Philly’s Mosaic Man, Isaiah Zagar, celebrates 80 years!


Latest News from Jo Farb Hernández

I am about a month into my annual summer fieldwork trip, and have already seen some wonderful art environments and have been heartened with some positive movement toward our general preservation goals.

I began in Paris in May, speaking on SPACES and the curation of art environments for the annual meeting of the European Outsider Art Association (giving my standard rant about problems with the term outsider as part of my presentation [sweetly, of course, grin]), and I actually think that there is—finally—some growing unease with this term in Europe. So it was a good opportunity to thrash out some of these issues with a receptive audience…jo-speaking-nk7

My own lecture, per their request, was about curating/documenting art environments (the entire theme of the conference was “Curating Outsider Art”), so it was an interesting opportunity for me to think a bit more broadly about what I do in this regard, while at the same time providing some specific information (how to’s) for those facing similar circumstances in terms of threatened sites. I of course directed their attention to the SPACES website in general, but also specifically in terms of how to document art environments.  I also showed some pages from the Singular Spaces book CD, including the site plans, using them as a model of how we’d ultimately like to document all sites.

document-imageAntoni Macià, Zoo de l’Empordà, Regincós, Spain

I was particularly pleased that John Maizels, editor/publisher of Raw Vision, was so enthusiastic about our good work continuing Seymour Rosen’s legacy at SPACES after hearing my lecture. I was also delighted to have the opportunity to finally put faces with the names of folks with whom I’ve been corresponding and working for so many years, and, also, of course, meeting many new folks who are working in group-photothe field.

As part of a post-conference field visit, Laurent Danchin and I, along with several others from Finland, France, and Italy, went down to Roger Chomeaux’s site near Fontainebleau forest. It is deteriorating and the sculptures have been removed for safekeeping, but the structures themselves still appear to be amazingly strong and stable. We were met there by Marc Botlan, Inspector General for Historical Monuments for the French Department of Culture and Communication, who is exploring the possibility of adding this site to the “patrimoine” of the country. Laurent and I spent the afternoon with him (along with my husband Sam, and Chomo’s daughter Geneviève), and he was very interested to hear about SPACES. We also discussed different models from all over the world for how these kinds of sites can be preserved. I’m guardedly optimistic that perhaps the French government might be able to add Chomo’s site to their group of registered art environments and ultimately support its preservation.

Back down in Spain, I was pleased to see that the Regincós site of Antoni Macià has been cleaned up and the architectural structures and sculptures are now much more visible than they were during the time I was doing my in-depth fieldwork for the Singular Spaces project.field-image

I was also so very pleased, on my first visit this year to Josep Pujiula’s site near Argelaguer, to see that he has continued to work very hard over the winter, and there are many new, positive changes. The lovely cascading fountains and pools are still there (these had been under attack last year by the governmental agency that regulates natural water sources), but there is also a new cupola-topped tower accessible by ten different labyrinthine tunnels created out of his signature bent branches.


But even more impressive, he has returned to the cave areas that he had begun picking out several years ago, and is now rapidly digging out tunnels, ovoid interior windows, and passageways within the cliff, as well as ornamenting both interior and exteritunnelsor walls of the rock face with figurative and abstract designs—all with little hammers and chisels. An outrageous amount of work! It is now a wonderful play space for both children and adults, but it will ultimately be the place where his ashes will be laid.

josep-x4mJosep has been getting some good publicity locally as the new film, Sobre La Marxa, directed and edited by Jordi Morató, has been showing in film festivals from Canada to the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain, and racking up a few prizes along the way. His film includes footage from the film

Sam and I worked on in 2005, part of the Forms of Tradition in Contemporary Spain project. Just last weekend I introduced the film and Josep’s work at the Mostra Cinema Frontera film festival in Portbou, a small seaside village just south of the French border, to an appreciative audience.

jfh-rb7I am looking forward to visiting the Aragon site of Julio Basanta again next week, as well as a site fairly nearby which will be new to me. And we are continuing our efforts to preserve Josep Pujiula’s work, efforts about which I remain guardedly optimistic.

In the meantime, back on the home front at SPACES central in Aptos, we are adding new environments as well as new texts and photos for earlier-posted environments every week to our website, so continue to watch this space. And remember, if you have materials to share, please send me an email at and we’ll add them as quickly as possible.


Have a good summer!




The loss of a site (contributed by Debra Brehmer)

Posted in Threatened Environments

The question looms large:  Why preserve an art environment on its original site if there is money to move it to a location that might be more suited to “public access” and less contested by the neighborhood?

The Mary Nohl (1914-2001) art environment is located in a wealthy, beachfront neighborhood on the shores of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin.  Although Nohl’s family acquired the land in 1924 when, due to limited roads, it was rural and inaccessible, the area slowly underwent transformation. First, it became the setting for vacation homes, with small cottages dotting the woods, and a beach area located beneath a steep bluff. From the 1950s onward, with the postwar shift to a suburban middle class, the area became subdivided into large ranch houses and acre-sized lawns. Today, a lakeside home with an unobstructed view on a generous slice of yard might be valued from $600,000 to over a million dollars.

The one constant on Beach Drive through all of this change has been the Mary Nohl environment, which now stands in sharp physical and philosophical contrast to the neighborhood climate. And this has become the problem.

Nohl earned her art degree at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1937 and a teaching certificate in 1939. Most of her classmates graduated, married, and stepped into family roles, but Nohl wanted to make art. She taught at middle schools for a few years and then returned to Wisconsin, opened a commercial pottery studio, and moved back into the cottage home on Beach Drive. She worked in an interdisciplinary manner, taking on new materials with enthusiasm. She melted her mother’s wedding silver to make jewelry, carved logs washed up from the beach, prided herself in mastering power tools, mixed cement, made collages, painted, drew, sewed hemp figures, turned beach stones into rings and amulets, and drip-painted her furniture, carpets, and telephone.

From the 1950s until her death in 2001 at age 87, Mary Nohl transformed the yard, as well as both the interior and exterior of the house, into an expansive work of art that was inspired by her childhood roots in this charming setting. Sand and stones from the beach were used to mix the concrete that formed the many yard sculptures. Cutout wooden reliefs of swimmers and boaters created patterns on the house. Wind chimes once hung in the trees, translating the significant breezes into aural compositions. Nohl used what was on hand for her artwork, being both resourceful and inspired by the process of making something from the land. All of her endeavors, be it jewelry making and painting during the winter months or yard work in the summers, emanated out of a direct conversation with this particular site.

Before Nohl died she worked out a contract with the Kohler Foundation, the country’s leading nonprofit foundation dedicated to preserving art environments. She gifted her house and all of her artwork to the foundation for preservation. She also left $11 million to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation to distribute to individual artists to help support their abilities to focus on their work. Nohl had been grateful to have had the financial resources to be a full time artist (her father was a prominent attorney who had invested well). She felt that there couldn’t be a more meaningful pursuit, nor a more pleasurable one, than the engagement of making, of using one’s hands, of design and invention.

Her artwork and environment serve as a monument to the reasons why art is important in this world. Many of these reasons become diluted within the professional arena of galleries and museums, when the marketplace creates an alternative value system and channels access according to economic status and education. By its nature, the professional art system narrows the conversation about certain art practices, even as it seeks to promote, display, and distribute them.

Nohl worked outside of those systems. She had discovered early on that by creating her own “museum” on Beach Drive, she could share her work broadly and still receive feedback, engagement and meaningful exchange. Other artists have done the same: Tressa Prisbrey, Helen Martins, and Kea Tawana are all excellent examples. Each of these artists chose to work within their home sphere and integrate their production into a more diverse and lived-in cultural landscape.

People found their way to Mary Nohl’s environment on their own, by accident or word of mouth, and they processed it independently from a guided critique, which is very different than wandering into the frame of an art gallery. There was no one on Beach Drive declaring it “art,” which left a sense of wonder in place. Who did this, and why? Is it a shrine, a cemetery, a staged fable?

Some visitors left notes of approval and gratitude in Nohl’s mailbox. These responses suggested that the site made people feel that the world still held possibilities of independence, invention, and self-definition, in contrast to society’s more confining and controlling forces. Others made up stories about the site, spreading rumors that a witch lived there, that she had murdered her family, or that her husband and son were lost in the lake and she subsequently went crazy and made the art to guide their spirits home. Teenagers came to revel, share an adventure, and scare their girlfriends.

Although the site has been named a Milwaukee County Landmark and recognized as an historic landmark on the Wisconsin Registry of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places, and everything was in place to preserve it, a years-long battle has taken place to keep it whole and in place. Now owned by the John Michael Kohler Art Center’s new nonprofit arm Creation and Preservation Partners, it was abruptly announced in March 2014 that the site will be dismantled and shipped north to Sheboygan County, home to the art center. The artist, however, had gifted the house, yard, and all of the art with the intention that it would truly be preserved in situ. Although she had apparently changed the legal language of the contract at the very end of her life, she had vocalized many times that she did not want her work to be moved. She also had no idea—or at least, never expressed it—that her neighbors would so resolutely stonewall the idea of legalizing public access to her site.

Only a few of the neighbors on Beach Drive vehemently opposed every preservation proposal and effort over the past thirteen years. Their main concern was that the art environment brought additional traffic to this residential enclave, although, of course, they had purchased their houses in the area knowing the draw of the site. As they battled to prevent even limited public access to Nohl’s work, they seem not to have understood its value to the broader world, nor its value as art. Some of the neighbors on Beach Drive see no “magic” in the site or any meaning in the endeavor of this one woman and her wheelbarrow; rather, they consider it an eyesore.

The Kohler Foundation and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center had decided to fight this battle privately and quietly, outside of public input and press coverage, due to the sensitivity and contentiousness of the neighbors. After a flood damaged the heating and electrical systems in 2010, the Kohler removed everything from the house and undertook conservation of damaged objects. But, after much consideration and evaluation, they made the difficult decision not to repair the house at that time. And, with the neighbors intransigent to all proposals regarding public visitation, Kohler has, for the moment at least, backed off. The current plan is to dismantle and re-assemble the house, along with the exterior sculptures, an effort that will be partially funded by the sale of the lakeside property.

However,moving Mary Nohl’s site is not preserving it. It is creating a facsimile, an approximation, a managed and guided experience that is divorced from its most significant context: its place. As Walter Benjamin stated in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”

The art world can be an unsettling place where the comforts of social order and rational thinking are rewritten, often in a confusing manner. Most people adhere to the value of the art world only if they are “within” the art world. Nohl’s angry neighbors may very well be members of the Milwaukee Art Museum who take pride and gain enjoyment from the exhibitions and offerings there. The hand of authority guides them. But it may be more difficult for them to understand the value of an unlabeled “environment” built by one independent, unmarried woman who ascribed only to her own system of common sense, invention, and stubborn intellectual curiosity. Anyone who knew her recognized her intelligence and wit. She was not strange or eccentric, although she was often so typecast. Rather, she was smart enough to resist and remain skeptical of social mores and conventions. If she didn’t need new clothes because her old ones were not worn out, she didn’t buy them. Guided by practicality and curiosity, Nohl wanted to make art. And that’s what she did.

And this highlights one of the major components of this crisis: Not only are we losing a globally important art environment, but, as art environments built by women are relatively rare, we are losing one of three of the world’s most important extantenvironments built independently by a woman. In South Africa, Helen Martins’ Owl House has been preserved and is now the pride of the village, although it drew skepticism and derision when Martins was alive. In California, Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey’s Bottle Village is surviving, but it is not still as secure, stable, or accessible as its distinction warrants. We need monuments made by women to buoy the confidence of other women. We need to respect artists whose creative lives take place in the domestic sphere. Rarely does a work of art have such a profound impact on the people who come to it on their own terms and value it for their own reasons.

Art environments often exist tenuously amidst friction in a world that turns on routines, assimilation, and sameness. Individuals including Emery Blagdon, Fred Smith, Sabato Rodia, Mary Nohl, Tressa Prisbrey, and Helen Martins, who make something unique, often out of very little, should be considered our contemporary prophets; those who survived the crushing forces of late capitalism. And rather than disparaging them, we need to celebrate the passion and the potency of their work,

It seems fated, now, that despite the Kohler’s tireless efforts, we are going to lose this major art environment. The process of dismantling and relocating the site will be costly, arduous and complex, and it will undoubtedly take many years. But by moving Mary Nohl’s environment much will be lost in the process; the physical elements may survive and become something else in a new location, but the soul of the site will be left behind. To lose this site where the art is woven into the power and history of the land, where we witness a seamlessness of enterprise that we cannot experience in a museum or a re-creation of a site, is to lose something incontrovertibly rare.

Made by a woman who defied the social imperative in the 1950s, Nohl gave us an example of how joy is procured from wood, stone, and a summer day, and how making things with one’s hands may be the most productive and profoundly human activity anyone can ever do. Perhaps this is the worst part of it all. We have so much to learn from Mary Nohl.

Kohler Foundation announces plans to preserve Georgia's Pasaquan Art Environment

Kohler Foundation to Begin Preservation of Pasaquan

Internationally renowned art site in Georgia will be restored by prestigious foundation


KOHLER, Wis. – May 28, 2014 – Kohler Foundation, Inc. of Kohler, Wisconsin, known nationally for their preservation of art, art environments and supporting education initiatives, has announced plans to preserve Pasaquan, the colorful art environment created by Eddie Owens Martin, known as St. EOM, located near Buena Vista, Georgia.

historic-image-of-pasaquans-main-entranceHistoric image of pasaquan's main entrance

“At seven acres of land and six vibrant buildings, this is one of the largest art environment preservation projects we have ever undertaken,” said Natalie Black Kohler, president of the Kohler Foundation. “Preservation of this site will ensure that future generations of artists and the public will be able to experience the varied facets of the property.”

Preservation work at Pasaquan is expected to begin in mid-May, take nearly two years to complete and will include structural work as well as object and painting conservation.  Professional conservators from Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles, along with local craftsmen, will work to bring the site back to its former glory.

Upon completion, Pasaquan will be gifted to the Columbus State University Foundation for use by the university under the direction of Professor Mike McFalls in the university’s Department of Art.  The university will breathe life into the site with events, programming, and educational activities, as well as tours. CSU President Tim Mescon views this as, “An effort that will have an indelible and positive impact on the region.”

parma-conservation-testing-paint-at-pasaquanParma Conservation testing paint at Pasaquan

The Pasaquan Preservation Society, a private, not-for-profit organization, has been caring for the site since 1986 and for years, they worked diligently to maintain the site. After completing a comprehensive restoration and preservation assessment, the society approached Kohler Foundation about taking on the safeguarding efforts and the two organizations have agreed to transfer ownership of Pasaquan to the Wisconsin-based foundation so conservation work can begin.


About Pasaquan

Pasaquan is a world renowned art environment created by the late Eddie Owens Martin beginning in the mid-1950s with work continuing until his death in 1986. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the art environment consists of six major structures, including the original farmhouse, now painted and embellished with art, an expanse of brightly painted masonry walls,


totems, walkways, temples and a pagoda. Author Tom Patterson, who has chronicled St. EOM’s art site, describes Pasaquan as “one of the most remarkable folk art environments in America— a sort of mock pre-Columbian psychedelic wonderland.” To learn more about Pasaquan, visit


About Kohler Foundation Inc.

Nationally known for their work with art environments, Kohler Foundation has preserved seven art environments in Wisconsin, plus the Kenny Hill Sculpture Garden in Chauvin, LA; Hartman Rock Garden in Springfield, OH; and the monumental Garden of Eden in Lucas, KS. Most recently, Kohler Foundation has been involved with the Bernard Langlais estate in Cushing, ME. Gifts of art by Bernard Langlais have been made to 50 institutions in Maine, plus a selection of iconic wood sculptures will remain in situ to be gifted to the Georges River Land Trust, creating a unique collaboration between art preservation and land conservation. To learn more about Kohler Foundation, visit

Rest in Peace, Leonard

For almost thirty years, Leonard Knight applied brightly colored adobe to this three-story mountainside in the

ca501knightfoster065Leonard Knight in 1997 (Courtesy of Robert Foster)

California desert, forming flowers, waterfalls, and rivers to enhance biblical verses that proclaimed his message “God is Love.” Hay bales, tree trunks, and various found objects were also covered with candy-colored adobe, forming a complex and compelling masterpiece. He welcomed all comers, and despite his spiritual message, resisted being pigeon-holed by organized religious groups. Initially decried as an environmental hazard and an unauthorized use of state land, in 2002 it was entered into the Congressional Record as a National Treasure.

In December 2011, Knight was moved to an assisted living facility near San Diego, and on February 10, 2014, he passed away. He was 82.

Even before his departure from the mountain, Knight had not been addressing ongoing conservation needs with as much energy and attention as earlier; numerous cracks and peeling, fading paint now mar the Mountain’s impact. After Knight was no longer in residence, an ad-hoc group of supporters, drawn in part from his neighbors at Slab City, formed a nonprofit organization with the hope of preserving Knight’s masterpiece for future generations, but there remain unanswered ownership questions as well as significant security and stability challenges. Nevertheless, the site remains open, and volunteers are working to ensure its survival in the immediate future.

Q&A interview with Don Howlett

HM: How did you get involved in preserving art environments?

DH: After I received my MFA in sculpture from the University of Oklahoma in 1975, I returned with Sharron Quasius (my wife at the time) to Sheboygan, Wisconsin. I was teaching a course in contemporary sculpture at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, when JMKAC’s director, Ruth DeYoung Kohler, asked if Sharron and I would do “cosmetic” repairs on some of the embellished concrete and mixed media sculptures at Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park, an art environment in Phillips. Kohler had been the driving force behind Kohler Foundation, Inc.’s recent purchase of the Park.

Fred Smith, a retired lumberjack and self-taught artist, had created a historical panorama of life-size and larger

smithpostcardFred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park, Phillips, Wisconsin, vintage postcard. Photo courtesy of Preservation Services Inc.

than life tableaux on his property between 1949 and 1964. But from 1964, until his death in 1976, he had been in a nursing home, and the Park had suffered somewhat from a decade of neglect. I had first visited the site while I was on a fishing trip in 1967. The site was nothing short of amazing. I was very interested in Kohler’s proposal to repair it.

We began work in the spring of 1977. With a freshly minted MFA in sculpture, I was humbled to work on Smith’s sculpture. This man did a tremendous amount of incredibly original and cohesive work without the kind of schooling I had been so engrossed in.

Then, on the 4thof July, a cyclonic downburst hit

wcpoverviewWisconsin Concrete Park overview. Photo courtesy of Preservation Services Inc.

northern Wisconsin and swept through the Park. We were away for the weekend and returned to find incredible destruction. If the restoration project had not been in process, the site surely would have been bulldozed. Instead, the project was expanded. We worked for a year and completely restored the sculptures in a changed landscape. In September 1978, Kohler Foundation, Inc. (KFI) gifted the Park to Price County.

Soon after, I began to meet people in the then-burgeoning field of art environment preservation. I became friends with members of the Kansas Grassroots Art Association and met Seymour Rosen, founder and director of SPACES, who brought me to California to see environments there and to assess their conditions. I traveled around the country to visit art environments. My sculpture background and materials experience helped me understand how to approach the preservation of such sites.

In 1981 I was hired by KFI to oversee the restoration of The Painted Forest, an entire interior panoramic mural

paintedforestSouth interior view of the Painted Forest, Valton, Wisconsin, after restoration 1981-1982. Photo: Mike McGinnis.

painted by itinerant German artist Ernest Hüpeden in the Modern Woodman of America lodge hall in Valton, WI. Five years later, I was again hired by KFI to oversee the restoration of the Paul and Matilda Wegner Grotto, in Cataract, WI. I worked off and on for two years with Lisa Stone and a team of artists on this art environment.

I also returned with Stone to Wisconsin Concrete Park. In 1987, we realized the Park needed attention beyond the local County Forestry Department’s efforts, and we initiated a modest annual maintenance program. But ten years and 1 day after the 1977 downburst, another storm struck the site and caused significant damage. We

fountaincomponents-sp1Liberty Fountain components as analyzed by Preservation Services, Inc. Photo courtesy of Preservation Services, Inc.

realized then we would have to be involved permanently in the site’s restoration, and have done preservation work at the Park every summer since. Stone and I formalized our involvement in art environment preservation by establishing Preservation Services, Inc.


HM: What are the first steps you take when you begin a preservation project?

DH: Gathering all available vintage photo-documentation is essential. By vintage I mean photos made during the creation of the site, representing the work as created, in the lifetime of the artist, before major changes occur. Such photos give you insight into the heart and soul of an environment.  All treatments are guided

before1-26vLiberty Fountain condition prior to restoration, 2009. Photo courtesy of Preservation Services Inc.

by the visual appearance and structural condition of the original. Resisting personal interpretation is always something to be aware of.

It’s necessary to determine how the work was made and what has affected the work physically. I do various tests of materials the artist used, to determine strengths, material compositions, structural integrity, etc. Some projects also require evaluation of preexisting mechanical and/or electrical systems.  To understand underlying conditions and problems, it is necessary to examine the work with the least invasive approaches possible. Once you understand the problems, you can design a conservation method and a preservation plan. I often rely on scientific testing using material testing laboratories to determine petrography, microscopy, and chemical analysis. And before I start restoration, I document the existing conditions extensively.


HM: Describe the ideal team for preserving an art environment. What skills would they bring?

DH: The idealteam doesn’t necessarily come into play, in that the custodians of art environments are most often

libertyvintagecolor-q9kFather Paul Dobberstein’s Liberty Fountain, West Bend, Iowa, vintage postcard. Photo courtesy of Preservation Services Inc.

individuals or non-profits that have meager resources and limited experience in fundraising. We try to deal with the individual’s or organization’s capacity, period. I’ve seen custodians of environments become scared off––incapacitated––by fancy reports and impossibly huge budgets. We try to give them a phased plan they can handle. We also feel it’s important to work with and train local people in preservation strategies and repair and maintenance methods—to give them the tools to preserve and maintain a site after we leave. It’s complicated. Like environments themselves, change is a constant factor, and the people who care for them come and go as well. But at the very least, we feel a preservation project should have the following people involved: A curator, who has comprehensive knowledge of the site’s history and documentation, is familiar with preservation and conservation theory and practice, and can plan and make decisions regarding overall approaches, methodologies, and treatment; a technician, who has appropriate skills to work with and take direction from the curator and implement treatment; and a trained assistant, to carry out activities under the direction of the curator and/or technicians. Trained assistants can include interns and volunteers.


HM: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in doing this work?

DH:  Funding. It’s very hard to get funding to preserve art environments, which fall between several cultural and art historical cracks. Some projects have strong community support, and others end up with very limited support. It is a matter of perception, of a site’s importance to its community and to larger art and cultural communities.  As interest in and the market for “outsider” art has increased, art environments have received more attention—not all of it positive. Sites become vulnerable to vandalism as dealers find it profitable to sell parts of them. We’ve been working in a kind of ideal world, in that KFI has had such an extraordinary involvement with the preservation of art environments, for many years in Wisconsin and now beyond the state’s borders. But KFI’s approach is, unfortunately, completely unique and hasn’t been replicated, as a model, elsewhere.


HM: Everyone loves a success story. Do you have one to share?     

DH:  I’m proud to have participated in a number of success stories. I’ve seen the Wisconsin Concrete Park go from being scorned by many in the community, to being strongly embraced and supported locally and countywide, and since 1995, by Friends of Fred Smith, Inc. After many years of dealing with conservation challenges and our share of disasters, we’re now doing manageable annual conservation and maintenance.

On a smaller scale, in 2009 we presented a preservation plan to the city of Humboldt, Iowa, to preserve a fountain by Father Dobberstein, the famed builder of the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend. We phased the project over nine years, thinking that would be within their capacity, but the City came up with the funding and this complex project was completed in two!

HM: How has this field changed during the years you’ve been involved?

DH:  I hesitate to call it “a field” in that it’s such a niche area of historic preservation, and the mainstream preservation community has yet to recognize art environments as significant cultural resources. But I’ve experienced much change in the 36 years since I became involved. Watts Towers and the Garden of Eden (Lucas, Kansas) were the first art environments to be preserved in this country; both listed in the National Register of Historic Places way back in 1977. Then came the Wisconsin Concrete Park.

Today there are many sites in jeopardy, but many have been preserved and have strong organizational structures in place. The Orange Show Foundation for Visionary Art in Houston has preserved the Orange Show and the Beer Can House and is a major cultural entity in the city. Major projects are underway to preserve Vollis Simpson’s whirligigs in North Carolina and Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden in Georgia. And fortunately SPACES is reincarnated and now has the reach of its phenomenal website. Seymour would be so proud!  The perception of art environments as irreplaceable cultural resources is gradually evolving. But not fast enough for me.

For more information about preservation, see SPACES Preservation Toolbox


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

Browse Blog Archives by Month

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

Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park Celebrates 1 Year!
Preservation News, Take Action

A Letter from Emily Smith, director at Philadelphia's Magic Gardens
Preservation News, SPACES News, Threatened Environments

Hoffman's The Last Resort in California to Form Non-Profit
Preservation News, Take Action, Threatened Environments

Dispatch from the Field: Singular Spaces, Volume 2 in progress!

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