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Reviews

"Strange Sites is fun and the photos are terrific."
-Halifx Daily News

"A beautifully designed paperback. . . Christy's enthusiasm is infectious."
-Vancouver Province


This is That
Sooner or later everyone is seized with the impulse to build, to create one's own monument.

With state resources, grandeur is possible; even with private riches one can display original taste. Architects know the force of the freak-outs that affect many well-heeled ladies. Or consider the passion for burrowing that gripped the fifth Duke of Portland, when he succeeded to his titles and immense fortune. Under the park at Welbeck Abbey are more than a mile and a half of huge rooms and picture gallery and ballroom riding school, kitchens, dining-rooms, and a e railway to link them. A branch line leads to a distant subterranean lavatory. A two-lane tunnel runs under the ornamental lake to the railway station.

Jim Christy, an admirable writer hooked on junk, has found a number of idiosyncratic structures in the Pacific Northwest and assembled a charming picture book of some of them. Photographs are by Joe Ferone, Felix Keskula,
Lionel Trudel, and Alex Waterhouse-Hayward. The text introduces some of the
eccentrics who have created these queer works
of art.

My own favourite is a castle built of embalming fluid bottles by a retired undertaker. The bottles are square in cross-section all 600,000 of them. 'Perched on granite high above Kootenay Lake,' Christy tells us, "the house looks as if it might have been designed by an architect who caters to the sort of wealthy who have taste.'

The architect, builder, and owner is David Brown, who had to retire from the embalming business because he kept falling asleep. In order to collect enough bottles for his project, Brown took to the road as an embalming fluid
salesman. Once his castle was built he found he could charge visitors small sums to view it.

In the late 1950s he could take in $1,000 in a good week. He died in 1970 and is succeeded by his stepson Eldon.

Other glass houses have been built “Boss” Zoetmann, who constructed a whole out of glass insulators; by George Duncan, B.C., who used 200,000 bottles of any and every kind to erect towers and follies; and by Geordie Dobson in the Yukon, who used 30,000 empty beer-bottles.

Maybe Christy was unwise to introduce the concept of taste. Each of these builders and landscapers follows his or her own inner light, beginning with Bert and Gladys Stewart, who collect lawn ornaments-any lawn ornaments you can think of, from plastic flamingoes to the garden gnomes beloved of British suburbanites.

Dick Tracy, dit Richart, of Centralia, Washington, specializes in building ruins. "the result," says Christy, "is a unique terrain that looks centuries old, with a touch of Flash Gordon." Victor and Bobbie Moore of the same state have constructed a junk castle on a hill. It looks more wreck than ruin, with rusty roofs and candle-snuffer towers. It looks uncomfortable, I have to add. Vick Moore is an artist in the Picasso manner, the Picasso, that is, who can't see a toy automobile without thinking what a nice monkey it would make. For such an artist the garbage dump is a mine of treasures, in which everything is a possible something else. His work is a kind of poetry of junkyard metaphors. “This is that," as the Hindus say.

Karl Browning of Red Deer, Alberta, has laboured to build a mighty wall, with cyclopean boulders, to the memory of 'The Fall of Je-Busi, a mighty fortress over Gihon Springs by Army Commander Davidum Jesse 1000 BC at Urn Shalem". His reason: 'I am a Christian." Christy was able to identify the source from Genesis, which argues more erudition than many of us could rise to.

Most of the monuments are best seen from outside. But Lowrie Streatch, another original from Red Deer, has it all over the others when it comes to interiors. Tastes in interior decoration tend either to minimalist spareness or Victorian clutter. For Streatch, less is less. His dining-room, for instance, in which there scarcely seems room to devour a hamburger, is a cozy confusion of curios, from a sign announcing "Forgiveness" to a stuffed toy hon in a bird-cage. From Christy's description the man sounds charming. Streatch is proud of his collection of porcupine droppings, surpassed only by an elephant turd gathered at the circus.

Lloyd 'Ace" Parsons of Vancouver, Washington, welcomes about eight thousand visitors a year to view the miniature Dodge City he has created in his backyard. "I'm used to working at something all the time," he told Christy. And nodding toward an electric organ, he added, "I did teach myself to play that.” Still in the state in which it had come from the maker, it might be improved, Ace mused, with yellow and green stars or maybe black triangles.
Christy is not making fun of these artists. The book is funny all the same, perhaps from a kind of joy that seems to move the constructors. Again, it's interesting to see how far removed from official taste is that of retired working men who are able to show the kind of art and architecture they really like. Strange Sites is a study in the manner of the early Tom Wolfe.
- Kildare Dobbs, Books in Canada



Review - Artifact
Strange Sites is an unusual appearance among publications with a Northwest theme. Inspired by the author's life-long fascination with junk and bizarre structures, the book presents over two dozen sites in the region with whirligig gardens, junk castles and mosaic towers.

Yet the book is visually compelling. Lured by the attractive color photographs throughout the book, the reader enters a mysterious world inhabited by outsiders and loners like hermit Charlie Abbott who built his rock gardens in a coastal forest, or Tim Anderson of Central Montana, who turned his backyard into a fantasy land of metal, rock and wood. Leafing through the pages the reader discovers a modern-day biblical monument, a miniature replica of Gunsmoke's Dodge City and visits Victor and Bobbie Moore in Eastern Washington who built a junk castle from car parts and sheet metal, which rises from the uniform farmland as an expected beacon of creativity.

The book celebrates the unpretentious, down-to-earth quality of unusual sites that were all built without any claim to artistry by people who defied the opinions of estranged neighbors and visitors, and created these kaleidoscopes of TV lore, pop culture and junk aesthetics. The uncensored creativity found in most of the sites is reminiscent of folk art and Whitmanesque philosophy with a side glance at the Land of Oz. The author suggests that spontaneity and lack of concern for "art" distinguishes these sites drastically from contemporary art in urban centers and makes them available for everyone to enjoy, even those who find modern architecture and most "fine" art to be hopelessly decadent.

Regardless of the rather self-indulgent appearance of most sites, the author sees more in the structures than leisure-time diversion or mere embellishment: they are personalized signatures in an age of consumerism, mass media and pre-fabricated aesthetics. They sing the song of "Yoo hoo! It's me. I am alive!" as Christy puts it.

Most of the places were created by blue-collar workers over 60 years old who are used to manual work and built these unique "sites" in their spare time. These people were born in small towns and rural communities far from cultural centers, and this isolation enabled their work to remain unconventional and somewhat anachronistic. What makes these strange sites a unique cultural phenomenon threatened by extinction are not only stricter building codes and higher property prices today, but the diminishing number of younger people with the skills or the inclination to customize their homes and gardens in such eccentric ways. The builders are aging and dying, and their work is left to the elements, vandalism and developers without consideration for their cultural value. By presenting a regional overview, the author advocates the protection and maintenance of these strange sites as part of our cultural heritage and as an eloquent chapter on American individualism.

Almost half of the sites covered in the book, however, are landmarks of oddity and weirdness more reflective of popular culture than artistic ingenuity. These sites display reproductions of TV icons, consumer culture and coloring book iconography in the form of giant coke bottles, plastic flamingos and Disney plywood cut-outs. This is in contrast to the other aesthetically-designed sites that incorporate rock gardens, mosaic towers and glass bottle houses. In some instances, artistic inventiveness, craftsmanship and skill are juxtaposed to sloppily crafted whirligigs and mass-produced ceramic animals.

Strange Sites remains faithful to its title as an eccentric concoction of pop culture and biographical anecdote, of recycled car parts and Styrofoam sculptures, of houses adorned with wagon wheels and gardens cluttered with junk.
-Volker Poelzl