All across the globe, guerilla artists have fashioned their homes and gardens into evocative art environments, and many have been preserved as museums and parks.
These artists live on the margins of society and many spend decades on their creations, usually without care for fame or fortune. They flout building codes or work illegally on government property. Many have risked having their works destroyed, but with community support these visionary environments have been recognized for their artistic and cultural significance. Many of these art environments, now open to the public, include unusual architecture and sculpted human forms, mythical beasts, birds, and insects, often created out of little more than collected scraps and oddments.
The Rock Garden of Chandigarh
WHERE: Chandigarh, India
The Rock Garden of Chandigarh is a sprawling and other-worldly sculpture garden spanning nearly 40 acres. Thousands of cement and sand sculptures depict dancing human figures and a menagerie of elephants, peacocks, monkeys, horses, and other more fantastical creatures. They are exuberantly studded with mosaic tiles, glass, pebbles and stones. The site lies in a gorge beneath a tangle of vines and boasts an assortment of temples and terraces, an amphitheater, pavilion, arches, waterfalls, courtyards, and labyrinthine pathways below steep walls. The artist Nek Chand was a local transport official who started working in secret on government property. It took eighteen years before the authorities discovered him and his work was nearly destroyed. Sanity prevailed and today the site is the world’s biggest visionary art environment.
INSIDER TIPVisitors can reach the Rock Garden by train from New Dehli. The trip takes around three hours. There is also a shorter plane ride from Dehli International that takes just under an hour.
The Owl House
WHERE: Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa
In the small Karoo town of Nieu-Bethesda lays the magical creation of outsider Helen Martins. When Martins left an unhappy marriage she returned home to care for her elderly mother and father. Unfortunately, the family was dysfunctional, and after her parents died she was determined to bring light and color into her life. Using bottles, crushed glass, mirrors and cement, she first transformed the interior of her house. But her house could not contain her enthusiastic artistic expression, and soon her work spilled out into her garden into what is today known as The Camel Yard. There she created hundreds of cement sculptures: human figures, fauna, flora, mermaids, and many owls with large, pooling eyes.
INSIDER TIPThe site is well-maintained as a museum and open for tours.
WHERE: Summerville, Georgia, USA
Paradise Garden is a four acre swampy property where Baptist Minister and folk artist Howard Finster created in Georgia. He wanted to pay tribute to mankind’s inventiveness and spread the word about God’s creation, and religious and biblical references are hand-painted on signs throughout his assemblages. Using throwaway materials he created elaborate buildings, sculptures and installations, including a mirror house, machine gun nest, and folk art chapel. He festooned his work with old bicycle parts, doll’s heads, crockery, curios, bottles, tiles, antiques, wire, and cement. Finster also created nearly 50,000 paintings in his lifetime, including the cover art for an R.E.M album, working daily until shortly before his death.
INSIDER TIPThe property is open for tours and visitors can spend the night. There is also an annual Finster Fest of exhibitions and live music to celebrate the life of this flamboyant man of the church.
WHERE: California, United States
Bottle Village in California is an art environment with 16 luminous buildings and shrines connected by mosaic pathways. The artist Tressa “Grandma” Prisbey re-purposed thousands of bottles, made her own cement, and used a jumble of discarded materials to complete her vision. She had been an avid collector and had nearly 17,000 pencils, but when she moved to Simi Valley with her third husband she had nowhere to house her collection. Because she couldn’t afford to build she decided to use old bottles as bricks. Prisbey started work on her first structure at the age of 60.
INSIDER TIPThe property was damaged by an earthquake in 1994 and is in need of repairs, but the site can still be toured.
The Watts Towers
WHERE: Los Angeles, United States
The Watts Towers are a Los Angeles landmark built by Italian-American artist Sabato ‘Simon’ Rodia, a tile setter and construction worker by trade. After three failed marriages, Rodia decided to dedicate himself to his artistic pursuits. He spent thirty-three years building a series of seventeen spiraled steel structures that jut into the sky. The tallest reaches 99 feet. He used simple tools–a simple window-washer’s belt and a pair of hand pliers–and even simpler materials: porcelain, pottery, ceramic tiles, bottles, shells, mirrors, and other found objects. The site has stood the test of time, surviving the elements, an earthquake, and the town’s violent riots in 1965.
INSIDER TIPThe site is open for tours and the Watts Towers Art Center next door offers community art courses, exhibitions and music concerts.
The Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park
WHERE: Wilson, North Carolina
The city of Wilson in North Carolina is home to a two-acre park holding more than thirty kinetic structures made by world-famous outsider artist Vollis Simpson. Simpson grew up on his family farm nearby and from an early age started tinkering with metal and machinery parts. He even built a wind-powered washing machine while he served in World War II. But it was only after retiring at the age of 65 that he started creating his monumental “whirligig” sculptures. Fashioned out of metal scraps and salvaged industrial materials, these candy-colored sculptures twirl and whirl in the wind, and twinkle at night. He worked on his creations full-time until a few short months before his death at age 94.
INSIDER TIPThe Whirligig Park was created to document and preserve Simpson’s work, but also offers a venue for community arts and crafts, farmer markets and a venue for events, concerts and performances throughout the year.
The Garden of Shells
WHERE: Viry-Noureuil, France
Ukrainian shoemaker and mason Bodan Litnianski moved to France in the 1930s, but was captured by the Nazis in World War II and taken to Poland. After the war he returned to France and bought a dilapidated house in Viry-Noureuil. It needed significant restoration, but he couldn’t afford many materials. He started searching for recycled and found objects and began plastering his home with shells. Before long his obsession spilled over to the rest of the property, including his garden and boundary walls. He made sculptures using old tiles, dolls, mosaics, plastic flowers, mechanical parts and other bits and pieces found on roadsides or at the local rubbish dump. After his death Litnianski’s son sold the property on condition that his father’s work be preserved.
INSIDER TIPThe site is not open to the public, but Litnianski’s garden, assemblages and decorated house can be seen from the street.
WHERE: Chartres, France
Raymond Isidore was a humble graveyard sweeper who bought a patch of land in Chartres to build a family home in 1929. While out walking one day he found a handful of broken pottery shards. These would inspire a creative project that lasted nearly three decades. Isidore covered the inside of his home’s surfaces in intricate mosaic motifs of flowers, birds, fauna, and religious or mythical scenes he saw in his dreams. All the surfaces in his home, including the walls, floors, ceilings, tables and chairs were soon decorated. He then moved on to his garden, courtyards, and pathways, and even built a chapel, throne, summer house and exterior wall. He collected his fragments from the fields, quarries and rubbish dumps near his home, and used a homemade mortar of cement and blue chalk.
INSIDER TIPIsidore’s house is a historical monument and the museum is open to the public for guided tours. The site can be reached by bus from Chartres city center.
Sneglehuset (Shell-decorated house)
WHERE: Tyboron, Denmark
Sneglehuset is an ornately decorated house in the fishing port of Tyboron in Denmark. Alfred Pedersen was a fisherman who made his wife a promise: he would create a house so captivating that people would come from far and wide to see it. He kept his promise. Over the course of 25 years, Pedersen decorated their home with sea shells in vivid geometric and floral patterns. The exterior of the house has been painted a pale blue-grey, while the interior is an ochre-yellow. The shells were either kept natural and white, or were painted in greens, reds, and browns. Pedersen covered every inch of surface, but soon ran out of space. He decided to build a second building so he could continue his work. The house is now a museum with many folk-art pieces on display on the inside.
WHERE: Crete, Greece
Koumos is a stone construction located on a hill above the village of Kalyve on Crete. In 1990, Yiorgos Chavaledakis began creating the site and would work for more than a decade. He used multi-colored stones collected from the mountains nearby and made a series of buildings and sculptures, including a vault, chapel and tavern covered in mosaics and frescoes. The chapel is covered in small stones, wood and other found objects. Chavaledakis was inspired by traditional architectural styles, nature, and Cretan life. Today, Koumos is a Greek restaurant serving traditional Cretan cuisine on stone benches under the olive trees.
INSIDER TIPThe tavern is frequented by locals, and in the evenings live Cretan groups play music there.
Castillo Monumento de Colomares (Colomares Castle)
WHERE: Benalmádena, Spain
The town of Benalmádena is located on Spain’s Costa del Sol. High on the hills with sweeping views of the sea below lies Colomares Castle. Estaban Martín Martín studied medicine in Spain, but immigrated to the United States, where he was dismayed to find annual Columbus Day activities being celebrated by Italian-American communities who claimed the explorer’s roots lay in Genoa. Determined to reclaim Spain’s heritage and the role it played in discovering the New World, Martín Martín set about building a colossal monument as a tribute to Columbus. With the help of two bricklayers, he constructed the castle using the traditional architectural styles of Columbus’s time, and made reference to the three main religions in Spain. Visitors will also see reproductions of Colombus’s three ships.
INSIDER TIPThe site is open to visitors and one of the structures include the world’s smallest chapel featured in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Il Giardino dei Tarocchi (The Tarot Garden)
WHERE: Pescia Fiorentina, Italy
The Tarot Garden is French- American artist Niki de Sainte Phalle’s esoteric sculpture garden. Perched on a Tuscan hilltop overlooking the Italian countryside, the property lies about 60 miles north-west of Rome. The garden was inspired by the mythical symbols found in the tarot. A riot of monsters, dragons, ebullient female forms and gargantuan lips are painted in deep, vibrant blues, hot pinks, reds, and oranges, with pops of acid yellow throughout. De Sainte Phalle created twenty-two monumental concrete sculptures using steel armatures and cement, and adorned them with mosaics, glass, and shimmering mirrors. She said she wanted to make a garden of joy, and also to prove that women could work on a monumental scale. She started the garden in the late 1970s and worked up until her death in 2002.
Le Palais idéal (The Ideal Palace)
WHERE: Hauterives, France
Ferdinand Cheval was a humble mailman in France who tripped over a strange stone while on his regular route. When he picked it up he remembered a dream he had had about building a palace. The limestone was a curious shape and Cheval declared that if nature could be the sculptor, he would be the mason and architect. Over the next 33 years, and without any formal training, Cheval built his palace. He often worked at night and used lime and cement to create his fantastical world, a structural feat inspired by North African, Eastern and European architecture, cultures and religions. There are four facades, a terrace, and a gallery, and the naive architecture includes an ornate castle, a mosque, and a grotto featuring beastly animals and figures throughout.
INSIDER TIPCheval also built the Tomb of Silence and Eternal Rest at the municipal cemetery, completing it a year before his death.
Haus der Künstler
WHERE: Vienna, Austria
The Haus der Künstler lies a short distance north of Vienna on a hill abutting the Klosterneuburg woods. The building is painted with lively, primary-colored scenes and is a socio-therapeutic environment for artistic psychiatric patients. The Maria Gugging Psychiatric Clinic was established in the late 1800s, but would later become the Gugging House of Artists. It was the scene of horrific crimes during the Nazi era where hundreds of patients were killed. But the 1950s ushered in a more hopeful period. Psychiatrist Leo Navratil began using art therapy in his practice. He moved his patients from the general hospital and created the world-renowned group of Gugging Artists. The Art Brut Center Gugging is on the same property near the House of Artists. It has a studio, gallery, and a museum with a permanent exhibition of the Gugging Artists’ work, as well as rotating displays of traveling art shows.
INSIDER TIPThe resident artists host public concerts, poetry readings, and performances throughout the year.
WHERE: California, United States
In the Colorado Desert, a few miles from the Salton Sea, stands a man-made mountain. Folk artist Leonard Knight lived and worked out of his truck and created this structure using adobe, straw, and nearly half a million gallons of paint. He called it Salvation Mountain. His artwork is covered by Christian murals and religious verses. Knight received paint donations from visitors and would save the “pretty colors” for decorative outer coats, and the more mundane colors for strengthening his structures. Bright yellow stairs lead up the terraced and undulating form. The word “Love” looms large in pink letters, with a gigantic red heart beneath. The site resembles a giant frosted cake, with bold, blue painted waterfalls dripping down, colorful flowers, and a big white cross perched on top.
INSIDER TIPVisitors can walk up the mountain to enjoy the view and physically interact with Knight’s colossal installation.
Bruno Weber Park
WHERE: Spreitenbach and Dietikon, Switzerland
The Bruno Weber Park in Spreitenbach and Dietikon is a sculpture garden and fantasy world created by Swiss artist and architect Bruno Weber. Weber was first a painter and graphic artist, but after 30 years he turned to sculpture. The park sprawls over 220,000 square feet near a forest and sits on top of a hill facing the mountains. The estate is home to Weber’s Towerhouse, where he lived and worked with his family. Sculptural elements include a snake bridge, ponds, gargoyles, dragons, gigantic caterpillars, squat toads, an enormous cat, a water garden, plazas, castles, and an assortment of buildings. The colorful sculptures are made of cement and many are covered in multitudes of mosaic tiles. Weber’s park is an immersive art experience, where children and adults alike can clamber and climb over his creation.
WHERE: British Colombia, Canada
The Glass House overlooks Kootenay Lake in British Colombia. In 1952, the construction of a highway threatened newly retired mortician David Brown’s privacy, so he decided to build a glass house as a roadside attraction. Constructed using a half a million embalming fluid bottles, the house perches on solid rock. Brown used square-shaped bottles and placed them facing inward before cementing them. The site consists of a glittering main house with red trimmings and turret roofs. Other structural elements include: a terraced garden, shed, wishing well, a waterwheel, a few towers, archways and bridges. The meandering stone walkways are adorned with hundreds of flowers, and lead visitors to the lighthouse, a lookout point on the lakeshore.
INSIDER TIPThe house is visible from the roadside and is open for tours during the summer months. The town of Boswell is a resort town and visitors can hike, fish and swim at the Lockhart Beach Provincial Park.
WHERE: Prince Edward Island, Canada
The Bottle Houses on Prince Edward Island include a six-gabled house, tavern and chapel, and were constructed using around 25,000 multi-colored glass bottles. The houses were built by fisherman and carpenter Edouard Arsenault, who was inspired by a postcard of a Vancouver glass castle his daughter sent him in 1979. He immediately started collecting bottles from local businesses, family and friends, and spent the winter cleaning his collection and planning his structures. That spring, at the age of 66, Arsenault started construction. The bottled facades are mortared in symmetrical patterns allowing the colored light to filter into the interiors. The buildings are framed by a beautiful flower garden and cobbled pathways. The site is open for tours.