Grassroots artists and roadside attractions
As a traveler who prefers the two-lane highway to the Interstate System, the slow food to the fast, I am glad to find there are still enough genuine roadside attractions along those two-lanes to assuage my fears that the country has become an endless ribbon of franchised miniature golf courses.
I belong to the Kansas Grassroots Art Association Inc. (KGAA), an organization founded to document and preserve the work of untrained builders of one-of-a-kind roadside attractions - gardens of concrete and glass, castles of coral or discarded bottles, and monuments to lost love or a favorite fruit. With other preservationists interested in the fringes of Americana, we hope to hold on to the dreams of the grass-roots artists who spend years responding to their personal visions on a giant scale.
Ed Galloway's vision was of a roadside park where Oklahoma Sunday drivers could picnic in the shadow of a giant concrete totem pole embossed with his version of American Indian art. Since Galloway's passing in 1962 the paint on the toucans and lizards, penguins and parrots, has faded; the picnic tables supported by miniature concrete totems have heaved with too many spring thaws and the roof on his one-man museum has caved in, exposing the interior murals to slow and steady destruction. Members of the KGAA and Friends of the Totem Pole recently put a temporary roof on that building, and we hope to raise funds for a restoration of the buildings and renovation of the park.
In fighting to save such sites, we are often considered as eccentric as the artists who built them, but we take hope from the fact that more and more of these fantastic places are surviving their creators to become county parks, viable tourist attractions contributing to small-town economies, and fixtures on federal and state lists of historic places.
The environments survive across the country. In Houston, Jeff McKissack's Orange Show is maintained by the nonprofit Orange Show Foundation. McKissack, who believed the orange to be the perfect food, built an amphitheater where he hoped to stage the Orange Show Review. Brightly painted, labeled with good advice (''Be alert''), McKissack's tribute to a fruit is open weekend and holiday afternoons from March to December.
Baldasare Forestiere's Underground Gardens is another tribute to citrus and personal vision. Forestiere had hoped to grow fruit in California's San Joaquin Valley in 1904 but found the soil infertile and the climate inhospitable. Undaunted, he burrowed underground to create a subterranean citrus farm in a seven-acre labyrinth. Surprisingly, his trees have thrived; his nephew and wife now maintain the gardens near Freeway 99 at Shaw Avenue in Fresno.
Fred Smith filled his Phillips, Wis., yard with hundreds of life-size concrete statues depicting political heroes, local history, and domestic and exotic wildlife. Each figure is shingled with shards of bottles. The Wisconsin Concrete Park was restored through the cooperative efforts of the Kohler Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Wisconsin Arts Board, and it is now maintained by the county as a park.
S. P. Dinsmoor built a concrete version of the book of Genesis in Lucas, Kan. , before his passing in the '20s. Dinsmoor's political ideas appear in, for example, a sculptured octopus labeled ''The Trusts'' strangling the earth. The Garden of Eden was restored by a neighbor who refused to let this monument to eccentricity die.
Edward Leedskalnin's heart was broken when he was a young man; he spent the rest of his life building an open-air castle of Florida's coral rock and furnishing it with rock furniture, hoping his lost love would hear of his monumental project and return to him. The Rock Gate (named for a nine-ton piece of stone that pivots at a finger's touch) and Coral Castle are at 18655 Federal Highway in Homestead, Fla.
While each of these architectural extravaganzas has a secure future, there are many that have fallen to bulldozers, vandals, and neglect, and many more whose futures are dim. Members of the Kansas Grassroots Art Association hope to convince Americans that these environments are indeed worth saving.