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Trash to Treasure - Unusual Attractions in Southern California
"Buy, buy, says the sign in the shop window; Why, why, says the junk in the yard."
- Paul McCartney
Sometimes we throw stuff out not because it is wretchedly old or broken beyond repair. We just want to make room for something newer, nicer and perhaps more trendy; something that could make our life a little more convenient; or something that can boost our ego to some degree. As long as we've got the almighty dollar, the buying and trashing cycle will keep on going. However, that is not the case for Elmer Long, Noah Purifoy and Art Beal. (The first one is still alive, but the other two have been long gone.) For them, the cycle reels in reverse. These three men neither knew each other nor had much in common, yet they all shared one strong passion: the love of turning trash into treasure.
Elmer Long proved that he didn't need a green thumb or first-grade plant seeds to create a marvellous garden; craftsmanship and collections of antique bottles were more than enough. Noah Purifoy devoted the last decade of his life to inventing numerous assemblage sculptures on several acres of desert, as a means to parody and correct social discrimination. Discarded odds and ends were his artistic materials, and Mother Nature was his only partner in practice. And Art Beal, an eccentric laborer whom nobody seemed to respect, built a whole castle from a bunch of trash, with his two hands. These three "garbage wonderlands" might not appeal to the mainstream standard of beauty, and some people might even see them as glorified junkyards, patronized by nuts and beatniks. Yet, many others with an open-minded sense of artistry and a love for quirkiness tend to enjoy every second of their time at these places. If you're heading to Southern California, don't miss your chance to visit these awesomely peculiar attractions.
Map and Directions
Elmer Long's Bottle Tree Ranch
About Elmer Long: As a youngster, Elmer Long was an adventurous soul who often followed his father into the desert, hoping to unearth old wayfarer mysteries and find hidden treasures beneath the dunes. In reality, however, they only came across a bunch of empty bottles and a few funky doodads. The father and son brought them home anyway. Those things were the rewards of their little journeys no matter how insignificant they might seem to be. Like a pro archaeologist, the elder Long even kept a logbook of their findings, which elaborately detailed all the bottles and the locations they were found. The Longs' storage sheds became overflooded with thousands of antique bottles over the years. And surprisingly, Mrs. Long never asked the two desert wanderers to tidy up their clutter!
Decades passed. Things changed. The elder Long met his end, and Elmer's youth was gone with the wind. His beard grew so long and so gray it resembled that of Dumbledore, a Hogwarts sorcerer. His adventurous soul, nonetheless, remained unaltered, and his childhood memories were well preserved in those bottles. At 67, when many people of about the same age begin to live life in the slow lane, Elmer adopted welding as a new hobby. It was this skill he learned quite late in life that inspired him to resurrect those bottles along with other interesting junk he had accumulated. With coarse materials, such as scrap metal and telephone-pole insulators, he built his first bottle tree in 2000 and has consistently expanded his unique garden ever since.
Meeting Elmer Long
About the Bottle Tree Ranch: Today over two hundred sturdy, colorful "perennials" sprawl over Elmer's metal garden. They can stand strong throughout a scorching summer and endure a bitter frost. No watering or pruning is necessary. Each tree bears about 50 - 200 bottles on its twigs and one antiquated object on its pinnacle. Speaking of tree-toppers, you may automatically think of shiny stars, lovely birds or angel figurines. Well, you won't find many typical tree toppers like those at this bottle tree ranch. As strange as it may sound, he prefers crowning his bottle trees with items that were invented to be useful rather than simply ornamental, such as a sea-worn surfboard, a parking meter, an Underwood typewriter and a 32-caliber pistol! Is he crazy? Perhaps, but in a creative way.
Walking through Elmer's bottle tree park is like getting lured into the land of Bizarro. A disarray of auras is a common spectacle during sunny hours. Bottles of various sizes and colors reflect the light in haywire directions. From a distance, in a dazzling sunbeam, they bear resemblance to "trees of jewels" rather than trees of junk. And on a windy day, you will hear brisk wisps of air racing into the bottles like a ghostly orchestra of flutes.
Visiting the Bottle Tree Ranch: The bottle trees are displayed right on Elmer's front yard along Route 66. He doesn't offer formal tours; anyone can just stop by and stroll in his bottle tree forest without getting accused of trespassing. If he happens to be there, he will probably come out and converse with you. Elmer enjoys welcoming new visitors. No admission fee. No appointment necessary. Bringing him a few empty bottles will likely be appreciated, though!
Noah Purifoy's Outdoor Art Museum
About Noah Purifoy: Noah Purifoy lived to derail social injustice and loved to deride the mainstream standard of art and beauty. Yes, this man had guts. He believed that art was not only the end result of an artist's imagination but also a process of problem solving. Within him, a Dada artist and social activist always converged into one. Many people wonder why he didn't really focus on his own artwork until he reached his 60s. It wasn't because his muse failed to give him a visit or he hadn't developed adequate skills to pull it off. The truth is he spent decades of his life nurturing the creativity of others. He was an art professor as well as a founding member of two renowned art institutes: the Watts Towers Art Center and the California Arts Council. It might not sound so stupendous to us now, but back then in the 1960s, it was quite a big deal for an African-American from rural Alabama like Noah Purifoy to achieve such a prestigious position in an academic society.
When his teaching career came to an end in 1987, Noah decided to bid farewell to the city life in Los Angeles and find a new humble abode in the town of Joshua Tree. Living in the desert with a relentless silence and extreme climates, he tenaciously created large-scale assemblage sculptures year after year, using whatever materials he could scavenge. His studio had no walls or ceiling. The scope of his artwork was not at all limited by space, and nature itself served as his right-hand man. He allowed all his sculptures to get bleached by the sun and shaken by the wind. If they got knocked off, he would just let them be. If birds and jack rabbits wanted to claim some of his art pieces as their habitats, then that was that. Nature's participation in the creation process, according to him, resonates the fact that changes are an integral part of life. Noah Purifoy passed away in 2004, at age 86. His striking sculptures, however, have survived until today.
Take a Virtual Tour
About the Outdoor Art Museum: The eyes that simply seek beauty will not see this outdoor art museum as a fantastic place. Only those with an inquiring mind and a broad perception of creativity will find this ingenious junkyard worth their visit. A multitude of assemblage sculptures are outstretched over almost eight acres of high desert. Noah used anything and everything that other people would probably regard as "good for nothing." Broken airplane parts and discarded glass bricks are bonded together with cement and chicken wire. A rusty railroad track slithers on the sand like an exhausted snake. Torsoless mannequins line up abreast on a rickety platform. Heavy bowling balls dangle from a weathered wooden bar as if to defy Mother Earth's gravity. Some are just small sculptures while the others are built on a much larger scale. His invention titled "A Weird Place in Wonderland," for instance, takes up about 60 square feet.
Every art piece in this desert museum is a complex visual puzzle that invites the viewer to rethink the meanings of the so-called trash. Every sculpture, despite its whimsically absurd appearance, carries a grave social commentary. The bizarre locomotive constructed with old speakers and cart wheels, for example, speaks of hope and growth for the rich, whereas the ramshackle railroad track on which it stands depicts the shattered dreams and longtime oppression of the poor. Near the museum exit, a drinking fountain and a toilet bowl sit side by side. Above them, there are two big signs. One reads WHITE and the other reads COLORED. The social prejudice that has haunted generations of American people is summed up here with a pair of simple fixtures and one-syllable words.
Visiting Noah Purifoy's Outdoor Art Museum: This sculpture garden welcomes visitors by appointment only. Call the Noah Purifoy Foundation at (213) 382 - 7516 to set up a date.
Art Beal's Nitt Witt Ridge
About Art Beal: Arthur Harold Beal usually told people to call him "Art", yet it turned out he has been better remembered by other names. "Der Tinkerpaw" was one of his well-known monikers due to the fact that whenever he had nothing to do, he just couldn't stop fiddling with hands. His other nickname was "Captain Nitt Witt," which later also became the title of his masterpiece. Although people tended to enjoy poking fun at his quirky habits and had no faith in his intelligence, it didn't bother him much. Socializing wasn't his main interest. Living like a mysterious hermit, Art spent most of his free time fulfilling one obsession; building his poor man's castle.
Art first embarked on his lifelong mission in 1928, starting with carving a gigantic hole in the side of a hill. Lacking a budget to buy proper construction appliances or hire helping hands, he did it all by himself with primitive tools, such as picks and shovels. Then he turned all that dirt he had dug out into the firm foundation of his dream home. His occupations as a day laborer and garbage collector granted him an unlimited access to supplies of junk from people's houses and construction sites. Living pretty close to the beach, he didn't waste his opportunities to borrow handy materials from nature, including rocks, driftwood and seashells. Bit by bit, he went on building his castle with the trash he gathered. All the neighbors thought he was a total whackjob. No one really appreciated his effort and artistic skills. The lack of support, nonetheless, did not discourage him. It took Art about fifty years to complete his project. He lived happily in his handcrafted castle for several years until he passed away in 1992, at age 96. Today Nitt Witt Ridge is the state of California's Historical Landmark Number 939. And Art Beal, a garbage man with no formal training, is its one and only architect.
Take a Peek Inside Nitt Witt Ridge
About Nitt Witt Ridge: Imagine Dr. Frankenstein meticulously scavenging for body parts to create his monster. Art Beal built his castle with a similar artifice. He is the Dr. Frankenstein of the architectural world. He picked all the best bits of trash and assembled them together in a scrupulous way, hoping to conceive an enchanting structure. And yet, his three-story invention came out freakishly intriguing rather than beautiful.
Instead of Corinthian columns, Nitt Witt Ridge is fortified with unorthodox pillars of beach rocks. Other mansion owners might adorn their grand entryway with bronze and granite, but Der Tinkerpaw preferred broken cinder blocks and abalone shells. Lopsided stacks of car rims skirt parts of the property as if to mock the leaning tower of Pisa. Beaten golf balls are reborn as the wall rail-tops, and used toilet seats are promoted from "rear-end bearers" to snappy photo frames. Some common remarks from visitors include "Wow!", "Crikey!" and "What the heck!" From entrance to exit, every step you take at Nitt Witt Ridge will give you a little brain buzz.
Visiting Nitt Witt Ridge: This poor man's castle is now owned by Michael and Stacey O'Malley. Call (805) 927 - 2690 to reserve a tour.