Preserving Outsider Art at the Orange Show and Beer Can HouseThe happy colors and flaking paint. He ponders that. I ask him why it closed. La economia. Satisfied, he heads on up the road.
And when the sun does shine, it is powerfully crystalline, illuminating all the facets of the place where anything goes. It’s the nation’s largest city without a zoning code, so you get a nightclub next to a scrap yard, a church next to a check-cashing establishment, a six-story building next to a one-story. Above-ground archeology if you will—with all the layers intermingled.
“If juxtaposition and discontinuity may be said to characterize evolving cities such as Houston, in no area are they so dramatic and intensified than in this one,” notes Houston: An Architectural Guide. Some parts date to the very beginnings of the city, others point to what’s yet to come.
Telephone Road, where I’ve got my camera poised, was once home of the wildcatters and the honky tonks, lined with metal enamel billboards for Grand Prize Beer. Now, next to what’s left, the signs say “su palabra es su credito” (your word is your credit) or “compre aqui, pague aqui” (compare here, buy here), in a piñata palette that dazzles the eye. Nuzzled in between are the likes of Gigi’s Party Rentals, a weathered survivor of the ’50s, and Bodhi’s Zen Garden and Veggie, its day already done.
Marketing director Stephen Bridges tells me, half in jest, that all of Houston is only a backdrop for the Orange Show. He has a point. Mexicali colors. Check. Anything goes. Check. Quirky context. Check. Just a few miles east of downtown’s looming skyscrapers—wedged between run-down asbestos-sided houses and a freight company, freeway abuzz a block away—resides the key to life. Indeed, just a quick visit, writes Joseph Lomax in Folk Art in Texas, “willmore than convince anyone that within the pithy orange rind lie the secrets of health, longevity, and happiness.”
But before the convincing sets in, you have to take a breath, because you’re flat-out agog. The product of postal worker Jeff McKissack—its architect, mason, welder, carpenter, engineer, tilesetter, and general mastermind—the Orange Show gives going postal a whole new twist. “Once inside you think you’re seeing the impossible, carefully, even lovingly engineered to become felicitously possible,” says art critic Ann Holmes. “It probably doesn’t really threaten the laws of Newton, it just seems to.”
Ventilators whizzing, wind vanes gyrating, flags cracking—the Gulf breeze animates the place even before you set foot inside. From out front it’s a pint-size Alamo, surrounded by a white wall, with a pair of stone lions to guard the entrance. Through a turnstile, you enter into a labyrinth of pretzel-twist staircases, up, down, and around a seemingly unending series of improbable attractions. An oasis festooned with plastic orange tree limbs. Small fountains with frogs spouting water. A wishing well. A diorama on all the good chemicals you get from eating an orange. A diorama with diminutive dinosaurs. Two steam engines—one posing as a tractor that powers a boat round and round a pocket-size stadium. All intersected by a maze of passageways. And I’m just getting started. Luckily I’ve made it to an observation deck where I can take a break in one of the tutti-frutti-painted metal tractor seats. Rows of tutti-frutti-painted metal tractor seats. One wasn’t enough. One wasn’t enough either when it came to wagon-wheel balconies, in eye-popping jelly-bean colors.