Casa de las Conchas

Posted in Threatened Environments

The Casa de las Conchas, in Montoro, some 20 miles west of Córdoba in Spain’s Andalucía province, is for sale. This spectacular art environment, created by Francisco del Rio Cuenca (1926-2010), is ornamented with over 116 million shells from all over the world. (See SPACES’s page on the site at

The house has five bedrooms, a small living room, a kitchen, one bathroom, and three patios behind; the last one overlooks the Guadalquivir River, and the bluffs across the river.

The asking price is 210,355 Euros.

Interested parties should be in touch with Manoli, one of del Río Cuenca?s daughters, who lives in Montoro, at + 34 620 107 005 (cell) or +34 957 160 621 (home) [she speaks only Spanish]. She would be happy to show people the home, and we at SPACES would be happy if someone who really appreciated the site and art environments would buy it!

~Jo Farb Hernandez

The latest from SPACES

Posted in SPACES News

SPACES has had a busy and productive summer across two continents.

Our archivist, Stacy Mueller, worked with Betsy Vaca, a graduate student in Art History at San José State University, to continue our ambitious project of digitizing as much as possible from SPACES’s archives—documents from our vertical files as well as images of all formats from our photographic collections—in order to increase online accessibility for those who are unable to physically visit our offices. Since May, Stacy and Betsy have scanned 1200 images as well as 1100 documents from our vertical files, and have posted 90 new art environment pages. We now have 4400 images on the website. We’re not even close to halfway through, however, so this project will continue as one of our major priorities.

Over the last few months we have received some wonderful donations to the archives, each of which is helping us to round out our holdings. The most impressive recent gift has been approximately 2400

pict0077Dmytro Szylak, Hamtramck Disneyland, Hamtramck, Michigan, Photo by Ron Gasowski

slides from Ron Gasowski, an early researcher in the field of art environments. Ron, a sculptor and long-time art professor at Arizona State University-Tempe, began photographing these materials in the 1960s, and continues to the present. In an approach similar to that taken by SPACES’s founder, Seymour Rosen, Ron turned his discerning eye toward all kinds of self-taught art and vernacular expressions in addition to his concentration on art environments: the slides include funky mailboxes, decorated motor vehicles, yards with whirligigs and other ornaments, bottle trees, street and small business signage, the Day of the Dead, general objects of folk art, and all manner of “Roadside Americana.” Art environments include a range of well-known as well as unknown sites across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, as well as in Europe: these include the works of Fred Smith, Kenny Hill, Herman Rusch, Thomas Battersby Childs, Sabato Rodia, Driftwood Charlie, Ed Manley, David Nielsen, Hap Gern, Tressa Prisbrey, George Sweeney, Robert Vaughn and M.T. Ratcliff, Leonard Knight, Henry Warren, S.P. Dinsmoor, Mathias Wernerus, Nick Englebert, and many, many more; George Plumb in Canada, Anato McLaughlin in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico; and Ferdinand Cheval’s Palais Idéal, Robert Tatin’s Étrange Musée, and Raymond Isidor’s Picassiette in France are also among the sites represented in Ron’s photographs. It will take many months before all of these slides are digitized and posted online, but we are delighted to have this wide-ranging and deep collection to share with the public, and profusely thank Ron for his generous donation.

On the other side of the “pond,” I spent much time over the summer correcting the galleys for my book/CD on Spanish art environments; the final count is 1159 pages (596 in the book and 563 in the CD) with 1,306 photos in the book and 4,179 in the CD, along with 44 site plans, most of which were drawn by my husband Sam. Singular Spaces: From the Eccentric to the Extraordinary in Spanish Art Environments, is at the printer and the advance copies will be received just before October 1, the date of the opening of the accompanying exhibition at SJSU. They should all be received and available for general purchase by December 1. This groundbreaking book features introductory remarks by Laurent Danchin, the French editor of Raw Vision, and Roger Cardinal, renowned researcher in the field and author of the 1972 book Outsider Art.

octfrontfinal-copySingular Spaces

I also found time to do a bit of fieldwork this past summer as well: I re-visited the sites of Josep Sala (Borrassà), José Giralt (Llers), Joan Sala Fàbrega (Sant Joan les Fonts), Joaquim Gifreu (Figueres) and, of course, Josep Pujiula. I also had several meetings, with community members who are working to save what remains of Pujiula’s concrete/steel works, and also with the government officials who are poised on the other side of this movement: representatives from the state departments of water, the environment, and culture, as well as the village mayor. I think that they are actually trying to find a way to save what remains of the site, because they have realized that Pujiula now has sufficient visibility that forcing him to demolish the site may have political repercussions for them.

Quite by chance, I also “discovered” an art environment in Viols le Fort in southern France; images have been posted on our website.

p1060112-604Michel Reverbel, Viols-le-Fort, France

SPACES’s staff and Board have been involved in numerous other projects as well, including working with several students on their undergraduate or graduate projects, supplying images to various museums, magazines, and online journals, and more. Watch for more information on this and other programming in coming months.

~Jo Farb Hernández




A New Era for Rubel Castle

—Scott Rubel with Sandra Krause

Eight years have passed since our first attempt at achieving formal historic recognition for the Rubel Castle. On Thursday morning, August 2, 2013, a small group from the Glendora Historical Society (GHS) were in Sacramento to witness the California Historical Resources Commission render its final decision. We sat through discussions covering all manner of sites; a vandalized trolley car, an overgrown high-elevation Olympic training track, an average-looking restaurant petitioning to move 20 feet away from Historic Route 66 to better avoid errant automobiles. All were interesting in some way, but nothing as captivating as a Castle. The hearing process was organized and thorough, with a slide show for each issue and a professional-sounding reader to call out descriptions of each subject.

When it was time to consider the Castle, the room livened up. Although the reader was delivering the descriptions as dryly as he could, there was levity and a few chuckles along the way. Then with a call for a motion, a second, and a vote, we had our answer.

Seeking historic status for a site is straightforward, until you run into the esoteric aspects of what makes the site special, and here we ran into a myriad of road-blocks. How should we describe our “period of significance” or define the “distinctive characteristics in the method of construction?” The first application, completed like a pro by then GHS president John Lundstrom in 2005, made a strong case for our older buildings, but the state office decided that our relatively young Castle Complex (completed in 1986), overshadowed those buildings and did not meet the 50-year age requirement.

The first rejection did not deter us, however, because we knew the Pharm had all the right ingredients to achieve recognition. We were convinced our Castle qualified under the “exceptional importance” clause, partly because there are so few sites like it with which to compare. The trick would be to narrate the history of the entire site as a complete story. The application would have to include not just the Albourne Rancho beginnings, but the activities of more recent inhabitants, Michael Rubel and his Pharm Hands. Writing such an application seemed to become more elusive the more we worked at it. It would require finesse in stringing together a couple of disparate State requirements, and we finally agreed that this would not get done without professional help.

This is what led us to begin asking for advice from specialists in the field of historic preservation. All of them agreed that we had a certain winner, while admitting that the application would be tricky. Despite the impressive portfolios provided by the professionals we spoke to, all said they had never visited anything like Rubel Castle. After a few rounds of proposals, we selected Historic Resources Group (HRG) to be our consultant. For a year our own team worked closely with HRG as they peppered us with questions and spent countless hours photographing, mapping, and describing each structure in great detail.

We had great confidence in the application prepared by HRG, but were determined to do all we could to convince the Commission. We appealed to Historical Society members, teachers, scholars, neighbors and Pharm Hands to help us out. A few months before the hearing date volunteers got together to draft and send out letters and emails, which resulted in about 400 letters of support for our nomination (and none in opposition). The mail received by the State included scores of drawings and writings from local school children. Some of these crayon drawings were shown as part of the slideshow at the hearing.

What a gratifying morning! Quite a few volunteers worked on this project over the years. The only thing that could have made the day more complete would have been to have all the Pharm supporters, builders, and letter writers filling every seat in the auditorium.

The application put together by Historic Resources Group is a remarkable document (read it here <>). It is in the archives of the State of California, and, after final approval from the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, will be kept by the National Parks Service. We expect to learn the final verdict on our application in October 2013.


A Personal Note from a Rubel’s Perspective

Michael Rubel’s grandaddy Harry A. Deuel is locally famous for the many wise sayings and unique set of people skills that guided Michael’s life, particularly during the years they lived together in the Tin Palace. It seems unlikely that Michael would have kept the property without having been influenced so strongly by his granddaddy. .

Deuel had careers in the steel and railroad businesses. He was a teenager working for Andrew Carnegie in a steel mill when he was introduced to Leland Stanford. Mr. Stanford took a liking to the young engineer and gave him free tuition to attend Stanford University when it opened its doors in 1891. He was a classmate of Herbert Hoover, and the two later double-dated with their future wives (throughout her life Grandmother May remarked that she could have been the First Lady if she had just sat on Herbert’s lap instead).

When we arrived in Sacramento for the hearing, I was beguiled to discover that the State Resources Building occupies land that was once part of the Leland Stanford mansion, which still exists right next door. I stopped and said hello to the house. Our success that day was another vindication of Stanford’s gift to Harry, 124 years ago, and an example of what “paying it forward” can lead to.

It is fortuitous, though not planned, that the Rubel Castle Historic District was created the same year the last Rubels, Christopher and wife Katherine, moved away from the city of Glendora. After 80 years, Glendora is Rubel-free, but we left the city a pile of rocks to remember us by. Michael spent his life paying it forward. The creation of the Rubel Castle Historic District will help ensure Michael’s peculiar inspiration continues as the Castle becomes part of an educational experience for many Glendora kids.

—Scott Rubel


Update on Josep Pujiula’s art environment, Argelaguer, Spain

Posted in Threatened Environments

In Spain, working on finishing up the edits to the galleys on my book on Spanish art environments, I’ve also been very involved with advocating for Josep Pujiula i Vila’s art environment – what is left of it, that is. For those of you who signed the petition I started on Avaaz last spring, we are most appreciative, and your support is putting pressure on the local politicos to find a solution to save the site. They know that the world is watching!

Last Friday I attended an important meeting with Josep Dorca, the mayor of Argelaguer; Eudald Casadesús, representing the Catalan government in Girona; Antoni Baulida, Director of Cultural Services for the Girona area; and Alex Rocas, representing the Catalan agency in charge of water, the office who had fined Pujiula for his work on the side of the spillway. In addition, Pujiula’s daughter and son-in-law were in attendance.

We all trekked over to the site from the mayor’s office (I don’t think the government officials had realized they would need hiking shoes instead of their regular nice office shoes for that meeting!), so that they could view the installations first-hand. We also presented a wealth of documentation on the site from all over the world, indicating the articles I’d written for Folk Art and Raw Vision, and my most recent book on Spanish arts (Forms of Tradition in Contemporary Spain, 2005). I think they were astounded at the amount of publicity Pujiula has received, and they seemed to all agree that the work had cultural, artistic, and what they call here “patrimonial” work that merits protection. The issue now is how to spin it so that they can maintain their “rules” while still preserving the site.

I think the biggest issue is the safety and security of visitors: as soon as there is a man-made component in a landscape, there are litigious possibilities if someone is injured (more so in the U.S., I think, but still an issue here). They asked me to provide them with information on how other communities have responded to the art environments within their borders, which I have, and I’ve particularly suggested that the mayor speak with his counterparts in other Spanish villages where they’ve learned to appreciate and promote their environments as helpful for local commerce thanks to tourist visits, etc.

In the meantime, some filmmakers from Barcelona are completing a film on the most recent dismantling of the environment, which will premiere at the site this coming Saturday night. They’ll also show my 2005 film on Pujiula, which accompanied the “Forms of Tradition” project, at that time, and the  mayor’s office is helping out with traffic control, lending of equipment, etc. That’s a good sign.

We’ll see what happens, but I’m guardedly optimistic that these officials will try to find a way to back off the fines and the penalties, and will search to find a way to preserve this site. It has become so identified with the village of Argelaguer that a huge hole—socio-culturally as well as physically—will open if the work is destroyed. Stay tuned…

~Jo Farb Hernández

Rubel Castle Nomination

Posted in SPACES News

The Glendora Historical Society has nominated Rubel Castle (Rubel Castle Historic District) as a historic resource to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The concept of a “Historic District” for the Pharm property was initiated to encompass the original Albourne Rancho historic citrus buildings in the nomination.

Our nomination will be presented to the State Historical Resources Commission on August 2nd where the merits of this nomination will be debated. It is helpful to have support voiced from members of the community who are interested in the preservation of this unique property, and that is the purpose of this letter.

You may use your own stationery to personalize your support of our nomination, or print out a mailable form from this page <>. You can also use this online form to get suggested wording for an email, if you wish to send your communication that way to <>.

You may also have received this message by snail mail, in which case you will find a stamped envelope enclosed ready for you to mail off to the state board. Letters and e-mails must be received by the commission by July 15.

Please pass our appeal along to a neighbor or friend who might be interested in supporting this nomination.

Thank you very much for supporting the effort to achieve National Historic Recognition for this unique legacy left for the community by Michael Clarke Rubel. For more details please visit <>


Scott Rubel

Ad Hoc Historic Recognition Committee

Glendora Historical Society


Posted in SPACES News

There’s hardly a complimentary character trait that does not apply to Bill Cartwright –gracious, generous, dedicated, passionate – the list could go on. The selfless act by Bill and Nick King in buying Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts, encouraging the formation of the committee that saved them from destruction by the city of Los Angeles, was enough to make the world aware of site-specific art environments. Though many existed at the time, it was the Tower’s battle for survival that ignited interest worldwide. Bill’s passion and support continued throughout his life and was the inspiration for Seymour Rosen to devote his life to document and help preserve these sites around the world through SPACES, the organization he founded, that now continues the work he started.


Bill Cartwright’s legacy is profound. His actions and life touched and inspired many people who may never have known his name. Those who had the pleasure of knowing him are grateful for those moments, and will never forget his place in their lives.


Allen Porter

SPACES Trustee Emeritus

Vollis Simpson dies at his home, May 31, 2013

Posted in SPACES News
vollis-simpson-lucama-nc-2011-aPhoto by Fred Scruton

Vollis Simpson’s delicate balance of wind, gravity, monumentally, and whimsy was hidden away deep in the North Carolina countryside, but an emerald city seduction would begin as soon you approached that last turn in Wiggins Mill Road– and a sliver of sparkling ankle started to show through.  The full reflectors-glinting, birds-flying, loggers-sawing, fans-spinning, guitarists-strumming, dials-turning ‘what just happened here’ effect gave his “Whirligig Farm” its “Acid Park” nickname.  Mr. Simpson could typically be found across the road welding and grinding away in front of his former repair shop.  Looking like central casting for what an artist doesn’t look like, his old-fashioned country gentleman’s under-emotive demeanor made him seem an unlikely maker of such exuberant “windmills,” as he called them.  Late in the day when dusk started to set in, passing headlights would set off bursts of reflector fireworks throughout his animated carnival.

Mr. Simpson frequently sheltered and fed stray animals, and he would shout out warnings to get away from the road– as cars driven by speeders “always talking on their damn cell phones” raced by.  I first visited Mr. Simpson in 2007 and returned bearing prints about once a year since– and I was very pleased that he would remember me in the daily stream of visitors.  Eventually he

invited me to visit the work area around his nearby home, and allowing me to pursue nighttime “paint-with-light” photography, he would unlock the gate to the ‘farm’ before leaving his workshop for the day.  A rigger and metal worker by profession (with, one assumes, a long-hidden flair for the extraordinary spectacle), Mr. Simpson’s work (now being re-located and restored) made up one of America’s great art environments– a mind-blowing affirmation of the creative spirit.

~Fred Scruton

vs3aPhoto by Fred Scrutonvs6bbhdrs6ufc2024usno1-as-smart-object-1-300x200Photo by Fred Scrutones13-233x300Photo by Fred Scrutonvollis-simpson-lucama-nc-2011-b-200x300Photo by Fred Scrutonvsp087-300x236Photo by Fred Scrutonsimpson05phtoscrutonPhoto by Fred Scrutonvsne2Photo by Fred Scrutones12Photo by Fred Scruton


Our Mentor, Our Leader, Our Elder, Our Friend William Cartwright, Sr.

Posted in SPACES News


They are falling all around me

The strongest leaves of my tree.

Every paper brings the news that

The teachers of my time are moving on.

Death comes and rests so heavy

Your face I’ll never see no more.


But, you’re not really going to leave me.


It is your path I walk

It is your song I sing

It is your air I breath

It’s the record you set that makes me go on

It’s your strength that helps me stand.


You’re not really going to leave me.


I will try to sing my song right.

Be sure to let me hear from YOU.


This song was written by my dear friend Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon many years ago.


I use her words to express my feelings for Bill Cartwright, Sr.  He was a very loving, talented man with a broad world vision.  His gift, like Simon Rodia, was not only to the Watts Community, but also to Los Angeles, California, the United States and the world at large as is evident by our many visitors.


He was a brilliant award winning editor, producer and director. He also had the vision along with his wife Carole and Nick King to buy the Watts Towers, found the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts, save the Watts Towers and start the Watts Towers Arts Center, that remains the guardian and is the arts and museum education institution they envisioned it to be.


We want to thank his sons,  William Jr. and Robert,  along with their families for so graciously sharing him with us for so many years.


We will continue to stand guard and provide a nurturing non competitive learning environment, this Arts Education Institution, the Watts Towers Arts Center is known for. Our motto is “we don’t do mediocre because we don’t have to”, as is evident by the long list of talented, phenomenal, world class artists that founded and continue to provide leadership here in Watts and perpetuate the legacy of William Cartwright, Sr. 


Just like Simon Rodia taught us, “if I stick to it I can do it”.           


We will always love you Bill. 

Rosie Lee Hooks, Director

Watts Towers Arts Center

Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center

The Hedge Garden, Fishing Creek, New Jersey

Sometimes you discover an art environment in a box. Or at least, that’s how I first learned about The Hedge Garden—picking through a battered shoebox at a New Jersey postcard show in 1996. Bunched together were several photo postcard views of a topiary display that made me stop and take notice: the sculptured hedges were uncommonly delicate. One photo showed a privet clipper ship with masts so slender they resembled calligraphy. On the reverse of each card was stamped: “Yearicks Nursery, Tabernacle Road, Fishing Creek, N.J.”

gusyearickshedgegardencuttysarkGus Yearicks’ green replica of the clipper ship, Cutty Sark, at his Hedge Garden, Fishing Creak, New Jersey. It took Yearicks 22 years to grow and shape this delicate and detailed topiary. Photo postcard made by Yearicks, ca. 1950s.

Fishing Creek, I soon learned, is a small, unincorporated part of Lower Township, in Cape May County—home to Cape May, the nation’s oldest seashore resort.  When I called the local library to inquire about Yearicks’s topiary—hoping I could visit there from northern New Jersey—the reference librarian sighed deeply. “Oh, The Hedge Garden,” she said. “That used to be quite an attraction.”

I was already too late. Now I traveled to the library to gather reports of the vanished garden’s sixty-year evolution and the life of its patient creator, Augustus “Gus” Yearicks.

Topiary is a gradual art, evidenced by daily care, and Gus Yearicks had devoted himself to its demands. He rose at dawn in the summer months to water, tie back, weave, and shear his creations; in fall and winter he pruned established works and tended new shoots for future exhibits. Yearicks cultivated and shaped his first series of living sculptures—a small flotilla of ships—for twenty years before he opened his one-acre yard to visitors. Among the topiaries he first displayed in 1947 were two I later saw on postcards: a full rigged clipper, the Cutty Sark, and a green Queen Maryattended by tiny privet tugs.

gusyearickshedgegardenqueenmary-b6mGus Yearicks stands behind the first privet hedge he sculpted, a replica of the Queen Mary. Accompanied by smaller tugboat-shaped hedges, the sculpture took 26 years to train and shape. In the background is Yearicks’ Statue of Liberty, which took 18 years of careful cultivation. Photo postcard made by Yearicks, Hedge Garden, Fishing Creek, New Jersey, ca. 1950s.

The Hedge Garden’s initial nautical theme grew out of family tradition. Born in 1892 in the nearby town of Dias Creek, Gus Yearicks—like his father and two brothers—was a waterman, clamming and crewing on schooners for many years. He once told a reporter he’d enjoyed a brief job motoring the Cape May trolley mostly because he could watch ships at each end of his run. And though he later found steady work at a local magnesite plant, Yearicks’s artful first sculptures remained testament to a way of life.

With its proximity to Cape May, and early, free promotion via a Universal Pictures film short screened in movie theaters, The Hedge Garden quickly became an area tourist attraction. It was open to all, and was eventually illuminated at night by floodlights. Like many creators of art environments, Yearicks did not charge admission. Next to a sign-in book, he placed a box for voluntary donations.

During the following four decades, Yearicks expanded his range of subjects, which grew ever more fanciful: Santa and his reindeer, a replica of the Statue of Liberty, a bicyclist, a miniature village, a green Liberty Bell. He sculpted camels, panthers, crocodiles, elephants, and giraffes, and for many years adorned his creatures with artificial eyes—until sightseers, seeking free souvenirs, pocketed so many of the glass orbs he ran out of replacements.

gusyearickshedgegardenbicyclist-nz7Bicyclist at Gus Yearicks’ Hedge Garden, Fishing Creek, New Jersey. Photo postcard made by Yearicks, ca. 1950s.

Over time, Yearicks grew and shaped a remarkable, living portrait of America’s favorite pastime: a verdant baseball game rose up in his garden. His privet ballplayers, including a leafy Babe Ruth, were always in mid-play.

The Hedge Garden drew hundreds of thousands of travelers from across the United States to Fishing Creek. Some arrived by tour bus, and more than a few returned annually to exclaim over an exhibit that grew to more than 175 sculptures. The garden’s guest books were said to fill an entire closet in his home.  

At 89, the topiarist was still rising at 5 a.m. every summer morning to water and trim.

And then he fell ill. According to a blog written by a neighbor, Bobbie Petrucelli, when Yearicks knew he was dying, he extracted a promise from his son to destroy his labor-intensive creations after his death, rather than allow them to become overgrown.

Topiary artist Gus Yearicks died in October 1986. His son fulfilled his wish—with one exception: he left intact his father’s Statue of Liberty. As Gus had predicted, without the artist’s guiding hand and eye, the topiary Lady grew shaggy, then disappeared completely.

Holly Metz
May 2013

Dr. Charles Smith's African American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archive, Hammond, Louisiana

In 2000, on his way from Illinois to New Orleans, Dr. Charles Smith stopped in Hammond, Louisiana to grab a bite to eat. Wandering through town he discovered this historical marker under a mammoth live oak, and the monument below.

Peter Hammond

Unnamed Slave Boy


Incensed by the heartlessness and anonymity of “favorite slave boy” presented as legitimate history, he vowed on the spot to fight back. But this is not a man to write a letter to the mayor. Dr. Smith bought a house and yard in Hammond and dove into work on his second African American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archive (AAHM&BBVA). His first was in Aurora, Illinois (see the SPACES entry on this site.)


Front Corner

In January 2013 Don Howlett and I left the pre-Mardi Gras, pre-Super Bowl buzz brewing in New Orleans and drove across the Lake Pontchartrain causeway to Hammond. The Doctor was in. A day with Dr. Smith is like being hit by a force of nature and culture combined. Steeped in Baptist/Gospel traditions he explodes into brilliant, extemporaneous oration, backed up by the ocean of sculptures, bunker-like fixed monuments, and arrangements of found and created objects that illustrate his invectives. 


Dr. Smith Backyard

Dr. Charles Smith Video

The elements of his environment––the house, fixed features, and sculptures are in continual flux, and their meanings are mutable as well. This is not to suggest that his work is superficial or equivocal––his messages are powerfully consistent, addressing the entire African American experience, from the diaspora to contemporary events, as a real and visceral history that demands expression 

 Back Garden to Garage

A concrete slab over a culvert serves as a bridge from the conventional world to the visually and emotionally charged realm of the AAHM&BVA. One is greeted by a monumental self-portrait bust of Dr. Smith as a proud Marine draped in black, green, and red––colors of the Pan-African flag.


Dr. Smith We Shall Defend



The yard is covered with sections of carpet and other materials, creating pathways through the ever-changing arrangements of many hundreds of figural sculptures and other forms. Still in the “front yard,” we encountered a poignant cluster of child figures in progress, Dr. Smith’s homage to the Sandy Hook school massacre in Connecticut.
Dr. Smith responds to current events immediately, mainly memorializing horrors as they occur, but also the heroes and heroines who make history.


Sandy Hook Memorial

Dr. Smith perceives humanity not as a monolithic abstraction, but as an ocean of individual people, each and every one impacted by history. One wanders through the site knee-deep in his powerfully expressive figures, with occasional life-sized or larger-than-life figures standing out. The smaller figures bring to mind two racist stereotypes from American material culture that are also about knee-high: the step-‘n-fetchit or jockey yard ornament, and the “silent butler” smoking stands. Both represent silent, obedient subservience, and their reduced scale emphasizes their inhumanely reduced stature. Dr. Smith’s figures are complex and filled with seeming contradictions, on one hand referencing racist traditions while, on the other, presenting poignant, respectful representations of individuals, in his ongoing project to conflate past historical notions with his personalized revisions. His sculptures raise more questions than they answer.

 Serving Figure


A few leitmotifs stand out in the hundreds of sculptures in the AAHM&BVA. There are dozens and dozens of serving figures holding trays. The gesture strongly conveys humble generosity, but the history of forced servitude is embedded within them as well. Sculptures of angry beasts, embodiments of rage, recur throughout.

 Black Beast


The site is punctuated with American flags of all sizes, many of which are store-bought cloth flags waving in the breezes. These are not symbols of passive patriotism; they convey Dr. Smith’s powerful sense of owning the flag of the country he served in military combat, and serves as an artist today.


Interior Yard

Dr. Smith creates sculptures out of everything at hand. Armatures are made of tree limbs and sticks, dimensional lumber scraps, metal, or discarded objects, then all generally covered with a mixture of plaster and cement, and often incorporating manufactured objects to give them a narrative purpose or identity. When the forms are completed he coats them with thick coats of paint. The sculptures then begin their process of “weatherization.” His Hammond yard is filled with sculptures in various states of being weatherized. Figures made in the early years of his tenure here are poignantly decayed, and others are fresher. Some are covered with plastic bags, so he has a ready supply of works for museum and gallery exhibitions, or for sale to collectors who prefer less weatherized works.

 West Border


After spending much of the day with Charles and his longtime companion Mary Golden, we all went to have a meal at Don’s, a local fish restaurant. I’ve known Dr. Smith since the mid-1990s and am well aware of the blistering dissatisfaction he’s felt from many sources: the City of Aurora, African-American leadership in America, and elected officials on every level, to name just a few. Driving back from the restaurant we passed a curious site: a brand new building sporting a flashy sign, African American Heritage Museum. It turns out that supposed supporters of his project absconded with the name only, creating a safe and conventional venue to celebrate their version of African American heritage, in their safe and conventional version of a museum. Once again, Dr. Smith’s visceral work and his powerful message have been sidelined by the powers that be.


African American Heritage Museum 

Back at his African American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archive, Dr. Smith shared something extraordinary: he said that he’s truly content. He’s reached a point his life where it’s no longer necessary to fight unwinnable battles. He’s happy to do his work. Yet the pain is still ever present. In a talk to an art history class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in spring 2012, he explained that the only way he can deal with the horror of having killed innocent people in the course of his service as a Marine in the Vietnam war, is to focus the negative energy into creative energy, 24/7.

Dr. Smith and Mary Golden


One can’t step into the same African American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archive twice—it’s a life/work in progress by an artist of extraordinary powers. It’s continually in the process of being built and of weatherizing. If Dr. Smith is present, visitors experience an original, command performance.


~Lisa Stone, January 2013









Browse Blog Archives by Month

Under Construction: New SPACES website on its way!
Resources, SPACES News

Visit to the Casa de las Ranas [The House of Frogs] and the Chapel of Jimmy Ray Gallery
Field Work, Found Objects

Job Opportunity: Kohler Foundation - Director of Preservation
job opportunities, Preservation News

EOA Annual General Assembly 2019

In memory of Silvio Barile, creator of Italian-American Museum
Self-Taught Arts in the News

Coco's Palais Idéal Paintings

SPACES Honors Lyn Kienholz, Trustee Emerita

Chris Vo’s Flower House in Cleveland has been destroyed against his will!

Job Opening at Craft & Folk Art Museum Los Angeles, CA: Manager of Communications and Exhibitions
job opportunities

Nitt Witt Ridge Enters the Real Estate Market!
Take Action, Threatened Environments

The SPACES website allows you to save your favorite art environments and share them with your friends or colleagues. Create your own portfolio of your favorites from environments in the online collection.

Send them to your friends, post them on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter and tag #spacesarchives 

Look for this button on pages that can be saved:

Add Page to my spaces