Text and photographs by William L. Ellis
In the West Tennessee blues destination of Brownsville stands an architectural wonder that must baffle tourists expecting to see only the shack of blues legend Sleepy John Estes. The immense steel structure, just blocks from the town’s main square and county court house, is the product of one William Blevin “Billy” Tripp, who is as indelible to Brownsville’s community and creative spirit as Estes once was.
Tripp's vast bricolage -- the Mindfield -- was begun more than 25 years ago and grows bigger and more intricate every year. It's a complex assemblage of steel girders and scrap metal that rises almost defiantly against the flatness of neighboring storefronts. It began as a way to contain the junk in Tripp's yard but has since taken on a life of its own. The Mindfield will be finished, Tripp says, only when he dies and is interred amid his creation, which will be preserved through the Kohler Foundation. “It’s my cemetery now,” he says. “It’s my grave marker.”
Born 30 miles east in Jackson, Tenn., Tripp grew up in Brownsville, the middle son of a Methodist minister, Charles Tripp, who ran a profitable country ham business on the side. Neither interested in preaching nor curing hams, Billy Tripp was drawn from a young age to metalworking. He recalls a vivid pre-school memory of his father fixing a broken wagon handle by brazing the metal, which looked like gold to the child. Then as a teenager, young Tripp’s ham delivery route included the town of Shiloh, where he would stop to gaze at the spark-and-light show of a welding shop lit up at night. Later, when he enrolled in trade school, he didn’t last a semester, though he kept the textbook from his welding class. A night course in portrait painting followed, as did a year at Memphis State University, including two art history courses taught by self-taught art scholar Carol Crown, but he stopped going to those classes as well.
Essentially self-trained, Tripp, 59, has acquired his metalworking skills through trial and error and from the advice of welders he has known. During his brief time at college, he encountered the sculptures of Abstract Expressionist David Smith, which invites fascinating comparison. He made his first sculpture for a gas-welding class -- a small skeleton of a cathedral that oddly portends the Mindfield. Other early works include faces made from wood and metal, a series of stick men, and a series of grave markers marking life events. “I’m probably still on that series in a way,” he says.
Around the time his mother, Mabel Tripp, died in 1977, he began the Mindfield not as a construction but as a book. Self-published in 1996 as The Mindfield Years (Billy Pyrene’s Biography of Ned), Vol. 1: “The Sycamore Trees,” the 725-page semi-autobiographical novel ends with a mother’s death and concerns three characters in their twenties who meet in a field to find meaning in their existence. A sequel is in the works. Tripp is an avid reader of literary biography and fiction, favoring the work of Leo Tolstoy and Jack London, as well as anything “where there is a journey involved.” Tripp has even placed the canoe of another favorite author, historian/travel writer William Least Heat-Moon, in the Mindfield pointing to the word “Begin.”
Tripp and his wife of four years, psychologist Beth Shaw Tripp, live at 1 Mindfield Alley next to the car wash he has owned for more than three decades. He supports himself with that business plus the inheritance he received from his father who died in 2002.
To paraphrase Kris Kristofferson, Tripp is a walking contradiction. The son of a preacher, he is decidedly non-religious and doesn’t believe in a divine creator. Yet his best friend was his father, who offered unconditional support to his son and whose presence is most felt in the Mindfield. One touching maxim about his dad, punctuated by two hand prints, reads, “And and so now Billy begin your life without him.” He admitted the oddity of the sentence in a New York Public Radio interview when he asked, “Now why did I put two ‘ands’ up there? It’s like I’m stuttering to begin my life without him.”
By all appearance, Tripp is a gentle soul and speaks of his art as a “celebration of a quiet, personal life – I’m having fun, I’m duck hunting.” Yet his ability to provoke the locals is legendary. Exploring his favorite topic, civil dissent, Tripp has planted peppery slogans throughout the Mindfield including “In honor of turd” on a tower and “Satan Saves” on the back of his pickup truck – the latter done in a fit of anger over a radio preacher he disputed. Tripp likes to joke that God and Satan save – “if they both shop at Wal-Mart.”
Painted in his favorite color, battleship gray, the Mindfield spreads across approximately half an acre of land, 300 x 60 feet. Its tallest tower, the environment’s centerpiece, stands 127 feet high, while yin-and-yang fire and water towers each top out at 110 feet. There are parallels in such Herculean efforts as Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles, which is around 100 feet tall at its tallest, and Antonio Gaudi’s La Sagrada Família in Barcelona. Indeed, Tripp has described his creation as an “outdoor steel church” replete with a sanctuary.
But finding stylistic and/or functional equivalencies takes us only so far. The Mindfield is not evangelical like environments such as Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden in Summerville, Ga., or Reverend W. C. Rice’s Miracle Cross Garden in Prattville, Ala. It’s not imbued with patriotic, historical, and ethnic commentary such as Samuel Perry Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kan. or Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder’s Thunder Mountain Monument in Imlay, Nev. The Mindfield doesn’t operate with the deep cultural overlays and retentions of African American yard art. It’s not even a social act, as Susan Niles suggests about the Dickeyville Grotto of Father Mathias Wernerus in Wisconsin. Tripp insists the Mindfield doesn’t aim to proselytize, convert, be pondered or be appreciated. He says it doesn’t even want to be seen. “People say, ‘Well, you can see it,’ says Tripp. “Well, I got to put it somewhere. The reason you see it is just because of the size. I didn’t make it big for others to see it. I made it big so I could see it. I want it to talk back to me.”
He set about his environmental Mindfield in 1989. Grass had grown around some items on concrete blocks in his yard so he built a frame to enclose the mess. Along the way, the frame grew and grew, becoming not only a companion piece to his novel. He installed three chairs, for example, for the book’s three characters. He says it was built to as a monument to his mother and father -- a cenotaph to his parents who are buried in another place. He moved one notably large piece, the water tower, from Arlington, Ky., with the help of his father shortly before he died. The tank reads, as does a sign on the property, “The Mindfield Cemetery – ‘a life of one’ – in Honor of Mom + Dad.” Tripp, who turns 60 in September, anticipates the coming decade will be his most productive yet for the unique domain.
All of this begs asking whether Tripp truly belongs in the world of the self-taught. Richard Tracy’s Art Yard in Centralia, Wash., for example, is hardly an act of the untrained coming as it does from an art teacher. Likewise, the influence of David Smith on Tripp’s work has been expanded, by authors Mark Décimo and Sandra Persuy, to include modernist sculptors Jean Tinguely, Alexander Calder and Anthony Caro. Decimo and Persuy posit those comparisons through their mutual rejection of such concerns as traditional methods and materials and also through the typical size of their commemorative sculptures.
Tripp accepts the term self-taught in that he has arrived at his own solutions and has had little formal guidance. He insists he is not a folk artist, however, and finds it easier not to be called an artist at all. “I never have been comfortable with that [word], artist,” he says. “It seems like it is used to excuse one from the responsibility of further explanation of what one’s doing. ‘Oh well, I do it because I’m an artist.’ I think of myself as someone who makes custom-made things. If I were to make things in my life, I’d make them for me first, and I’ve tried to arrange my life where I could do that.”
Tripp doesn’t care to be understood let alone appreciated for what he has done. The Mindfield has an audience of one (its designer), who notes, “I see it as a conversation with myself, but it doesn’t bother me that it can be overheard by other people. . . . I did not make it to talk about it.” This, of course, echoes the Belgian builder Robert Garcet, who described his Apocalypse tower to John Beardsley in Gardens of Revelation as “the place of my philosophical habitation.”
Though Tripp may be the last person to want to explain his work, the Mindfield is rich in meaning. For starters, it loosely meets the definitions offered by Beardsley, Raw Vision publisher John Maizels, and others in describing self-taught artists whose canvas is the land around them. To that end, Tripp uses found or discarded materials; creates in his own yard space a highly personalized language; expresses himself with a drive and determination seen in both the behemoth size of the Mindfield and in the years he has devoted to building it; and he has done all this with little formal training or trade. Other traits include the inventive use of found materials; the organic, additive process of construction; and the ability to bridge fantasy with reality through a space no longer limited to the realm of the imagination. Step into the Mindfield, and you have stepped into Billy Tripp’s mind.
It is architecture in the sense that it is functional: it will be his burial place not unlike Dinsmoor's Garden of Eden and Robert Tatin at La Frenouse in Cosse-le-Vivien, France. Other examples include Salvador Dali, whose crypt resides at the Teatro Museo that he erected in his hometown of Figueres, Spain, and even Ferdinand Cheval, who had hoped to be interred at his Palais Idéal in Hauterives, France. As a memorial to his deceased parents, the Mindfield also has company in Rice’s aforementioned Miracle Cross Garden. And there is even a decorative aspect to Tripp’s whimsy. “Some people place things in their yard, like wagon wheels or pink flamingos,” he told Arts Tennessee. “[The Mindfield] is the same thing, except on a much larger scale.”
Ultimately, the Mindfield, as book and steel edifice, is arguably the most massive autobiography ever undertaken. The biographemes that populate the latter work – the basketball goal of his childhood, the steel handprints of his brothers – literally elevate portions of his life, giving them momentous occasion and permanence, an otherwise ordinary existence made extra-ordinary. Perhaps, to paraphrase Décimo and Persuy, it's the repurposing of land as a metaphorical act of self-awakening.
In addition, the open-ended structure of the Mindfield mirrors Tripps’ open-ended life. For someone who has rarely seen things through to completion, from an education to a career, he has found the perfect medium for these inclinations, erecting a structure that need never be finished (until death, that is). The use of steel, solid and fixed, in such a fluid way, becomes even more intriguing as a result.
Perhaps Tripp is right calling his Mindfield a church. Often the tallest structures in medieval European towns -- cathedrals -- were the focal point for faith, community, social cohesion and more. He has inverted that idea by making Brownsville’s tallest building a place to worship singular achievement. And still, despite his resistance, there is something deeply spiritual about the place, a Garden of Enlightenment or Tree of Life that connects the physical with the metaphysical and the markers of memory with the impermanence of life. Tripp’s colossal creation has provided his own path to enlightenment, after all. And like many such journeys, it’s less an invitation to follow than to marvel.