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”.
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.”
Gus 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, TheHedge 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.
Gus 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.
Bicyclist 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.
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.
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.)
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. 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As many of you know, for 45 years Josep Pujiula i Vila has been building one of the most spectacular examples of public art in the world. Completely self-taught, he began building for his own enjoyment, yet has come to delight in sharing his work with others. At the height of its existence, his constructions—which were primarily created out of the flexible saplings that he gathered from the nearby river—included eight towers, some approaching 100 feet (30 meters) high, along with a labyrinth that snaked over the landscape over a mile (1.6 km) in length. It was a joyous work of art that was an inspiration to its thousands of international visitors each year, and it has been featured in newspapers, magazines, books, and television programs internationally.
I have been studying and documenting Pujiula’s work since 2000. I have published numerous articles about him, and I also featured him in my book “Forms of Tradition in Contemporary Spain,” produced a DVD about his work, and have lectured on him widely in the US, France, Spain, and Italy. He is a dedicated, passionate artist who is involved 24/7 with his work, and although he works improvisationally, having had no training in art, architecture, nor engineering, he has been able to build marvels that have inspired all who have visited them.
Yet although Pujiula has asked nothing of anyone but to be left alone to make his art, he has been consistently targeted by the local authorities, who are threatened by his work, as it neither complies with local building codes nor with what this conservative community tucked into the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees understands as “Art.” Three times they have forced him to tear it down—citing fear of fire, concern for public safety, proximity to electrical wires and the freeway. Each time Pujiula has complied but, unable to stop working, he has always started up again. He is the quintessential irrepressible artist whose work has become his life.
After the second demolition, Pujiula began to work in concrete and steel, using found objects to create numerous sculptures as well as a lyrical cascading fountain, taking advantage of the runoff from a huge drainage pipe installed underneath the nearby freeway. These concrete constructions do not bring with them the same kinds of issues as the wooden towers and labyrinth did: they will not burn, they are not impinging on electrical towers nor the freeway, and, as they follow the slope of the ground, they do not tempt visitors to climb to the heights, so the possibility for public endangerment is low. Yet, although the local authorities had originally indicated that he could retain this portion of his artwork, and could continue to work, they have just changed their minds, and have mandated its demolition as well. Immediately.
Works of public art created by self-taught artists are often in jeopardy, but in this case, we can do something about it. I ask your help to sign a petition that will simply ask the local mayor to allow this artist to continue to make his art. At 75 years old, he is breaking no laws and inciting no danger; rather, he is bringing enjoyment to young and old with his creativity and humor. Help us convince the mayor of Argelaguer (population 424) to reverse his edict of destruction, and allow Pujiula to continue to create an art environment that will be remembered and enjoyed for long after he is gone.
Click here to sign the petition; you’ll only need to give your name, email, and country of origin:
We are so thrilled that our new website has finally gone live!
This is a process that is ongoing, for only a very small percentage of the photographs and other materials collected in SPACES archives have yet been digitized. As we digitize more, and write texts based on primary fieldwork and our archives, we will continuously be adding more content to the site. Further, we invite you to help us maximize this resource by sending us your own photos of art environments and other self-taught artistic activity that we can mount as well. Although the archives hold tremendous treasures, there remain numerous gaps, and we look to you to help us fill those in. We have received photographs and texts from contributors across the US as well as Austria, Belgium, France, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, the UK, and Ukraine to date, and hope to continue to broaden our reach even further!
This year we have been very busy, not only with the website, but with many other projects as well. Last spring I attended the conference sponsored by the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training at Northwestern University in Natchitoches, LA, and presented the illustrated lecture “Taking the Art to the Streets: How the Citizens of Los Angeles Saved the Watts Towers.” I was able to use many of Seymour Rosen’s vintage photographs of Watts in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s for this presentation, in addition to bringing the narrative up to date with current photographs of my own. This text will be published in the Proceedings of the conference, hopefully available later this year. While in Louisiana, I was able to visit and document Juanita Leonard’s art environment outside of Montgomery, as well as Linda Hartley’s signs outside of Natchitoches.
Leonard Knight, Salvation Mountain, January 2012
Current circumstances are also taking up a significant portion of our resources. We have been working with and advising a group of individuals who are forming a nonprofit organization to help preserve Salvation Mountain (Niland, CA), now that artist Leonard Knight has moved to an assisted living facility and will no longer be returning to the Mountain to work. I spoke to media from NPR as well as local papers about the site, and this has helped to provide visibility for the need to advocate for the Mountain, leading to offers of help from all over the country. You can see some of the documentation HERE. We are also in contact with people in Spain, for Josep Pujiula’s environment is once again threatened, and he is beginning to dismantle this new iteration of his masterpiece, no doubt for the last time. At the same time, however, he is also expanding the fountain component of the site, created from concrete and steel, which will last longer and which does not pose the liability risks of the wooden labyrinth and towers that the local government so feared.
Josep Pujiula i Vila, Poblat Salvatge, 2011
I am continuing to finish up my comprehensive book on Spanish art environments. I provided a preliminary lecture on the topic at San José State University in April, published a chapter on the O Pasatempo park in Betanzos for the 2011 issue of the Follies journal (Birmingham, UK), introduced several of the artists at a conference sponsored by the Patrimoines Ireguliers de France in July, and will have an article on Jose Maria Garrido in the inaugural issue of the forthcoming International Journal of Self-Taught and Outsider Art. I have moved into the editing stage of my book manuscript, and hope to see publication during the fall of 2013—although I am still continuing to do follow-up interviews and fill in some of the gaps in the fieldwork with the support of several archives and libraries in Spain. I have been studying and documenting some of these Spanish sites since 2000, yet every year I seem to find new ones. I imagine that as soon as the first book is done, it will be time for volume two!
Speaking of books, I am particularly pleased to announce the publication of two new books on art environments that we have recently received:
1) Gabriele Mina’s Construttori de Babele, Milano, IT: Elèuthera, 2011 is the first comprehensive book on Italian art environments, featuring almost forty sites that have never before been published. The paperback is packed with color photographs and accompanied by text that provides important information about each artist and their work. Here is a teaser video you can watch on this project: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hqqa8XKExJI, and you can order the book at www.eleuthera.it.
2) Bruno Montpied’s new book Éloge des Jardins Anarchiques, Montreuil, France : L’insomniaque, 2011. This new paperback, with more than 250 photographs, is a suite of short monographs on around thirty sites. Going beyond the typical emphasis on the masters Ferdinand Cheval (Palais Idéal) and Raymond Isidore (Maison Picassiette), it includes a significant bibliography and filmography for French art environments as well. It has the added attraction that it is accompanied by a 52 minute DVD called Bricoleurs de Paradis by director Rémy Ricordeau, co-written by Montpied. This work is available at www.insomniaqueediteur.org.
Thanks to Gabriele and Bruno for their gifts of these new books to SPACES archives.
Thanks also to our intrepid Dutch correspondent, Henk van Es, who introduced me to Klaas van den Brink’s art environment near Amsterdam this summer. My new photos have now been added to SPACES archives.
We are most appreciative of everything that all of our friends have done to support SPACES over the years, and are delighted that now, with this new website, we will be able to make our holdings more easily available to a wider public. I encourage you to continue to provide us with information and photographs on art environments so that we can make the archives as comprehensive as possible.And thanks again, to you, for your continuing interest in and support of our projects and activities. If you have questions, comments, or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Jo Farb Hernández, Director SPACES – Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural 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 or to your Twitter account!