Other Visionary Art Environments

Niki de Saint Phalle's Tarot Garden Simon Rodia's Watts Towers Clarence Schmidt's House of Mirrors Robert Tatin's Garden of Meditation
PMG Creator Isaiah Zagar makes many references to other artists and visionary art environments from around the world throughout his work. Find out more about some of these visionary artists and their environments by clicking the links below.


Ricky Boscarino,
Luna Parc in Sandyston, New Jersey
Ricky Boscarino's Luna Parc

Ricky Boscarino comes from an artistic family in Paterson, New Jersey. He attended the Rhode Island School of Design and did post-graduate work at the New York University Film School. After spending many years traveling around the world to places such as Thailand, Burma, Spain, and Rome, Boscarino began “Roach Art,” using cockroaches as the subject of his art, and even made jewelry based on insects. Later he found a hunting lodge that had been abandoned for ten years and began making it his home. Named after an amusement park in Rome, Luna Parc features sculptures, mosaics, bright colors, and found objects, like glass bottles and stones. Boscarino continues to work in New Jersey and says he plans to work on his home until the age of 106.

 


Ferdinand Cheval, The Ideal Palace
(Le Palais Ideal) in Hauterives, France
Ferdinand Cheval's Ideal Palace
Ferdinand Cheval (1836-1924) was born in Charmes-sur-l’Herbasse, Drôme, France. He left school at the age of 13 to become a baker’s apprentice, but eventually became a rural postman. Cheval later pursued his interests and became a self-taught builder and a visionary sculptor. Cheval claimed that he had tripped on a stone and was inspired by its shape. He returned to the same spot the next day and started collecting stones. At first, he carried the stones in his pockets before switching to a basket and then a wheelbarrow. In 1879, at the age of 43, Cheval began building his Ideal Palace, originally called “The Temple of Nature”. Between 1879 and 1912, he built the Ideal Palace with inspiration from both The Bible and Hindu mythology. Cheval said of his work, “All styles from all countries and all eras are mixed and join together.” To build this monument consisting of four walls, a terrace and a gallery, the postman worked for 33 years and used more than 3,500 bags of lime.The site was named a cultural landmark by the French minister of culture in 1969 and is open to the public.

 


Howard Finster, Paradise Garden in Summerville, Georgia
Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens

Howard Finster (1916-2001) was born in Valley Head, Alabama, where he was one of thirteen children. He claims to have had his first vision when he was just three years old and began preaching at 16. In 1940, he became the pastor at Rock Bridge Baptist church. Finster began a garden in Trion, Georgia, in the late ‘40s to showcase everything invented by man. When room there became scarce he moved to Summerville, Georgia. In 1961 he began the Plant Farm Museum to show “all the wonderful things o’God’s creation.” While working on a bicycle, Finster had another vision. God appeared to him in a drop of paint and told him to make 5,000 paintings. By the time of his death, he had created nearly 48,000 works. Paradise Gardens became a 2.5 acre lot of buildings, sculptures, and objects inscribed with Bible verses meant to unite viewers with God. Light catchers, buildings, walkways, and sculptures made of mostly found objects, like plywood and bottles, make up the site. Paradise Gardens is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is open to visitors year round.

 


Edward James, Las Pozas in Xilitla, Mexico
Edward James's Las Pozas

Edward James (1907-1984) spent his youth studying in boarding schools in England.He inherited his father’s mansion in 1912 and had a brief career as a trainee diplomat for the embassy in Rome. James became a poet and playwright, rejecting his bourgeois upbringing, and commissioned work by many surrealist painters. He became close to several of these artists, including Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte. In the 1940s he moved to Mexico and began building a garden of surreal structures near the town of Xilitla. The land began as 80 acres of waterfalls and pools, which he named Las Pozas meaning “the pools.” On this land, James employed local craftsmen to build several concrete buildings and sculptures, some of which are up to four stories tall. Trails on the site lead to ramps, bridges, walkways and steps. In 2007 a foundation was formed to oversee the restoration and preservation of the site, and it is currently open to the public every day.

 


Eddie Owens Martin, Pasaquan in Buena Vista, Georgia

Eddie Owens Martins's Pasaquan

Eddie Owens Martin (1908-1986) was born in Marion County, Georgia, to poor Baptist sharecroppers. At the age of 14, he embarked on a journey that carried him from Bible belt Georgia to the liberal, urban streets of New York City. There he found himself sleeping in parks and in subway cars while working as a street hustler, drag queen, bartender, fortuneteller, and gambler. Martin eventually tired of New York and returned to Georgia where he was heir to four acres of land, a small house and a well given to him by his mother, who had passed away in 1950. Martin returned to his family’s farmland and began working in cement and Sherman-Williams house paint, using proceeds from his fortune telling to pay for building materials.Martin started Pasaquan in 1957 and renamed himself St. EOM, the guru of Pasaquan, after he had life-changing visions that influenced his work. Both exotic and fictional places, including Africa, Easter Island, Pre-Columbian Mexico and Atlantis, are shown in his visionary environment. Influences also come from Eastern philosophy, sexuality, paganism and marijuana. Martin later said, “I built this place to have something to identify with, ’cause there’s nothin’ I see in this society that I identify with or desire to emulate. Here I can be in my own world, with my temples and designs and the spirit of God.” Today Pasaquan is on the National Register of Historic Places and open for guided tours.

 


Helen Martins, Owl House
in Great Karoo, South Africa
Helen Martins's Owl House

Helen Martins (1897-1976) was born in Eastern Cape, South Africa. Martins had no artistic training but earned a teaching diploma and moved to the Transvaal in 1919 to begin working as a teacher. After Martin’s parents died, she inherited their property. Martins became bored with her life and in 1945 began an obsessive project to decorate her home and garden. Despite crippling arthritis and the amputation of her small toes, Martins used cement, glass, and wire to decorate the interior of her home. Later she built sculptures in her garden, where she drew inspiration from Christian biblical texts, the poetry of Omar Khayyam, and various works by William Blake. Helen Martins’s eyesight began to fail. She could not bear the thought of going blind and was worried that she would be taken away from her life’s work. In 1976 she took her own life by swallowing a mixture of caustic soda and crushed glass in olive oil. In accordance with Martins wishes the house is open as a museum and is maintained by its own foundation, which was founded in 1996.

 


Jefferson Davis McKissack, The Orange Show in Houston, Texas
Jefferson Davis McKissack's Orange Show

Jefferson Davis McKissack (1902-1980) was born in Fort Gaines, Georgia, as the youngest of five children. While working as a truck driver transporting oranges throughout the Southeast United States, McKissack became interested in the orange as a source of nutrients and energy. He served in the army from 1942-1943, then worked in a navy shipyard and learned to weld, a skill that proved essential in the construction of his future artistic endeavor, The Orange Show. Over the next twenty years, McKissack collected roof tiles, fire escapes, decorations, and other architectural refuse from the sites of Houston buildings that were being demolished or remodeled, as well as steel wheels, turnstiles, and tractor seats.When asked why he built The Orange Show, he responded with a variety of explanations, including his own inability to find the perfect orange juicer. After the show’s grand opening on May 9, 1979, neighbors observed that McKissack withdrew and only seven months later he died of a stroke, on January 26, 1980. Today the Orange Center for Visionary Art has become part of Houston’s cultural scene and has a variety of programs available to the public.

 


Henry Chapman Mercer, Fonthill in Doylestown, Pennsylvania
Henry Chapman Mercer's Fonthill

Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930) was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia. He first studied law at the University of Pennsylvania and then became their curator of American and Pre-historic Archaeology. After spending time doing archaeological excavations, Mercer decided to begin collecting pre-industrial American objects. He learned about redware pottery and tilemaking in the Pennsylvania-German tradition from the Herstine family of Ferndale, Pennsylvania, and through his own experimentation. Mercer bought seventy acres in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, after receiving an inheritance from his aunt in 1907. In 1908, having only learned of building from books and trips to Europe, Mercer built Fonthill Castle to be his home. It is made of steel reinforced concrete to insure none of his objects could be burned in a fire. Fonthill, meant to be a Castle for the New World, features forty-four rooms, more than two hundred windows, eighteen fireplaces, and ten bathrooms. His Pennsylvania German inspired tiles are embedded throughout the house. In 1913 he built the Mercer Museum in the same style as a place to house his massive collection of objects from early American life. Both Fonthill Castle and the Mercer Museum are open to the public and are only about an hour from Philadelphia.

 


Mary Nohl, Mary Nohl Home
near Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Mary Nohl's Home

Mary Nohl (1914-2001) lived in a beach cottage home near Milwaukee on Lake Michigan as a child. She attended the Art Institute of Chicago and later opened her own unsuccessful pottery studio. She continued to make outdoor sculptures and jewelry and attempted drawing and painting.After inheriting her childhood home in 1968, Nohl began decorating it with sculptures of cement, stone, and tree trunks. The sculptures were of mythic animals and Easter Island-influenced heads. Wooden pattern cutouts decorate the façade of the house. She also used many items that had washed up on shore, including driftwood, glass, tile and sand. The house was given to the Kohler Foundation after Nohl’s death, but zoning regulations currently do not allow it to be open as museum.

 


Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey, Bottle Village
in Simi Valley, California
Tressa "Grandma" Prisbrey's Bottle Village

Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey (1896-1988) was born in Easton, Minnesota, the youngest of eight children. In 1908, her family moved to Minot, North Dakota, where she stopped her schooling at the age of twelve. Prisbrey began construction of her Bottle Village in 1956 when she was 60 years old. She bought a 1/3-acre plot on Cochran Street and began work on the first building as a place to house her pencil collection, which numbered 17,000 at the time. She used concrete and colored bottles she got from the local dump, along with other materials, to create this and thirteen other buildings. Prisbrey created wishing wells, gardens, sculptures, a mosaic walkway, and rooms in honor of her family. Most of the construction of Bottle Village was completed by 1961, with a few additions and changes to existing structures taking place into the early 1980s. Prisbrey sold Bottle Village in 1972, but returned in 1974 as the caretaker of the site and also gave public tours. She died on October 5, 1988, at the age of 92. Her legacy lives on through the conservation efforts of the Preserve Bottle Village Committee (PBVC), who work to keep the site accessible to the public.

 


Simon Rodia, Watts Towers in Los Angeles, California

Simon Rodia's Watts Towers

Simon Rodia (1879-1965) was an Italian immigrant who came to the United States at the age of fifteen. Rodia started his artistic ventures at the age of thirty-eight, building small planters and a fishpond for his yard while living in Long Beach, California. He used reinforced steel, mortar, colored tile, and other materials to build and decorate them, a technique he then applied to his famous towers. In 1920 Rodia moved to the oddly shaped, triangular plot in Watts where he built his masterpiece. Rodia did not use any machinery in the building of his towers, only using simple tools, pipe fitter pliers, and a window washer’s belt. He then used different colored tiles, shells, glass and cement, to make beautiful mosaic art. Rodia said, “I wanted to do something big and I did it.” He finished the towers in 1955, a total of 34 years working on the towers. The Watts Towers consist of seventeen interconnected towers, the highest of which is 99 feet tall.

 


Nek Chand Saini, Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India
Nek Chand Saini's Rock Garden

Nek Chand Saini (born 1924) was born and raised in India. His family moved to Chandigarh in 1947 during the Partition of British India, which concerned religious demographics. Chand found work there as a roads inspector for the Public Works Department in 1951.In his spare time, Chand began collecting materials from demolition sites around the city. He recycled these materials into his own vision of the divine kingdom of Sukrani, choosing a gorge in a forest near Sukhna Lake for his work. The space soon became a complex of interlinked courtyards, each filled with hundreds of pottery-covered concrete sculptures of dancers, musicians, and animals. When the Indian government discovered his work on their property, they gave Chand a salary and 50 workers to assist him. The government also set up public collection centers around the area to collect broken ceramics and other recycled materials to help Chand give his work the attention he desired. Today the garden receives more than five thousand visitors daily, making it the second most visited site in India after the Taj Mahal.

 


Niki de Saint Phalle, Tarot Garden (Il Giardino del Tarocchi)
in Capabio, Italy
Niki de Saint Phalle's Tarot Garden
Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) lived with her parents in Greenwich, Connecticut. She was expelled from the Convent School of the Sacred Heart in New York City in 1937 and then the Bearley School in New York in 1942 for painting the fig leaves on statues red. After graduating from Oldfields School, de Saint Phalle tried to reject her conservative upbringing but felt herself falling into the same lifestyle. She continued painting and moved to Spain where she visited Antonio Gaudi’s Park Güell. She became inspired by this work and began experimenting with alternative media for her art. She created “shooting paintings” and polyster and wire Nana dolls. De Saint Phalle acquired land in Italy in 1979 to begin building her own sculpture garden. With no deadline, she was able to work in complete freedom, living alone in one of the sculptures in the garden. The Tarot Garden contains 22 sculptures of images from tarot cards and is currently open to the public. De Saint Phalle has also created large scale sculpture installations and gardens in several other parts of the world, including California, Paris, and Germany.

 


Clarence Schmidt, House of Mirrors in Woodstock, New York
Clarence Schmidt's House of Mirrors

In 1920, Clarence Schmidt (1897-1978) inherited five acres of land in the Ohayo Mountain area in Woodstock, New York, where he built a cabin made of railroad ties and covered the outside in tar, sealing it from the elements. He then moved on to an even bigger project, building out and up using materials that were recycled or donated to create his House of Mirrors. By the end of its construction, it was seven stories tall. Any and every kind of window could be seen from the outside of the structure, no two alike. Inside, there was a labyrinth of dozens of rooms, each consisting of different decorations such as mirrors, pictures, tires and mannequins put together in odd assortments and covered in varnish, paint, or foil. Unfortunately, due to faulty wiring and the extreme flammability of his materials, Schmidt’s creation burned to the ground in 1968. Isaiah Zagar visited the House of Mirrors when he was 19 and still cites that experience and Clarence Schmidt as one of his greatest artistic influences.

 


Robert Tatin, The Garden of Meditation in Mayenne, France

Robert Tatin's Garden of Meditation

Robert Tatin (1902-1983) was born in Laval Avesnière, France, and was raised mostly around the women of his family. As a young student, Robert Tatin became very lonely and developed a taste for nature walks, drawing and astronomy. In 1924, after his service in the military, he returned to Laval with his wife, where he worked with his father as a carpenter. In 1930, his construction company flourished through their house painting and tapestry services, and the prosperity of his business allowed him to travel throughout Europe, South America, and other regions of the world. In 1950, Tatin bought a store in Paris that gradually turned into a ceramic workshop. Here he met giants of the art world, including Jean Dubuffet, André Breton, and Jacques Prévert. Tatin continued to study art and learned about painting, sculpture, ceramics and enamels. Tatin’s work was influenced by African, Hindu, Tibetan, and Roman art, as well as his own philosophies about life and the universe. He often included totemic symbols in his pieces that marked a meeting between East and West. Tatin’s environment includes his home in its original state, as well as The Garden of Meditation, which contains more than 20 large statues created over 21 years. Today the site is open as a museum for guided tours.

 


Bruno Weber, Sculpture Park in Dietikon, Switzerland
Bruno Weber's Sculpture Park

Bruno Weber (1931-2011) was born in Dietikon, Switzerland. He completed college in 1947 at the Zurich College of Arts and Crafts and worked as a lithographer until 1949. In the 1960s, he created his sculpture park which covers 20,000 square meters in Switzerland and contains a variety of mythical creatures. He lived in the garden in an equally fanciful home that he began at the same time as his sculpture garden. The garden is currently open to the public.