled with the vines and grasses of the Deep South, while the other is the dense backwoods of the Tennessee hills. Here in northern Middle Tennessee, near the Kentucky border, one finds the rolling terrain of the farthest western fringe of the Appalachian Mountains. Further east lie the Great Smoky Mountains, and to the west are the deltas of the Mississippi River. On this land, one can sense a historical connection to the frontier woodsmen and Indians Wickham memorialized, or maybe an intense sense of obligation to Old Hickory, or to Tennessee WWI hero Alvin York. The other side of the road seems more mysterious because it contains religious sculptures intended as per-sonal meditations or perhaps as explanations to his family and friends of his conversion to (and seriousness about) Roman Catholicism. On one hand Wickham is like a painter of the Hudson River School, looking west to glorious vistas and adventure; on the other he is a homeboy sharing his stuff and proselytizing the locals.

There is a certain charm to building a folk art environment in a rural area. To have a site remain rural for fifty years took foresight. Wickham put it “way out there” beyond the reach of creeping suburbia. For the growing legion of folk environment enthusiasts, the farther out, the better. When I first encountered this site in 1970, such notions seemed related to 1960s hippies and their “back to the land” mantra. Now modern travelers can backpack to the farthest reaches of Asia and still be on land covered by a tourist guidebook. They crave real rural places as an oasis from civilization. “Roots” orientation has become exotic. Thus a rural outpost can attract the intrepid and adventuresome, qualities Wickham might well have desired in his visitors. Inaccessibility can make the experience more profound.

The hidden aspect poses another side of the equation that plagues rural sites. Lack of “citified” distractions for the visitor can make for a peaceful site where visitors often overstay their welcome, leaving trash in their wake. It is also a place where vandals can do their destructive work undisturbed. Homer Green, a woodcarver in his 90’s living in Cannon County in southeast Tennessee has had problems with people shooting at his totem poles, birds, and environment/house. He has expressed that he feels under siege at times. Once you invite the public to come in you give up a measure of privacy and quiet forever. What such artists may not realize is that some travelers, like Marlon Brando in “The Wild Ones,” quest for trouble. When asked in the movie what he is against, Brando asks with a sneer “what have you got?” Such sites are an open invitation to mayhem. 6

Vandalism was a problem even while Wickham was living there. People could ram the sculptures with a pickup truck, or drive by swinging a sledgehammer, take “a lick,” and keep on going. From the beer cans and mason jars found at the site we surmise that many visitors to the site were intoxicated. Bullet holes attest to the fact that people used the sculptures for target practice. Even children swinging on the arms of the statues and fracturing them is mayhem, in its modern form.

This is not to say that urban sites are any better off. Where property is more expensive even a very well known site can face extraordinary pressure from local government and commercial forces. Grandma Prisbey’s Bottle Village in Simi Valley outside of Los Angeles has battled with the city for years despite state landmark status and a national historic preservation designation. A nonprofit preservation organization is still trying to keep $19,000 in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds granted after the Northridge Earthquake. The concrete matrix around the walls of bottles shook and cracked during the quake. FEMA originally granted over $450,000 to rebuild the site, but a local congressman chose to write an open letter decrying this as a waste of taxpayer’s money. Lo and behold, the grant was revoked.7

Environments and their protectors are often made to jump through bureaucratic hoops because, obviously, they can’t run away. Some can hide, however. Baldasare Forestiere dug his Underground Gardens ten feet under the hardpan of Fresno, California. Its invisibility has been its protection. From 1908 until 1946 he excavated hundreds of acres. The drive-in restaurant he con-structed never opened and the carefully grafted plants no longer reach up through skylights. While many of Forestiere’s dreams have died, the physical base of his work still remains.8

There are examples of rural sites that have fared well. The seventy-foot tall totem pole, including base, by Ed Galloway in Foyil, Oklahoma has been a twenty-year conservation project by the Kansas Grassroots Arts Association of Lawrence, Kansas, and the Rogers County Historical Society. Tons of concrete have been re-poured; the outside of the totem, with its two hundred American Indian icons done in relief, has been repainted,9 and thousands of man-hours have been invested.

Preservation issues, thus, vary for each location and no advantage is held due to a site’s being urban or rural. The Wickham site is set up like a pocket park off a town’s main plaza. But why, once you have gone out in the woods and with a lot of property at your disposal, leave the works five feet off the road? Wickham, a naturalist and farmer, could have fashioned a wonderful garden that might have seemed a more appropriate surrounding to his sculpture. It might have mollified the locals and tempered the reaction to the strange works in their midst, but it might also have masked or confused the purpose of his arduous artistic activity. His modifying the “country” to resemble an outdoor museum establishes his artistic intent. Sometimes preservation becomes a sort of “turf war” where the appropriate use of a geographic area is judged by default.

  Artistic Intention and History Sites 

Living like a modern frontiersman and keeping one of the last teams of oxen in Tennessee, Wickham kept to the old ways. The first and only time I ran into him, he was pretty curt and said he couldn’t stop and visit, he “needed to get dinner.” I offered to buy him a meal in town, and now realize that from someone he hardly knew this would sound like charity, and thus be insulting. So, he loped off with his rifle and dogs. I caught up with him as he crossed the road and asked where he was going. “To get a possum I expect,” he said, picked up the pace, walked past his sculptures, across the field, and was gone. I never saw him again. The old ways don’t necessarily communicate to modern society, and without explanation they are not understood. They become forms of communication from the past that have turned their back and gone into oblivion. Wickham risked this at the same time as he laboriously illustrated his historic themes. Environment-makers, unlike other folk artists, often do not transmit the cultural import of their message very well in person. They rely on the visual and physical imposition of their works to function as pedagogical examples. Wickham obviously wanted his message to be taken up without a lot of palaver; and questions from outsiders like me were considered a waste of time.

If an apprentice had presented himself, Wickham probably would have taken him on. It would have been a job that involved unconditional love and respect, if not for the man, then for the site. Someone to guard the site at night and work all day. That’s what it would take to replace Wickham after he died. One person to lift rocks, mix concrete and bend iron would be worth a ton of reporters whose words fade even as they are printed on the page. He did his talking with volumes of concrete; the message was aimed at the dedicated person, like himself, who could take his history the next step. Historic figures let their deeds do the talking. If history is kind, it preserves memory in the form of words or images to commemorate the deeds.

Short of that, the site would “become history,” a local legend. Ruins have their own fascination. Olen Bryant has said that Wickham did his work as a personal historic statement, not as art.10 If he had been doing art, Bryant suggests, he would have sharpened his technique so the work would wear better. By the early 1970s the paint had faded to earthy hues. Browns were sand and tan, and black went to charcoal gray. The surface of the figures showed fissures from erosion by water and checkering due to change of temperature. They looked much older than they were. Of course, the English build what they call “follies,” which are freshly minted ruins in a garden setting. These are meant to look ancient. Dionicio Rodriquez built pieces in Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis with natural looking stones and trees. All were made of carefully crafted concrete in a “faux bois” style that looks old but never seems to age.11

Wickham may have intended to add to the historic feel of his setting by allowing his work to gain a patina of age while under his care. I agree with Bryant that such simple measures as sealer and waterproofing would have made a big difference. Since wear begins on the outside this would not have been merely a superficial treatment, but a preservation measure. The rigid armatures that Wickham used simplified the design of the figures and precluded any sort of movement. The vandals let many of the figures go headless and armless, but still standing. So the exposed metal armatures rust, wounded but proud. The concrete keeps cracking, but we still identify these as men. I think that Wickham put just enough work in to either inspire the next caretaker, or create a wonderful ruin. The continuation of history or the creation of a legend, either way, is a form of art.

Indeed, Carol Turrentine’s photos poignantly doc-ument both the sweet decay and wanton violence at the site.12 Time has proven to be a historic salve. The growing regard for Wickham’s work (to the point where the National Endowment for the Arts honors him) has probably come too late to fully restore his site in the way that others like Fred Smith’s Concrete Park in Phillips, Wisconsin have been saved.

The Kohler Foundation took an interest and restored the sixty-four sculptures on the site—first to bring them back from disrepair, and a second time after a tornado destroyed the newly restored site. Don and Sharon Howlett, who had prior experience with concrete environments in zoo construction and large scale miniature golf courses, discovered how to do this sort of restoration. Lisa Stone and Jim Zanzi wrote a book that is a model for documenting a site.13 The success at Fred Smith’s has led the Kohler Foundation to sponsor a number of others projects, particularly in Wisconsin. Fred Smith, like Wickham, revered the pioneer spirit, and in memorializing others, is himself remembered.

One of the great historic sites and one of the greatest tragedies of folk art environments was the destruction of Laura Pope’s museum in her backyard outside of Cairo, Georgia. Mrs. Pope’s first piece was a life-size concrete World War I Soldier that she made as a tribute in 1917. This diminutive but strong-willed woman continued to make figures of suffragettes and political celebrities until 1953. Some were set on a fifteen-foot high wall, while others stood in front. Plaques of D-Day and other historic events in cast concrete were embedded into the wall. In all, she completed two hundred pieces before she died. Her husband sold the house in 1975 and “the museum” was demolished shortly thereafter. So, history as subject matter doesn’t necessarily assure preservation—even in old and recognized sites.


To ensure public acclaim, it helps if the theme of the environment matches its stylistic execution and elicits a popular conception that the maker’s mark is genuine. Rolling Mountain Thunder’s concrete tribute to the American Plains Indians, outside of Imlay, Nevada has fallen into significant disrepair. This is due to local doubt about Chief Thunder (a.k.a. Frank Van Zandt’s) take on Indian life, or life in general. The stark contrast between what Thunder projects as his motivation and how it is taken is poignantly documented in a film by Allie Light and Irving Saraf. These Academy Award-winning filmmakers capture Thunder’s wonderful craftsmanship and his rich inner life as well as his messy relations with the outside world. It is one thing to show Indian artifacts, but to make symbolic sculpture that purports to have Indian spirit is something else entirely. To subscribe to this spirit one has to feel that Thunder is being genuine and that the cultural aspects of the work are accurate. Some of the local population openly doubted Thunder’s claim to Indian heritage. By putting the integrity of his Indian culture in the forefront, Thunder gave up his own artistic license. If this environment is in limbo, it is because theme predominates over art, causing doubt.14

The opposite is true of John Ehn’s Trappers Lodge, where a concrete grouping of cowboys, saloon girls, stuffed animals, Indians, and trapper gear are nestled in Sun Valley, California. Here the western theme does not intend to be an approximation of real life. Its exaggerated features, amusement park colors, and comic inscriptions stress art and entertainment more than history.

Seymour Rosen, who heads Saving and Preserving Art and Cultural Environments (SPACES), has worked long and hard, going through bureaucratic procedures of all kinds, to save Trappers Lodge and hundreds of other sites. He and the family kept it from demolition (threatened by the expansion of the Burbank airport) by having the pieces donated to nearby Pierce College in the San Fernando Valley. However, the site has not been reconstructed at the college. Perhaps the humorous message seemed out of place once the site context was changed. The incongruity of a “wink” in concrete may be a stretch for some “serious” art people, and colleges are clearly a province of serious people. Here, the expressiveness of the art theme may have subverted Trapper John’s version of history—or perhaps his version is out of keeping with what is being taught in the academic environment.

In the case of the Wickham site, it would seem that the State of Tennessee’s own history ought to be enshrined by the Tennessee State Government. However, politicians are often unnerved by the different approaches folk environment artists take. S.P. Dinsmoor built huge concrete trees around his “faux bois” log cabin home in Lucas, Kansas. He depicted people balancing precariously in the limbs, with the vines of Capitalism choking a symbolic representation of Labor and Politicians threatening the working man. All were labeled in case you didn’t know who they were. Dinsmoor may have been considered a gadfly, but he nonetheless brought in visitors. Built from 1905 to 1932, the site has continued to bring revenue to Lucas. So the local merchants take Dinsmoor’s populism with a grain of salt and cash the checks. State grants have kept the site intact and the Department of Parks has always advertised it. Where history and art fail, tourism can come to the rescue.15

For the Wickham environment a similar plan was devised by Lois Riggins-Ezzell, Director of the Tennessee State Museum. Some pieces were to be taken from Wickham’s to the Tennessee State Museum, and others would be set in a park in the median strip of Interstate Highway 24. The plan was first to get recognition and then to raise funds in order to save the rest of the statues “in situ.” It was the mid-1980s, a time when folk envir-onments were hard pressed to gain respect, and there were no known precedents in Tennessee. The Tennessee State Museum tried to make a case both for the works as art and also as historic memorials for the state. Riggins-Ezzell used her considerable gifts of persuasion and statewide contacts to fight for this cause.

It is true that styles in politics and history change. So Wickham’s portrait of Estes Kefauver, long time U.S. Senator from Tennessee, no longer has the resonance of the martyred Kennedy brothers (President John F and Robert). However, all show the importance of our country’s heritage. In the 1960s, Fort Campbell, a nearby Army Base, commissioned a statue of a kneeling soldier signaling his men forward. At a time when a costly new generation of Korean and Vietnam war monuments are being commissioned, it seems only fitting that Wickham’s work might be appreciated as, if nothing else, a good deal! Governmental protection and physical maintenance might have been an inexpensive way to promote civic pride. Practicality is not always the hallmark of government, but calculating the constituency is. No matter how grand the historic sentiment Wickham’s site voices, it is the opinion of one man and an isolated one at that. No votes there.


A critical factor in the case of E.T. Wickham is that part of the site is religious in nature. The co-mingling of church and state prohibited in the United States Constitution may have given bureaucrats an excuse for inaction. Religion was an important issue to Wickham. He was a convert to Catholicism and he wanted people to know it. Even if not specifically designed to be controversial, religious sites in a secular world seem slightly out of context. They are generally done in a grotto style that takes you into another world.16 John Beardsley has a great feel for these “gardens of revelation” and reviews many such environments in a book of the same title.

Another problem for religious sites is the fact that personal expressions of piety are often misunderstood by religious institutions. Wickham willed his site to the Catholic Church. There was some discussion about putting a chain link fence around the works in the mid-1970s, but nothing was done and the Church ultimately gave the site back to the Wickham family. Religious organizations are often more trusted than family, friends, or local authorities. But chances are that piety and good deeds do not commend the art site to be taken under the wing of spiritual institutions over the dictates of dogma or the latest “giving” campaign. Spirituality does not outweigh pragmatism in these cases, and prayers are not as binding as detailed legal agreements. Most church leaders, while they would not want to discourage a supplicant, would openly admit that their seminary-trained spirit is quite different from the freewheeling sentiments of a folk artist. Often they simply “don’t get it.”17

The Vatican II Conventions were rules that called for more concise, stripped down, and “modern” applications of prayer, and ceremonies outside of the Church itself. They specifically discouraged excessive ornamentation. I was tutored on this by Archbishop Whelan, of the Connecticut Archdiocese, who was the spiritual overseer of Holyland, a site on sixty-six acres of hilly land in the center of Waterbury, Connecticut. It was built over a period of thirty years by a pious lawyer named John Greco and hundreds of community volunteers. Holyland incorporated a group of life-size bronze sculptures, which the Vatican had exhibited in its pavilion at the 1964 New York Worlds Fair. It also contained a four-acre, scaled down model of Jerusalem; hundreds of buildings, signs, and statues; and a thousand-foot underground catacomb stocked with catechisms and homilies. The site was surmounted by a sixty-six-foot tall Corten steel cross, which was lit at night by the glow from a light shining through pink fiberglass panels. Greco donated Holyland to the Sisters Fillippini, a teaching order of nuns. There was a lot of warm feeling for the site by Catholics in Waterbury—many of whom had been involved in its construction. Folk art experts from Yale University and museums in New York visited the site and testified to its folk art value. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal both ran favorable articles. A highly organized grassroots campaign across the Northeast reached out to save Holyland. Still, most of the site was demolished on order of Archbishop Whelan. He had many reasons for doing so, but he largely stood behind Vatican II in his decision. 18

Compare this to the case of a Dominican Lay Brother Joseph Zoettl at St. Bernard’s Abbey in Cullman, Alabama. On a few acres, he created a jewel of miniature buildings: a heavenly landscape heavily encrusted with stones. It is called Ave Maria Grotto. It took years to get permission to do the work, and the site grew under the auspices of the Church. This doesn’t mean that Brother Joseph wasn’t somewhat isolated or that he was not apprehensive about the fate of his creation as he aged. Indeed, he remained a lay brother, never a priest, perhaps due to his artistic “calling.” The site did fall into some disrepair after his death. Fortunately, the other Brothers, in taking over his duties (including tours of the site) began to understand that this was becoming a significant tourist destination. Now there is a visitor’s center with t-shirts for sale, there are billboards on nearby interstate highways, and the site is very well taken care of. Church-approved content, the infrastructure of the site, and a “commercial endowment” that guarantees future financial support can help a Church to keep a site active. A prayer helps, as well.


My feeling is that individuals who are the most interested in “in situ” environments often fall short in their work. I illustrated the destruction of the Wickham site in Versus (a Vanderbilt student publication) and American Art Review in the early 1970s. Many who would see these sites preserved also subscribe to a purist philosophy that nothing should be taken off the site for any reason. I held the terms “in situ” sacred then, and crusaded against greedy private collectors, dealers, and museum curators or directors. The idea that monetary benefits were coming to them in pieces of art, cash sales, salary, or tax breaks, was anathema.

I am slightly more practical now. If you are absolutely going to lose the work, pick up the pieces. It is always easier to do a restoration than a reconstruction or a start from scratch. Collectors like Michael and Julie Hall, who resurrected Cal and Ruby Black’s Possum Trot/Birdcage Theater, and who subsequently donated their collection to the Milwaukee Art Museum, are to be applauded.19 The High Museum of Art, in setting up a mini display featuring pieces from the Paradise Garden of Howard Finster, has done a great job of keeping this work in the public eye. Sanford Darling’s House of a Thousand Paintings in Santa Barbara, California was on its way to the dump when dealer Larry Whiteley intervened and put the paintings up for sale. Surely, having the works hanging in collector’s living rooms is preferable to faded photos and ashes.

Even with a lot of support, many sites struggle. In Buena Vista, Georgia, St. EOM’s (a.k.a. Eddie O. Martin’s place), an exotically painted concrete compound, is decorated with symbolic representations of his mysticism, fortune telling, and truly “other-worldly” zeal. Tom Patterson, Roger Manley, and the Vernacular Society of North Carolina did a wonderful book and study of the site.20 Fred Fussell, when he was Director of the nearby Columbus Museum of Art, was a serious backer of the site, and Scotty Steward was the full time caretaker on site. At present the site is no longer a priority for the museum. Steward has passed away. The Marion County Historical Society, doing the best it can with limited resources, has fenced it in. While individuals can start the process, and may even be able to pass the responsibility on to an official agency, it is often up to those same individuals to remain vigilant and take up the site as a “cause” again if those agencies lose steam.21

 Folk Culture vs. Pop Culture 

Folklorists as social scientists are some of the most ardent researchers in the field. Their sense of duty matches nicely with the folk environment artist’s sense of duty. When the site has roots in history, legend, or communal ideas, teasing out these associations is valuable scholarly work. However, this is not usually the sort of activity that sparks the public imagination. Pointing out references to what the community shares with the artist, strangely enough, does not forge ties. The public may see itself as more “progressive,” or even more “artistic” (according to current fashions in art) and thus tend to undervalue what it shares with the artist.

People generally want their artists to be heroes of a different cast. They admire fiery artistic passion over “stick-to-it-ness.” They prefer the pageantry of large themes to the pedantry of a history lesson. They like the instant “fun” of pop culture, choosing an entertaining visit over something to study.22 This changes the dialogue to whether people “like it,” rather than what they “see in it.” The casual visitor does not take the time to fathom the artist’s intentions or to understand his ties to them on a deeper cultural level. Instead, they have more respect for art that is a little beyond their own world—enshrined in a museum and/or “sanctified” by an institution.

 Fans and Critics 

Artists who create folk environments can either be silent like Wickham or garrulous like Howard Finster, whose Church of American Folk Art is based upon thirty years as a Baptist charismatic, evangelist and tent revival minister. Finster uses his preaching background to lure his patrons. If this doesn’t work, he’ll play banjo and entertain like he did for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. Either path can lead to personality conflicts with fans, critics, friends, and family.

Many art fans want to keep their subjective distance and put their own interpretation on the artist and his scene. Sometimes this tends toward “a first view is the best view” approach. In any case, it can make for a satisfying day trip and quick “art fix.” A critic might want to get closer (and presumably work harder) but still maintain objectivity. Such modus operandi might be viewed with suspicion by an artist who may have his own deep purpose but does not aim to disclose it to the public. Of course, the very lack of analysis provided by many folk artists allows critics to add their own appraisal or interpretation. These methods are the critic’s shield and sword. While a site’s repute begins, develops, and in many cases depends for its survival, on both fans and critics, the artist may not respond with favor to either group, seeing them equally as wasting his time.

A formal art critique looks at the art somewhat removed from its circumstances, and contextualizes it philosophically. This sort of objectification is the opposite of getting “down and “dirty.” A sturdy piece by piece inventory; the path of discovery that constitutes a walking tour; or even a summary of the scene as it unfolds before a viewer’s eyes; all capture valuable data. But it is hard to stop there, and further critical analysis is almost inevitable. The problem is that the artist’s input begs so many questions it is hard to separate those from looking at the objects themselves. Objective viewing can lead to some certainty when properly done. But, formal art analysis and lofty language can also obscure an artist’s simple intent and humble use of material.

On the other hand, what happens when visitors are either taken or repulsed by the man? Then the import of the object might be overlooked, or its artistic validity compromised. People often tend to place feelings above fact and emotion above analysis. It is natural to get caught up in the person, his plans, his problems, his triumphs, and not the art that is there. If one becomes disillusioned with the man, one might be tempted to chuck the whole thing. Yet to leave biography out seems to be avoiding half the story. The curious balancing act between the man and his creation must be preserved, and it is easy to fall on one side or the other.

The story that the artist tells is not only about himself, but is also a narrative of his activity on the site. Just as important as any studied method or research done by the artist is the spontaneity involved and lack of site plans. In the artist’s impulse to create one often sees curiosity, the urge to experiment, and a classic teaching of oneself. Often the artist’s explanations are of the sort, “I did this piece, then I thought of using quick dry mix, and I did that one over there,” etc. It follows Edison’s adage about “invention being 2% inspiration, and 98% perspiration.” The victories are hard earned and savored. When an odd mistake, or a new thought, occurs, these propel the story. “So, I started bending metal for the frame, by pulling it with the car bumper; and then I really got going.”23 1. Curiosity feeds on itself. 2. The simplest innovations, when hand crafted, are the most appreciated. 3. Doing things quickly shows expertise and moves one to the next piece. This experimental pattern often develops in the site construction. The method is choppy rather than smoothly conceived; the outcome is an aggregate of a lot of pieces, not just one piece of sculpture. It is a whole environment at the artist’s physical place of existence, but it also encompasses his efforts and “mind” time.

The artist is like a collector of experience who keeps the lessons fresh with repetition and slight modifications. He tests himself with each new work. As any true collector would admit, it is not the last piece, but the next piece that keeps one motivated. Environments have intentions and designs that are held in reserve, awaiting the next piece. They are works in progress. I find it much easier to see them as collections of ongoing self-taught activity rather than as individual artworks that have been completed.

 The Art World vs. Self-Taught Art 

A folk environment is all of one artist’s expressions in one place. It is also a collection of his impressions of that place through time: a well-defined microcosm. If one asked Michelangelo if he would rather have stayed and worked in the Vatican throughout his whole career, he might have said, “Yes.” He might have wished for no pressure from all those other patrons and no moving around. But this is not the way it has been done in the art world, and to establish oneself on an eternal scale one has to do public art in big and diverse places. To not travel is to risk becoming a patron’s pet and hurting one’s career. To not have an overt artistic intention backed by cultural sponsorship is to stand outside of the art historical mainstream. The typical mechanisms that support the creation of art for posterity have put the folk environment artist at a disadvantage. Art with a capital “A” is not devoted to one man in one place.

Even though it is one of the purest forms of art, the folk environment is almost always condemned to obscurity. When known, it is often for some artificially ascribed “purpose,” or as a tourist attraction. Rather than respond to the artist’s provocation or other motives with thought, the unknowledgeable sometimes react violently—as if confronting danger. I am speaking of both the art world and the general public. Folk art environments need to be accessed within the formal canon of art history in order for a dialogue to take place between Art and art. A methodology for evaluating vernacular art expression according to self-taught techniques rather than traditional art instruction needs to be developed. Recognizing and studying influences well outside the world of art and museums should
be mandatory in the evaluation of institutionally approved forms of art as well. Thus enlarging the art historical dialogue will allow the art world to embrace the rich legacy of folk art environments into the pantheon of Art.24