Watts Towers needs our help again!


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









Josep Pujiula's art environment threatened

Posted in Found Objects, Gardens, SPACES News, Threatened Environments

img2129As 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.


70-josep15After 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:



Many thanks!!


Welcome to SPACES!

Posted in SPACES News, Threatened Environments

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.

img4867Leonard 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.

img4316Josep 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

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

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.

Thanks again!


Jo Farb Hernández, Director
SPACES – Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments

Browse Blog Archives by Month

Raise your voice in support of Philadelphia's Painted Bride!
Take Action, Threatened Environments

Association des Amis de Chomo unveils new website

Gabriel Albert Sculpture Garden Undergoes Restoration
Gardens, Preservation News, Self-Taught Arts in the News

Act Now: Save The Last Resort - A Working Model of Sustainability in Marin County, CA
Take Action, Threatened Environments

Conservator-in-Residence Position, Hartman Rock Garden - Ohio
Preservation News

SPACES Honors Watts Towers Committee Founding Member Jeanne Smith Morgan on her 90th Birthday!
Preservation News, SPACES News

Remembering Josep Pujiula i Vila (1937-2016)
Self-Taught Arts in the News

Dispatch from the Field: Jo Farb Hernández in Spain

Materializing the Bible. by James S. Bielo (Miami University)
Gardens, Religious, Devotional & Spiritual

Call to Action: Preserve Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village in California
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