For more than five decades, Ted Degener—who lives near Cornish, New Hampshire—has driven across the United States photographing more than 400 visionary art environments and their creators. His photos and videos of some 40 artists—from California to Wisconsin to Connecticut to Florida—are featured in “At Home with Artists” at Intuit in Chicago from Jan. 19 to Sept. 4, 2023.
Here you can see Louis Lee in his “Oriental Rock Garden” in Phoenix, Arizona; Mary Nohl seated below her surreal busts on the living room mantle of her suburban Milwaukee home; Tyree Guyton standing on the steps of one of the homes he’s transformed with accumulation assemblages to become the Heidelberg Project in Detroit; Robert Howell walking down a path flanked by his sculptures of horses and birds and other creatures outside his home in Midlothian, Virginia.
The exhibition is augmented by artworks by L.V. Hull, who created an art environment around her home in Kosciusko, Mississippi; Leonard Knight, creator of Salvation Mountain in the desert outside Niland, California; and Dr. Charles Smith, who created his African American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archive in Aurora, Illinois (since disbursed) and Hammond, Louisiana (badly damaged by Hurricane Ida in 2021).
Visionary art environments—like gardens—are, by their nature, transitory creations. They often flourish during periods of intense creation, expanding and growing, filling all available space, surrounding you and immersing you in the artist’s dazzling world. But then the sites often fade as their creators tire, or move on to other things, or get in fights with neighbors or the law, or fall ill, or die. Cement cracks. Paint flakes off. Plants overtake outdoor works.
Degener’s photos catch the creations on the upswing, as they’re growing or mature. About half the sites Degener documents in the exhibition have since been relocated, disassembled after the artist’s death, or no longer exist.
Degener’s interest began with just such a withered site. When he was working construction in Woodstock, New York, after college, he “happened to visit” Clarence Schmidt’s “House of Mirrors” in the town.
Before fires in 1968 and ’71, it had been a seven-story tall tower with more than 30 rooms and a curving exterior of mismatched windows, plus memorials to John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and gardens, and grottos made from assemblages of hubcaps, aluminum foil, artificial flowers, mirrors, coffee pots, sleds, earrings, clocks, toys, animal skulls, bicycles, concrete, shoes, false teeth, washing machine parts, and various other repurposed industrial pieces.
It was “already in ruins,” Degener recalled to Annalise Flynn, manager of the Spaces Archives and curator of the Intuit exhibition in “The Outsider,” a yearly publication by the arts center.
Hearing about Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles and reading books about visionary art and roadside attractions fed Degener’s interest. And led him to making road trips to find places he’d read about and to hopefully stumble upon new ones. Many of his photos have been published in Raw Vision magazine.
“I became interested in both types of places at the same time”—art environments and quirky Americana—“as well as festivals and religious sites in the United States,” Degener told Flynn, “sort of as a way to understand our odd and beautiful country.”
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