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Gardens of Revelation: Environments by Visionary Artists

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With incisive intelligence and beguiling prose, John Beardsley tells the story of some twenty-five "visionary environments" and the fiercely independent individuals who created them. Beardsley also situates the work in the larger contexts of traditional garden design, religious architecture, environmental sculpture, and folk art. The thought-provoking text combines with dazzling views of the far-flung gardens to make this an inspiring volume.

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Overview

With incisive intelligence and beguiling prose, John Beardsley tells the story of some twenty-five "visionary environments" and the fiercely independent individuals who created them. Beardsley also situates the work in the larger contexts of traditional garden design, religious architecture, environmental sculpture, and folk art. The thought-provoking text combines with dazzling views of the far-flung gardens to make this an inspiring volume.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780789207975
  • Publisher: Abbeville Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/25/2003
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 9.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

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From the Introduction

Some months before I started to write this book, I was describing its contents to a skeptical acquaintance. "Just what," he interrupted impatiently, "will the book celebrate?" "That's easy," I retorted, "idiosyncratic genius, tenacious faith, and unalienated labor." I could have gone on-to personal conceptions of God, the rules of sex, and life after death-but I wasn't sure my listener could accept that any art in a secular age might aspire to say so much. I quickly realized, too, that there was little else that was "easy" about my subject, which was precisely why I found it so compelling. I had a general sense of what I would be describing: handmade environments that express a personal moral or religious vision, typically fabricated of found materials by people who aren't necessarily identified by themselves or by others as artists. These environments are made to surround and even engulf the home; they often have an obsessive character and are the result of many years of work. In form, they are various and extraordinary, ranging from luminous bottle villages to garishly painted temple compounds, from mock castles to miniature cities, from sculpture gardens populated with biblical and historical figures to artificial caverns encrusted with geodes and stalactites. I knew that a few such environments had attained some renown and that anyone who had heard of the Palais Ideal in France, Watts Towers in Los Angeles, or Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, Alabama-or had seen the Reverend Howard Finster on the talk shows-would have a general idea of my subject. But with the exception of a small group of dedicated enthusiasts, I was aware that most people would come to itwith little prior knowledge and that the material would challenge credulity while testing the conventional language of art.

Among the many provocations of the subject is the fact that no one, it seems, will ever be able to name it adequately. Part architecture, part sculpture, part landscape, visionary environments seem insistently and purposefully to defy the usual categories of artistic practice. Likewise, they evade the normal descriptive terms: these creations display too great an indifference to the niceties of composition and technique to have earned admiration as fine art; but they are too individualistic and too loosely linked to tradition to have been accepted- in most academic circles at least-as folk art.1 Many skirmishes have been fought on the semantic front and numerous alternative terms proposed: outsider, isolate, eccentric, grassroots, vernacular, naive. All such terms have advantages and limitations: all correctly imply a distance from the conventions of academic art and "high" culture, but all can be pejorative as well, especially in the way they reiterate the marginal status of these creations.2 Most, too, in stressing isolation or eccentricity over context, reinforce a tendency to ignore the social and cultural circumstances in which this art is born and of which it speaks, circumstances I will wholeheartedly explore. In this semantic matter, therefore, I have opted-in the spirit of the artists about whom I write-to go my own way. I have named my subject "Gardens of Revelation."

I use both the words garden and revelation in very particular ways. A cursory look at the illustrations in this book will turn up few places that look like gardens as that word is now commonly understood: private spaces characterized by collections of plants, intended as places of refuge or leisure. How then do I mean the word? I use it in both the most humble and the most exalted of senses: to refer to the patch of earth from which we coax our food and to our prevailing metaphor for paradise. A garden is not defined simply by its physical characteristics: plants, walls, water. It is a more complex creature-a bounded space that can be brought under control, that might even be brought to some measure of perfection. In the domestic sphere, a garden is a space that its creator endows with particularly personal meanings that he or she wants very much, despite the private setting, to share with the world. The garden is often where private speculation makes its first appearance before the public, where a person begins to define a conception of nature and a place in the world.

In all, my sense of the term is very like that evident in Maynard Mack's characterization of the celebrated garden at Twickenham by the eighteenth-century English poet Alexander Pope: "literally and figuratively, a place to stand, an angle of vision . . . a rallying point for his personal values and a focus for his conception of himself."3 The garden, in other words, is not merely a physical entity, but an emotional, moral, and philosophical construct as well. As such, it can be one of culture's most significant forms of expression. Most contemporary gardens, however, are but the merest shadow of what the garden could or should be. The language of spiritual or philosophical rumination especially has gone out of most recent, all-plant gardens, dedicated as they are to function, decoration, or horticultural display. The gardens about which I write may be anachronistic, in that they represent the survival of an older, more powerful conception of the garden as a place of inquiry and moral assertion.

Several of these environments take an architectural character. Some contain covered, enclosed spaces: rooms, even towers. The architectural equivalents to such environments have been described by designations such as "fantastic architecture" or "handmade houses." I have chosen to separate house from environment, in part for practical reasons: my subject is already daunting enough. But I am also suggesting a distinction in character. Few of the environments seen here are meant primarily to be inhabited: they are above all artistic and symbolic places. Architecture, to make perhaps too coarse a distinction, is also artistic and symbolic but of necessity more functional. Robert Garcet, the former stonemason who has constructed a one-hundred-eight-foot (thirty-three-meter) tower of the Apocalypse in Belgium, made this distinction plain to me. When asked if the tower was his home, he replied that it was "not my domicile, but the place of my philosophical habitation." The structures found in these environments are analogous to the symbolic forms we are accustomed to seeing in more elaborate gardens of the past: sculptural ensembles, grottoes and gazebos, temples of virtue and shrines to ancient worthies. Freed from utility, these forms can stand-like the gardens in which they are found-as clearer representations of an idea.

A garden, then, is both a bounded space and a representation. What is represented in these gardens is implied by the other term: revelation. A revelation is both something revealed and the act of revealing; in the case of these environments, something revealed to the artist and something revealed by the artist to us. I have already suggested some of what the artist wants to reveal to us: a moral or philosophical code, a vision of nature or a spiritual system. Some artists are impelled by the need to articulate a personal religious creed; others, to discharge a debt to God. Some even take their imagery or their content from the Revelation that begat so many other revelations: the awful vision of the Apocalypse recorded by Saint John the Divine on Patmos and contained in the final book of the Christian Bible. Not all, however, are millenarian or even sacred in character. Some honor the past, some are tributes to family and loved ones. Many express notions of patriotism or brotherhood, though both country and fellow man are conceived in personal terms: these artists often dissent from both political and social norms.

What distinguishes these environments above all, in other words, is what might be described as a form of rhetorical speech. This is an art of persuasion. Inscribed in various ways in all of these constructions is a strong sense of the maker's convictions. These artists share a desire to demonstrate the sincerity and validity of their points of view. In some cases, these convictions are explicitly presented; in others, they are encoded in symbolic or spatial constructions. The main business of this text is to reveal what is being said in these environments, as well as how and why it is being said; secondarily, it is to speculate on some of the sources of each artist's language. This is facilitated by the fact that many of these artists have also been writers. Where this is the case, I will trace the connections between their visual creations and their written works. Considering these environments in rhetorical terms suggests an answer to one of the most frequently asked questions about them: why are they made? They are made for the same reason, it seems, that people create exhortatory works of any kind: because their makers believe they have something important to communicate.

With many of these environments, there is a feeling of revelation in the other sense: of something divulged to the artist. A number of these gardens seem at once summoned from the intellect and disclosed from the unconscious. By suggesting even a partially unconscious source for these creations, one is in danger of ignoring the various historical and social contexts that give shape to them, and of overstating their uniqueness. Yet relative to most art, whether courtly, bourgeois, or academic, these gardens seem to be unpremeditated, even involuntary creations. Their makers, though supremely motivated and self-confident, do not necessarily speak of the contexts from which their work springs. They often give testimony instead to the motivating force of dreams, visions, or divine commandments. Sometimes the motivation resembles conventional inspiration-"it just came to me" is a common refrain. But many visions are more elaborate, with the recipients being given a second chance in life to do something worthwhile for themselves and for others. We cannot know if these visions are authentically experienced or invented by the artists as a kind of alibi to explain their differences from other people. Either way, they are a recurring motif in the lives and creations of these artists.

Because of the importance of personal revelation, there is nearly equal emphasis in this book on creations and creators. I tend to be more sympathetic than some to the notion that the biography of the artist, especially its psychological dimensions, is an important factor in both the generation and the interpretation of art. But in the case of these environments, it is absolutely crucial.4 Howard Finster's experience as an itinerant Baptist preacher, for example, is essential to understanding the motivation behind his Paradise Garden near Summerville, Georgia (plate 2). More generally, one of the defining characteristics of these creators is biographical: they are all artistically self-taught. This educational disadvantage is perhaps artificial--we all learn from somewhere. But to my mind, there is an important distinction between learning in the academy and learning on the street-or in the woods. In the latter case, one is surely more innocent of rules.

Moreover, educational disadvantage stands for much larger circumstances in the lives of these artists. To greater and lesser degrees, they are all somewhat disenfranchised: marginalized by race or ethnicity, isolated by geography or culture, or deprived of economic and social status. Many of them, in other words, are-or were-poor and uneducated; African Americans or immigrants who spoke little or no English; or residents of remote communities. Many, too, have been elderly, at the end of diffcult lives. Many worked at low-status and repetitive jobs; various of these artists were first postmen, loggers, farmers, custodians, quarrymen, carpenters, and factory workers. These are not people who have access to the usual forums for public address. Instead, they created these opportunities for themselves in their art, which allowed them to rise above the marginalization and alienation they experienced in their lives. But they often paid dearly for their rhetorical license. Many of them occupied ambiguous, even paradoxical, positions relative to their neighbors and their communities. Viewed as exceptional but peculiar, they were often isolated but eager to communicate.

The riddles of naming and the potentially disproportionate emphasis on biography were but two of the special provocations of my subject. I was also aware that I would be attributing substantial artistic merit to works that are often superficially--or deliberately--unbeautiful. Many of these environments are made of the coarsest materials: cement and common rocks, broken glass and tiles, and other kinds of brightly colored junk found along the roadside or at the local dump. While this confirms a widespread phenomenon among the economically disadvantaged, who must conserve and recycle to survive, it does not suggest the rich uses to which these materials are put. They are often arrayed in the most dazzling abundance and confusion. There is seldom any compositional hierarchy to these environments; there is instead a sense that all parts are equally important. Every space and every surface is treated with the same emphasis, so there is no rest from encrustation and elaboration. The stylistic vocabulary is often grotesque: both in the original sense--the implausible combination of animal and vegetal motifs-and in the modern sense, denoting the fantastically extravagant, the distorted, or the bizarre. Nor do many of these environments show any clarity in plan. There are few instances of conventional organizing devices: axes or cross-axes, bilateral or radial symmetry. Visual and spatial incidents are presented instead in what appears at first to be an entirely random or haphazard way.

I cannot, therefore, rely on conventional assumptions about beauty and must claim a deeper attraction for these spaces. Most compelling is the sense of entering another world, a world governed by its own rules and its own particular illogic, a world of demiurges. The grotto or the cave might be the paradigm for this kind of otherworldly space, but there are other models, like the labyrinth or maze. Various structural devices reinforce the sense of being in a dream space: miniaturization and gigantism are common, as are abrupt shifts in scale. Other kinds of contrast are frequently employed as well, as in the substitution of the artificial for the real or the juxtaposition of completely incongruous materials. Sam (or Simon) Rodia included a cactus garden within the walls of his Watts Towers in Los Angeles, but his cacti were entirely made of concrete and broken green glass (plate 3). Tressa Prisbrey, at her Bottle Village in Simi Valley, California, made several raised planting beds outlined with automobile headlamps (plate 4). In one, she upended an assortment of blue bottles, giving new meaning to the perennial border; in the other, she planted disembodied doll heads impaled on sticks (plate 111).

These structural devices are used in concert with spatial paradigms-grotto and maze-to provide rich visual and psychological effects. Together they render these environments perceptually and emotionally disorienting, challenging our assumptions about order. This was a point to which the Surrealists, especially Andre Breton, were particularly attentive. Indeed, as we shall see in the next chapter, Breton's concept of convulsive beauty provides almost as much aesthetic theory as we need to account for the profound appeal of these places. Despite threatening to dissolve into chaos, they seem consistently to transform base matter into gold.5

To the extent that these environments have been examined at all, they have often been presented as sui generis. In the catalog of a groundbreaking exhibition in the United States, the Walker Art Center's 1974 Naives and Visionaries, they are described as "a wholly intuitive expression, as unbounded by stylistic convention as by local building codes." One of the first important British exhibitions in this field, Outsiders, at the Hayward Gallery, London, in 1979, was subtitled "An Art Without Precedent or Tradition."6 Although visionary environments are certainly very individualistic creations, they reveal numerous links to their social contexts; they also suggest connections-some deliberate, some apparently unconscious-to numerous historical antecedents. The religious shrines of chapter 3, for example, can be linked to various pilgrimage sites in Europe, such as the grotto at Lourdes, while a recent essay has connected Rodia's Watts Towers, discussed in chapter 5, to elaborate towers and ships constructed in observance of the feast day of an Italian saint.

In a general way, the grottoes and follies of courtly and ecclesiastical gardens in Europe provide some basic prototypes for the more recent imaginative space. We might be tempted to see the ornate sculptures of Italian Renaissance gardens--the ferocious beasts and gaping hellmouth at Bomarzo (plate 6), for example, or the wildly textured personification of the Apennines at Pratolino (plate 5)--as the precursors to any number of grotesque fantasies. But only in certain instances can even an indirect lineage be traced between historical precedent and contemporary visionary art. I am particularly struck by the similarity between the grottoes of Renaissance Italy that are encrusted with natural history specimens, such as the Grotto of the Animals at Castello (plate 76), and those of the German-born priest Father Dobberstein (plate 69) on the one hand and Howard Finster on the other. Dobberstein's, which are examined in chapter 3, are closer to the original; he used petrified wood, stalactites, geodes, and all manner of semiprecious stones. Finster's is more unorthodox; his takes the form of a concrete mount embedded with a wild array of scavenged objects, including a jar containing a neighbor boy's tonsils.

There is a vast gulf between the courtly creations of Renaissance Europe and the visionary spaces of twentieth-century America, not only of time but of class. For the latter to be in any way connected with the former, one would have to look beyond the bounds of this study for intermediaries in vernacular wayside shrines throughout Catholic Europe and in the shell gardens of many a seaside village in England and France. The connection is not entirely implausible: by the latter half of the nineteenth century, mass-circulation magazines and postcards were making the language of courtly art--along with the creations of exotic cultures--more widely available. But it may be more fruitful to connect both the ornaments of Renaissance gardens and the modern visionary environment with the flunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities (plate 8), in which natural oddities were displayed in cluttered profusion to evoke the fullness of creation.

The impulse to collect something of everything lies behind the botanical garden and the original encyclopedic museum as well as the corner cupboard of a middle-class home. The historian John Dixon Hunt has specifically connected the cabinet of curiosities with many of the ornaments in Renaissance gardens, including the galleries, pavilions, and grottoes made for displaying everything from antique statuary to precious stones (plate 7). Particularly pertinent is his observation that "natural history exhibits (animals as well as plants) were a memory theatre of that complete world lost with Eden but recoverable by human skill."7 Botanical gardens, menageries, and collections of minerals were created in an effort to bring the scattered pieces of creation back together. This was sometimes attempted in painting as well, as in Thomas Cole's Garden of Eden (plate 9), which features, along with the flora and fauna, a collection of gemlike minerals in what is presumably the river of life. The point of these efforts was not simply to evoke the original paradise but also to project the confidence that one could fully inventory and thus comprehend the wonders of God's creation.

Knowledge has since proliferated in inverse proportion to our faith in the principles of divine order; both our gardens and our museums have been secularized. Both have moved on to more specialized functions--natural history here, art there--as paring down has supplanted piling up. Most gardens and museums no longer evoke the cabinet of curiosities the way some visionary environments still do, especially those that are rich in found objects, historical artifacts, or mineralogical specimens, or those that evoke the Edenic myth. Some environments even began as museums or contain them as part of their purpose. The crucial point of intersection between the cabinet of curiosities and the visionary environment might be that neither is a dry, logical catalog of objects but an imaginative recreation of the world instead, full of strange juxtapositions and unplanned resonances. In this sense, visionary environments represent a survival in popular culture of a form long out of favor in the institutional world.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Gardens of Revelation

"The Marvelous Precipitate of Desire"

For God and Country

Grottoes of the Holy Book

Loving Well and Living Right

The Forest of Spirits, the Ark of Dreams

Notes

Appendix 1: Organizations Dedicated to Environments by Visionary Artists

Appendix 2: Locations of Selected Environments

Acknowledgments

Selected Bibliography

Index

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