Article by Suzanne Theis
With common discarded objects, simple tools and a lifetime of wisdom and technical knowledge, one person might spend years giving material form to private vision — transforming home, garden, family car or place of business into a monumental work of art. While these handmade personal spaces are found almost everywhere, they are beloved landmarks in Houston. Three in particular have affected the cultural landscape, and, in response, Houston’s preservation efforts have become a model for others around the country.
Houston is the largest city in the world without zoning restrictions. That fact and the year-long temperate weather help explain why so many of the city’s self-taught artists work on an environmental scale. Their work is especially valued and celebrated in Houston because of an attitude in the city that permits and perhaps encourages eccentric feats. Houston is the product of a clash of cultures wrought by geography and history, remnants of the intellectual and aesthetic traditions of the South, the West, and Mexico.
Probably the best known of these handmade personal spaces is The Orange Show, created by Jeff D. McKissack (1902-1980). Originally conceived as what he called “a health show,” The Orange Show illustrates McKissack’s philosophy of good health, hard work and longevity. Built over a 25-year period, from objects accumulated over a lifetime, the series of structures covers two city lots in a residential neighborhood. This folk art shrine pays homage to McKissack’s favorite fruit and is built of old wheels, ceramic tiles, various bric-a-brac and discards.
McKissack was born in Fort Gaines, Ga., and received a degree in commerce from Mercer University in Macon, Ga. While pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University in New York, he worked at a bank until he lost his job during the Depression. Back in Georgia, he made a living trucking oranges from the Atlanta Farmers’ Market to locations throughout the Deep South. Already 40 years old when World War II began, McKissack enlisted in 1941 in the Navy, where he learned to weld. After the war, McKissack moved to Houston and began working for the U.S. Post Office and, at the same time, building a house with his own hands. In the early 1950s, he bought the land on which The Orange Show is still located and built the exterior walls for a plant nursery. In the mid-1950s, as neighbors remember, he gave the plants away and applied for a permit to build a beauty parlor on the same plot. Later, he added these words to the building permit form: “Beauty parlors going out of style. Have a better idea –The Orange Show.”
When visitors asked whether he had a building plan, McKissack would say, “Oh, no, I was lost for years!” During the 25 years of his intense, solitary labor, The Orange Show became an epic work for McKissack, who eagerly planned for the opening day of what he called “Houston’s biggest tourist attraction.” When the great day came on May 9, 1979, the crowds didn’t, and McKissack died six months later ÷ some say of a broken heart.
But the story doesn’t end there. Under the leadership of Marilyn Oshman, a friend of McKissack’s and an important member of the local art community, a group of citizens created The Orange Show Foundation. (A 17th-anniversary celebration of this vigorous grassroots effort will be held this year.)
In the beginning, the foundation restored the structure under the direction of historic preservation architect Barry Moore. Next, an educational program was initiated to make The Orange Show a vital part of Houston’s cultural life. People come to learn about folk and self-taught art, especially the personal spaces made by artists, and to experience the creative process first-hand. These local efforts have taken amazing directions, resulting in workshops for children and adults, group tours of other folk art sites, lectures, films and the famous annual Art Car Parade. Visitors, now numbering more than half-a-million, have come from all over the world to see the place that Jeff McKissack built.
Another city landmark is the Beer Can House, created by John M. Milkovisch (1912-1988). A Houston native, Milkovisch lived in a small house with his parents until he married Mary Hite in 1940. In 1942, they bought his parents’ home at 222 Malone Street, where they raised three children and lived until his death in 1988.
Milkovisch worked as an upholsterer for the Southern Pacific Railroad. In his spare time, he was interested in woodworking and various creative hobbies. In the late 1960s, he paved over his lawn, pressing marbles and other decorative objects into the wet concrete. Out back, he constructed a redwood fence and filled small round holes in the wood with marbles, so the sun could shine in. A small medallion in the middle of his back yard commemorates the year his project began, 1968. A wheelbarrow filled with his final load of concrete sits in the front yard with a sign that reads “Culprit.” When asked why he transformed his yard, he told friends, “I got sick of cutting the grass.”
Milkovisch saved beer cans for years, sliced off the tops and bottoms and split the seams with homemade tools. He bundled stacks of 50 flattened cans and filled his attic and garage with the stacks; then he began to cover the house with the cans. When he retired from the railroad in 1976, his wife, Mary, was still working. “Don’t put any more beer cans on this house!” she told him every day before leaving, to no avail. He literally upholstered the house in beer cans and used other parts to create curtains, mobiles, fences, sculptures, windmills and wind chimes. (The Milkovisch marriage was one of the strongest and best, and to this day Mary takes as much pleasure in the Beer Can House as anyone.)
John Milkovisch was a sweet, gentle, funny man who loved the reactions his work brought. His wry sense of humor is evident all over the Beer Can House. We asked him once whether we could take him to The Orange Show. “Oh, no,” he said. “I wouldn’t even walk across the street to see this place!”
Milkovisch used to say, “I hate to throw anything away.” Mary Milkovisch and their sons, Ronny and Guy, continue to maintain the Beer Can House and recently completed a television commercial in support of recycling.
A treat for lovers of flowers as well as of folk art, the garden of Cleveland Turner, “The Flower Man” (born 1935), is another wonderful spot to visit.
Turner was born near Jackson, Miss., and raised by his aunt. While the other children trampled her treasured flower beds, Turner was careful, and, in return, his aunt taught him how to make things grow, inspiring in the boy a lifelong ambition to have a “house full of flowers.”
At 23, Turner moved to Houston and found work as a forklift operator. He also discovered wine and, he says, “drank that job down the drain” and spent almost eight years “sleeping in the weeds.”
In 1982, Turner spent nine weeks in a hospital while recovering from alcohol poisoning. When released, he pledged to create that “house full of flowers” of which he had dreamed. He found gardening jobs and rented a small shotgun-style house. On the sides of his house, he has attached pictures of personal heroes and mementos of his boyhood. Scavenging for old furniture and spending what he could on seeds and paint, he turned the front yard into a magical garden.
The Flower Man’s garden covers every available inch of the 700-square-foot area and spills into the ditch and the street beyond. The elevated beds flower year-round, and the amazing variety is an ever-evolving testament to the creative power of the gardener.
Cleveland Turner has just been given his first commission as an artist ÷ to create a site-specific installation for Project Row Houses, a nationally recognized community arts program.
We, in Houston, welcome the Folk Art Society of America for its 11th Annual Conference to see first-hand the Texas experiment and to visit these examples of human creativity.
SUSANNE THEIS was formerly the director of the Orange Show Foundation in Houston, Tex
As seen in the Folk Art Messenger: