Turning trash into visionary art

Slide show: From garbage houses to New York's tower of trash, the mind-boggling things people make with junk

  • Scaling architectural sculptures at the City Museum in St. Louis

    I’m going to go out on a limb and proclaim the City Museum “America’s Coolest Museum for Kids of All Ages.” The old International Shoe factory is a 10-story evolving sculpture and a brilliant architectural tribute to the city’s industrial history. This eternal work in progress knits together 10-story slides, concrete cave systems, Gaud

  • Contemplating weirdness at the Beer Can House in Houston

    Who says drinking and creativity don’t go together? If you drink a six-pack a day, you might just be on the verge of genius. That’s the way it happened for a man named John who consumed an awful lot of beer — roughly 50,000 cans of the stuff. That’s a lot of aluminum to dispose of. But John, an innovator, thought: “Hey, I’ll just flatten those cans and side the house with them.” He also tore up the lawn, covered it with all sorts of sparkly things, and made nifty wind chimes from streamers of pull-tabs. The Beer Can House is now administered by the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art. And what was this visionary’s favorite brew? “Whatever was on special.”

  • Finding found art in Joshua Tree, Calif.

    In 1997, after nearly a decade of living and working in the desert community of Joshua Tree, Calif., artist Noah Purifoy declared: “My resource for doing art is unlimited. Everything I see, look at, contemplate or get involved with gets interpreted as an aspect of art.” Purifoy’s prolific output of found-object assemblages during his 86 years included an elaborate outdoor sculptural environment that is preserved for public enjoyment. Wandering amid towers that feature disused bicycles, toilets and duct work, and tunneling through the almost theatrical installations, you appreciate the grand experiment that Purifoy termed “sculpture-within-a-sculpture.”

  • Absorbing creativity in Philadelphia

    Located at 1020 South Street, Philadelphia’s Magic Garden is an indoor/outdoor mosaic maze created by artist Isaiah Zagar. There are no flowers here … at least no living ones, though the artwork is embedded with many images, some of them beautiful, others bizarre. From recycled action figures to handmade pottery, every inch gives you something interesting to ponder. The musings and entreaties of the artist are also written into the work: “Remember walking around in this work of fiction.” Parts of the mosaic are glass, so come on a sunny day to really see it shine. This is a place to be inspired to dream, imagine and tap into the potential for creativity within us all.

  • Being haunted by Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder in Imlay, Nev.

    The scores of sculpted women and warriors look as though they’ll come alive in your dreams. With structures made of scavenged materials amid desolate surroundings, you can be forgiven for feeling a chill down your spine. Thunder Mountain Monument is the life work of Frank Dean Van Zant who later became known as Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder. Using castoffs, he memorialized the plight and suffering of Native Americans, and the monument was a popular destination for the ’60s and ’70s counterculture. Eventually the world lost interest and Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder died alone and despondent at the site in 1989, but you’ll feel him here with every step you take among eerie remnants of his work.

  • Wandering through art at the Heidelberg Project in Detroit

    Tyree Guyton grew tired of seeing the burned-out, abandoned buildings and discarded junk surrounding his house on Heidelberg Street, so he decided to do something about it. He recruited neighborhood kids and local artists and turned the empty lots and crumbling houses into an open-air art gallery. A colorful expression of the blight and issues faced by residents, it resembles a twisted sort of Wonderland. Buildings are covered in polka-dots. Stuffed animals adorn telephone poles. Brightly painted doors, shopping carts, shoes, telephones, old signs, tires, scrap metal and rusted appliances form a surreal landscape of discarded relics from people’s lives. While the city left the other rotted buildings on the street standing, it destroyed the Heidelberg Project twice. Each time it was rebuilt, and even expanded, by a community determined to turn their problems into something beautiful.

  • Discovering Charlie Yelton’s bottle houses in Forest City, N.C.

    In a town of 8,000, how hard could it be to find a group of houses made of bottles? Harder than you might think. Hint for the determined: Cherry Mountain Road. The challenge makes it all the more worthwhile. Among the weeds and trees, sunlight gleams through walls of stacked and mortared glass bottles. Three houses stand magnificent even in ruin, kudzu and poison ivy. Beautifully dovetailed corners and wall patterns of greens and blues break the silence. Charlie Yelton built them in the 1970s, learning as he went along. You can see where he changed strategy and pointed the bottles in, rather than out; the wind howled in them, he said. Here in the woods blaze humbling beauty and ingenuity; Yelton put his hand to this work and we are honored to witness it years later.

  • Storming Peter Wing’s eccentric castle in Millbrook, N.Y.

    By its outward appearances — all bristling stone turrets and whimsical Gothic flourishes with a moat, to boot — Wing’s Castle could just as well be a mad king’s fortress. But this is Upstate New York, so you must be looking at the “live-in” art of artist-tinkerer Peter Wing and his wife, Toni Ann. The two began work on the Gaud

  • Climbing around a folk-art wonder world in Houston

    On a nondescript residential street in southern Houston sits a monument to oranges, clowns, tractor seats, and wheels, and a whole lot of free time. The Orange Show is a veritable maze and playground of thrown-together belongings. This colorful and haphazard fixture, which looks not unlike a Dr. Seuss dwelling, was one Houston postman’s lifelong dream, and it is as beautiful as it is bizarre. Take a weekend tour of the space, or try to attend one of the rare concerts held in this intimate and eccentric venue.

  • Putting your ear to the Wave Organ in San Francisco

    One of the quirkiest attractions in San Francisco, the Wave Organ is a wave-activated music sculpture with a panoramic bay view. Located on the bay behind the St. Francis Yacht Club on a jetty constructed in 1986 from the carved granite and marble remnants of the demolished Laurel Heights Cemetery, this permanent art installation employs 25 PVC organ pipes set at different heights around the jetty. The pipes tunnel from the bay floor up to the surface, delivering a variety of echoing, slapping (and sometimes barely audible) sounds as the tides rise, fall and slosh against the pipe openings.

  • Viewing the desert from Salvation Mountain in Niland, Calif.

    The walk through the Imperial Valley desert towards Slab City is long and tedious. The air is still and hot, and the scrubby, barren land seems to extend indefinitely. The only sounds are the occasional helicopter or humvee heading toward the military base nearby. Then, as if an oasis, Salvation Mountain comes into view. Its psychedelic colors and religious message are larger than life. Leonard Knight, its dedicated creator, will often personally invite you to explore his work of man-made flowers, recycled tires and painted plaster. Take a moment to stand at its peak and look out over the desert; the contrast between the brightness of this piece of human creativity and the stillness of the natural landscape is worthy of contemplation.

  • Finding new life in a literal pile of junk in New York

    A rocking horse, layers of paint chipping away, precariously floats at a sharp angle, and peers at you from between jagged metal branches. Strips and shreds of broken wood, aluminum and just about any non-biodegradable matter make a sharp, tangled silhouette against the sky. Welcome to the trash tower on Avenue B, in one of the East Village’s many community gardens. In the midst of overgrown but well-maintained plants and turtle ponds, the towering construction gives a new meaning to the term “recycled art.” Let the afternoon, and the traffic, slip by with the turtles sunning on rocks or come to one of the many typically village alternative events, from live Hindu music to poetry readings and children’s workshops. The space weds the urban and the garden and provides a meditative escape from the constant consumerism that lies right outside its vine-covered gate.

  • Building houses from garbage in Taos, N.M.

    On the forlorn terrain of the western mesa of Taos, in a landscape dotted with sagebrush and the ramshackle dwellings of semi-nomadic anarchists, you’ll find the Greater World Community, an inspiring experiment in sustainable living. Since the 1970s, the community has been constructing itself from the exhausted tires, cans, bottles and scrap metal of local dumps. The trash reincarnates into Earthships: eco-friendly buildings that look like they’ve naturally sprouted from the mesa floor. Volunteer to help a new community member in constructing a home or rent an Earthship to see if you have what it takes to live off-grid while sharing your bedroom with jungles of plant life.