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Art museums are wonderful places, but sometimes it’s hard to find magic when you’re looking at paintings behind glass or sculptures that require you to stand in an endless line like shoppers trying to buy Black Friday appliances. Thank goodness there are dozens of folk art environments and public art installations that we can visit when we prefer our art to be a little rougher around the edges, to have been created out of a compulsion that borders on obsession and to be at least a dozen miles from the nearest Starbucks. Here are 11 folk art environments—in no particular order—that are worth a pilgrimage, whether that means driving off the beaten path for a few hours or getting lost within the borders of some busy U.S. cities.

RELATED: The road trip less traveled: California’s Highway 395


Salvation Mountain

Salvation Mountain | Photo courtesy of Jenna Faye

1. Salvation Mountain: Niland, CA

Leonard Knight spent 14 years trying to make a hot air balloon big enoughto carryhim across the country to spread his hand-stitched message of God’s love. When it failed to fly, he went into the desert and, over the course of another couple of decades, built a sprawling adobe mountain 85 miles southeast of Palm Springs that he covered with religious messages—and an estimated 100,000 gallons of paint. Knight died in 2014 at age 82, but his monument to love lives on.

The Watts Towers

The Watts Towers | Flickr CC: Yevgenia Watts

2. Watts Towers: Los Angeles, CA

When Simon Rodia was asked why he built the 17 soaring structures that make up the Watts Towers in LA, he said “I had it in mind to do something big, and I did it.” Did he ever. Rodia, an Italian immigrant, spent 33 years constructing the towers out of steel rebar, concrete and wire, and covering them with a mosaic of broken glass and pottery. The tallest tower is 30 meters high and in addition to being an inspiring testament to Rodia’s dedication, it’s also something of an architectural and structural marvel.

Bottle Tree Ranch

Bottle Tree Ranch | Flickr CC: Kārlis Dambrāns

3. Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch: Oro Grande, CA:

There’s no shortage of quirky stops along Route 66, but there’s only one Bottle Tree Ranch. Located outside 95 miles northeast of Los Angeles, Elmer Long’s property is covered with more than 200 bottle trees—large scrap metal poles decorated with empty glass bottles—and each one of them is different. Long is usually at his Ranch, so he’d be glad to tell you the stories behind the project and, if you donate a couple of bucks, you’ll get a piece of glass to take with you.

The Heidelberg Project

The Heidelberg Project | Flickr CC: Jamie

4. The Heidelberg Project: Detroit, MI

If you’ve postponed a visit to Detroit’s Heidelberg Project, you’d better put it on your calendar now. Artist Tyree Gunton recently announced that he will be dismantling his 30-year-old public art installation, taking the teddy bears, shopping carts and dot-covered discarded items down, one piece at a time, one house at a time. “I’m on an elevator and I’vetaken it from the ground floor up to the very top 30 years later,” Gunton told the Detroit Free Press. “Now I’m reversing that process and I’m going to take this elevator down.”

Cano's Castle

Cano’s Castle | Flickr CC: Michael Rael

5. Cano’s Castle: Antonito, CO

When Dominic “Cano” Espinoza was deployed during the Vietnam War, he became fascinated with the country’s Buddhist temples. Several decades after returning home, he started construction on his own mostly-aluminum homage in a small Colorado town. His castle is made up of four towers, all covered in beer cans, hubcaps and other discarded metal items, while signs convey his devotion to Jesus and “Vitamin Mary Jane.”

Crystal Shrine Grotto

Crystal Shrine Grotto | Wiki CC: Thomas R Machnitzki

6. Crystal Shrine Grotto: Memphis, TN

Dionicio Rodriguez was so secretive about his creative process that he mixed hispaints in the trunk of his car and broke the jars when he was finished using them. Although no one knows how exactly he worked, Rodriguez’ legacy is the world’s only man-made crystal cave—located on the grounds of Memphis’ Memorial Park Cemetery—with glittering quartz and concrete structures you’ll have to touch to believe that they aren’t actually the gnarled and knotted trunks of old trees.

Dr Evermor's Forevertron

Dr Evermor’s Forevertron | Flickr CC: jchapiewsky

7. Dr. Evermor’s Forevertron: Sumpter, WI

Tom Every—who later christened himself Dr. Evermor—built this 300-ton scrap metal spaceship outside of Madison to catapult himself into the cosmos on a magnetic lightning beam. Spoiler alert: It didn’t work. But Forevertron remains a part of Dr. Evermor’s Art Park and those who visit can marvel at its size and components; some of the pieces welded onto the backyard behemoth include two Edison dynamos and parts of the decontamination chamber from Apollo 11, including the autoclave used to clean moon rocks from the mission.

Paradise Garden

Paradise Garden | Photo courtesy of @hewahc

8. Paradise Garden: Summerville, GA

Howard Finster was 59 years old when a paint smudge on his thumb turned into a face, one that implored him to paint “sacred art” that spread God’s message. For the next 25 years, he did just that in this town 90 miles northwest of Atlanta, painting almost 50,000 numbered works. Finster—whose art you might recognize from R.E.M. and Talking Heads album covers—collected these and thousands of other folk art-ifacts in his Paradise Garden. You can visit for the day or immerse yourself in all things Finster by staying in the onsite Airbnb.


Philly Magic Gardens | Flickr CC: Jennifer Boyer

9. Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens: Philadelphia, PA:

This outdoor art installation covers half a block on Philadelphia’s South Street, its mosaiced walls and garden maze providing a glorious contrast to the hair salon, ATMs and drug store that are on the less magical side of the street. Thanks to donations from the community, Isaiah Zager andhis wife were able to buy the land wherehe constructed this truly magical place and it is now a thriving sanctuary for outsider art, installations and Zager’s limitless creativity.


Dick and Jane’s Spot | Flickr CC: Harmony

10. Dick and Jane’s Spot: Ellensburg, WA

Despite their storybook-perfect names, Dick Elliot and Jane Orleman were a real couple who filled their yard in Washington with dozens and dozens of towering artworks and found items. Both of them contributed some of their own work to the collection, while more than 40 other artists are represented behind their modest (but decorative) chain link fence. Elliot died in 2008, but the Spot remains and, as always, it’s free to visit.

The Garden of Eden

S.P. Dinsmoor’s The Garden of Eden | Flickr CC: Patrick Emerson

11. S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden: Lucas, KS

Samuel Perry Dinsmoor was a Civil War veteran and a sculptorwho dedicated most of his life to creating concrete versions of his own religious and populist beliefs. The resulting works were collected and displayed at his log cabin (which he also built) two hours north of Wichita and named the Garden of Eden. After touring the site and seeing his towering Biblical creations, you can stop by to see Dinsmoor himself: He’s buried in a mausoleum on the site.

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