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Three Guardian Angels at the Ideal Dream
Palace of the Postman Cheval
Hauterives, Drome, France. 1972
Photograph by Jonathan Williams 

SELF-MADE WORLDS:
ROCKS & HARD PLACES HEADING FOR PARADISE

If you had your choice, would you prefer to live in Erect (pronounced e-rect), North Carolina; Monkey's Eyebrow, Kentucky; Odd, West Virginia; Hot Coffee, Mississippi; Buzzard Gut, Louisiana; or Finger, Tennessee? Me, I think I'd choose Finger. You could say to people: "Yessiree bob, I live in Finger. All we do all day long is stand around and give each other the finger. We don't even have time to go to work." And, of course, it would turn out that all the houses in Finger were built to look like stone fingers, like those tufa cones in Cappadocia in Turkey; and that they were designed by an erotomaniac architect named Claude "Bad Hands" Crawlspace. That means that the next edition of Self-Made Worlds will have to include my hometown and I will get to meet lots of interesting photographers and poets. Having put rocks in our heads and having pawed the ground sufficiently for a writer of Southern extraction, I move on to heavenly things in paragraph two.

A song attributed to one D. Nix on the LP, The Earl Scruggs Review Live at Kansas State, is titled "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven, / But Nobody Wants to Die." That works for most of us, rings the gong, and wins the big Kewpie doll.

Art (the Insider kind and the Outsider kind) is one strategy devised by Man the Maker to outlive his body. "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" proclaims the Ancient Pharoah (Rameses II, in fact) in Shelley's poem. George Carlin figures the power of the Deity in another way: "My God's got a bigger dick than your God!" Again, that works for a lot of people. Ozymandias has this phallocentric statue half sunk out there in the lone and level desert sands that stretch far away and some pilgrims come by and think it's cool.

Other mortals, tired of livin' and 'fraid of dyin', are more modest. At the age of 85, the ex-slave, Bill Traylor, turns up in 1939 on Monroe Street in Montgomery, Alabama, sits on a box (he's rheumatic and barely able to walk with two canes), and starts making pencil marks on shirt cardboards for the first time in his life. He wants to tell the stories of his long days. He wants the neighborhood children and new drinking buddies to pay him some mind. He doesn't want to die and be nothing. What about some of the people in this book?


Howard Finster, of Pennville, Georgia:

"... the longer I live on this planet, the less I can adapt to it... here on this world there's nothin' for me except just a little scatterin'ly joy and fellowship, talkin' to my friends. And the rest of it is, 'Howard, your old friend died last night. They killed 250 of our soldiers. They put glass in the babies' food. They put poison in the sick people's medicine. They're talkin' about World War Three.' The world is just an awful place, when you get to studyin' about it..."


St. EOM, of Marion County, Georgia:

"Pasaquan is a monument to me and my mother. I am the first martyr to Pasaquoyanism. I am a Prophet without profit. It's a bitch, man. Everything's cotton, corn, and peanuts around here. People wouldn't know art if it bit 'em in the ass."


Ferdinand Cheval, le Palais Idéal, Hauterives, Drôme:

"I built, in a dream, a palace, a chateau of grottoes so pretty, so picturesque, that ten years after it was still engraved in my memory so that I was never able to escape it... Then after 15 years, when I had begun to forget my dream a little, I thought less of the world: it was my foot that recalled me... My foot had caught an obstacle that made me fall: I had wanted to know what it was. It was a stone of such bizarre form that I put it in my pocket in order to admire it at my convenience." (translation by Ronald Johnson)


Vollis Simpson, Moore's Crossroads, Lucama, North Carolina:

"There was so much junk in the shop, we either had to close down or think of something new... I don't really know what an artist is. Depends on what you think art is. You can call anything art."


Dilmus Hall, of Athens, Georgia:

you have eyes
outside
and eyes
inside
your heart
is full
of eyes
to communicate
you put the two
together

amen!


People who make things often make up things to try to explain why. While St. EOM had visions of hieratic dudes wearing their hair straight up according to the dictates of his new religion, he also had the occasional vision of lucre in the okra. Eddie Owens Martin's neighbors in Marion County ostracized the shit out of him he told that fact to one and all. He needed cash money in order to maneuver, to buy that house paint, to put collards and corn pone on the table for his black helpers, to buy cigar wrappers for the strange weed he grew in the woods.... The Rev. Finster has sin on the brain and will save you and sell it to you at the same time... Le Facteur Cheval was entranced. And became the entrance way where the Dream became the Reality. He placed his monument under the care of three giants and made a special niche for his wheelbarrow... Vollis Simpson is the good man of practicality and no-nonsense horse-sense. Only his great whirligigs are airy and windy... Dilmus Hall (who claimed he'd been right here in the flesh for 4004 years, one way or another) sounds like an oracular, pumpkin-headed old Taoist. What a lovely and remarkable thing he said out in his yard one hot afternoon. I wrote it down immediately and won't ever forget it.


Let me shift gears to the Inside and try to shed a different light through the leaves:

"I found my own growing inclination, which I discovered was not mine alone, to look upon all life as a cultural product taking the form of mythic clichés, and to prefer quotations to independent invention."

Thomas Mann, in The Origin of Doctor Faustus


"Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing to be so little appreciated as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and fairly judge them."

Rainer Maria Rilke


"It can come as a shock to Outsiders to realize that the true core of an artist's audience, those whom artists rely on for advice and meaningful criticism, may amount to no more than three or four sets of eyes. But these eyes get the work out into the world."

Trevor Winkfield, in "Very Rich Hours", an essay on Florine Stettheimer


"We take notes, or make journeys: emptiness! emptiness! We become scholars, archaeologists, historians, doctors, cobblers, people of taste. What is the good of all that? Where is the heart, the verve, the sap?"

Gustave Flaubert


"I am Treasure Island. The most unexpected thing I ever came across was myself."

Stanley Spencer


"And then I found a trumpet and it was the best part of me."

John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie


"He who has eyes and ears can both see and hear."

Gustav Mahler


"It is closing time in the Gardens of the West, and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair."

Cyril Connolly


"There are artists who went to art school and those who didn't. There are artists who choose to use the richness of their ancestralcultures and those who don't. There are artists who like their communities and those who don't. There are artists who have no communities. The true masterpiece has context, intention, and a formalism which is required to get the purity of its message across. We know it is art; soon that may be enough."

Randall Morris


Voila! As usual, I am all over the map. I believe in The Map. I am a bricoleur serieuse and readers are better off accordingly. They need not digest another load of artspeak and bafflegab from those suffering from psoriasis academica. By the time I was 20 I had read The Outsider, by H.P. Lovecraft; and The Outsider, by Colin Wilson. I'd moved from Princeton to Black Mountain, a drastic Outsider move indeed. With hints from mentors like Kenneth Patchen, Aaron Siskind, Henry Miller, Robert Duncan, Lou Harrison, and, particularly, Clarence John Laughlin, I photographed Sam's Towers in Watts, California in 1957. The prints came to the attention of Nat Mendelsohn, later an important committee member of the group formed to protect the site. In 1966 I photographed le Maison Pique-Assiette in Chartres; le Palais Idéal in Hauterives; and Bomarzo, the "Sacro Bosco" to the south of Orvieto. I have been to the sites of 77 of the nearly 400 listed here in Self-Made Worlds.

Two things should be stressed about this book. One is that the range of places offered both to the neophyte and the veteran opens up a wealth of previously unpublicized locations. We would hope for the Land of Pasaquan, the Postman's Palace, and Nek Chand's Rock Garden. But we might not know Butt's Dream House, Vollis Simpson's Windmill Park, Annie Hooper's Bible Stories, or Banner Blevins's Garden of Pre-History. The indefatigable Roger Manley is the guide to many of these wonders.

The second thing is the superb quality of the photographs. Many of the sites have never, never been seen so well. Browsing quickly through the book, I am startled over and over. Ted Deneger, in my view, takes the cake. For instance, the picture of Leonard Knight's Salvation Mountain in Niland, California. WOW! And a few of his others: the interior of the Maison Pique-Assiette, the interior at the Land of Pasaquan, the interior of Tressa Prisbey's Bottle Village, the interior of Billy Lemming's place, the portrait of the Rev. B.F. Perkins at the Hartline Church of God, the shot of Vollis Simpson's windmills with the tire tracks in the road. Michelle van Parys's shots of Mickey McGowan's Unknown Museum make me want to race to Marin County. First I thought I was looking at a tableau of the Death of Marilyn Monroe. Not so fast! Has a bride been made captive until her suitors have time to grow up? Mill Valley has been known to be "odd".

Marcus Schubert is distinguished throughout the book. At the Pique-Assiette; at the Postman's Palace; at Bruno Weber's Weinrebe Park, and, particularly, at Le Jardin-Coquillage of Bohdan Litnanski. A great portrait! Roger Manley gives me the touching, few remaining figures of Laura Pope's Museum better than I have ever seen them. Guy Mendes's evocation of Enoch Wickham's memorial statues in the wilds of Tennessee with the redbud in flower is something special. John Blumb makes more of S.P. Dinsmoor's Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas, than I ever thought was there. It's a killer drive. Will my lumbar regions ever forgive me?

So, Self-Made Worlds. You have a trove to explore. A trove that is both celestial and chthonian, and often one and the same. Remember that Tom Waits whispers: "The Devil's just God when He's drunk." Paradise may have a great climate, but Hell probably has better company.


Jonathan Williams

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