“I take nothing and make more nothing from nothing … it’s just what I have to do.” That statement could be a liberal paraphrase of Genesis 1 or something uttered by a Dadaist. It’s actually the explanation that Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder, aka Frank Van Zant, offered for building five acres of concrete statuary and shrine structures out of garbage in Nevada.
Van Zant might well have added, “Anyone can do anything with a million dollars, but it takes more than money to make something out of nothing, and look at the fun I have doing it.” That quote is actually from Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey speaking of Bottle Village, a collection of buildings and shrines she made from thousands of bottles in Simi Valley, Calif. Both artists appear in University of Vermont English professor Greg Bottoms’ new book Spiritual American Trash: Portraits From the Margins of Art & Faith.
The urge to make something from nothing may be one symptom of visionary artistry. Bottoms’ readers will discover others, including lack of formal artistic training, ingenuity in using discarded materials and sudden onset of a near-manic energy to create.
Bottoms is the author of five previous books, including Angelhead: My Brother’s Descent Into Madness, The Colorful Apocalypse: Journeys in Outsider Art and Swallowing the Past: Scenes from the Postmodern South. For those who haven’t yet discovered his visceral prose, those titles hint at his preoccupations with mental illness, marginalized people, creativity and Christian concepts of salvation.
Spiritual American Trash revisits all these themes through eight microbiographies of people who, despite or because of being saddled with illness and misfortune, had the urge to transform what we might deem debris into sculptures and shrines. These self-taught artists come from all over the U.S. and have all been deceased for at least a decade.
Bottoms presents each portrait in a self-contained section with six to 13 numbered chapters. These brief yet pithy life stories remind me of the biographies I devoured as a kid, stories of famous Americans such as Sweeper in the Sky: The Life of Maria Mitchell, First Woman Astronomer or Booker T. Washington: Leader of His People. In Spiritual American Trash, we meet people whose subtitles might have been “Kooky Lady” or “Crazy Inmate” if powerful figures in the art world hadn’t recognized their genius and raised their profile.
Bottoms introduces us to accidental artists such as Annie Hooper, a wife, mother and Sunday School teacher in North Carolina, whose tether to sanity began to fray after her only son was sent to fight in World War II and her husband got a job in distant Norfolk. We learn how Hooper pushed back against blackouts and confusion by taking epic walks on the beach, from which she returned with pieces of driftwood that to her evoked faces and bodies. With her beach debris and concrete, Hooper made a diorama featuring an angel — then 10 more biblically inspired dioramas, and eventually enough to fill her home. Bottoms writes: “Through her art she devoted herself to celebrating this creation, which, in a way, cured her.”
Unfazed by the complexity of each artist’s life, Bottoms renders them simply and richly. He uses facts to create vivid outlines of each character, then shades them in with creative interpretations, producing the literary equivalent of the portraits throughout the book drawn by contemporary Vermont artist W. David Powell.
By no means comprehensive, these biographies are nevertheless nourishing and substantive, resembling an Alice Neel portrait as they guess and suggest their way into the subject’s emotional life. I don’t say “capture,” because how can we know if Neel’s pictures or Bottoms’ literary portraits are the truth? Take a passage like this, written about Frank Jones:
In the shadows, in the tree trunks, as his spine hums, and his neck prickles and the hairs stand up on the back of his neck, he sees the suggestion of his first apparitions, camouflaged but definitely there, a part of the natural scene rather than distinct from it, shape shifting in the play of speckled light, smiling and chattering, calling him toward their world.
And here’s where I trip on my persnickety nature. Instead of enjoying the lyric intensity of the scene, I find myself thinking, Wait a minute, Greg, you weren’t there, and the artist is no longer alive to interview. So how do you know?
This nebulous mix of fact-based narrative and fiction-like passages is a gray area in which Bottoms has expertise, as suggested by his roster of courses, which include Memoir, Nonfiction, Autobiography, Creative Writing and the Narrative Essay. So I broke a rule of reviewers and reached out to Bottoms about my sticking point.
The author responded gamely by email, reiterating a point from the book’s introduction: “I’m quite conservative about facts being correct. All of the short numbered sections in the book are built around researched facts (except the obviously more lyrical, philosophical ones where there aren’t any facts),” he wrote.
Bottoms also explained his composition method:
After I get a real sense of the artist, I latch onto something, like for example, “He often worked past midnight.” Then I begin: “Midnight. He kneels down before ___ in the ____...” I stop. I look at photographs of the object I’m referring to. Then the photographs of the space he worked, and I realize, for instance, that he had to be kneeling, and proceed with the passage, some of which might then be about exterior realities of what the artist did to make something, but then I would blend in interior as well, again based on research about his religious beliefs and what he was trying to do by making the art. But I very much wanted the whole thing to read, because of the language and tricky point of view shifting (into the heads of the artists and out again) and scenic feel, LIKE FICTION, like good old storytelling…
While some readers may balk at his liberties, Bottoms’ creative interpretation and empathetic interaction are essential to bringing these prose portraits to life. Because the book provides no photographs of the artists’ work, we are dependent on Bottoms’ storytelling. It’s virtuosic, his sentences clean and unencumbered.
When we meet Frank Jones (1900-1969), for instance, Bottoms helps us get beyond his status as a convicted rapist by asking us to consider his circumstances: Jones was a descendant of slaves who, growing up in Texas, learned that “killing a black man… was barely more extreme than killing a dog that kept bothering the livestock.” If this were your reality, Bottoms asks us, “How would your mind hold up?”
His empathetic stance toward the protagonists of Spiritual American Trash smudges the line separating us from them. All these artists are beset with troubles — combat-related post-traumatic stress, schizophrenia, abusive childhoods, loss of a dearly beloved — that many of us have experienced, too.
What makes these stories remarkable and triumphant is that in each instance, the unstable person or eccentric recluse picked up a piece of plywood, an old bottle, driftwood, scrap-car parts, rocks — trash, in short — in order to cope. From this they created “Indian Monument,” “The Throne,” “Miracle Home” or “Bottle Village” — an accretive, ongoing project that both consumed and sustained them, and eventually earned them praise far beyond their home.
And so the reader comes to comprehend the connection between art and faith in the subtitle. The disparate makers of Spiritual American Trash share a repeating narrative arc — birth, difficulty, art — that generates echoes without becoming pedantic or unduly overt. Eventually one recognizes the archetype: These are redemption songs.
Bottoms does not sentimentalize or airbrush these lives into Oprah makeovers; rather, he renders, portrait by portrait, an enactment of small salvations through art making. Stories that could have been about vocational hoarding, compulsions to collect that metastasize and take over homes and acres, instead become case studies that inspire the reader to consider the kinship of the words “curate” and “cure.”
To further explore ideas about the relationships among creativity, divinity, sanity and truth, Bottoms inserts three collections of quotations — “commonplace books” — between his batches of narrative. Each bears a suggestive title, such as “We Are Made in the Image of the Image We Made,” and features the thoughts of distinguished artists, authors and philosophers. Here is a chance for Bottoms himself to construct using others’ material, finding the joy of recombining preexisting things into something new. But I felt lonely wandering through these sections and missed the author’s guiding voice. I also felt cranky that these quotes from A-list intellectuals seemed to confer validation on the visionary projects the way blurbs from notable authors validate the debut novelist.
My reservations about those sections aside, Bottoms’ book celebrates people we might never get to meet otherwise. Spiritual American Trash chronicles redeeming acts of creation while also acknowledging how the artists succumbed to old age, disease and suicide, and their projects to fires, earthquakes and demolition. This book invites the reader into the world of the outcast through contemplating what he or she has made from castaway things.
"Spiritual American Trash: Portraits From the Margins of Art & Faith" by Greg Bottoms, Counterpoint Press, 220 pages. $15.95.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Making Believe."