Outsider Art Installations Worth a Detour

Watts Tower, Howard Finster, detroit, philadelphia, obsessive, vision, road trip, U.S., gardens, houses, environmental

Beal Rd, Calipatria, CA 92233, USA
The technicolor mound in the middle of the barren Imperial Valley desert is a quirky manifestation of Leonard Knight’s mission to spread the message of Love after discovering Jesus at age 35 in 1967. Salvation Mountain is a three-story mural of rainbow-colored flowers, waterfalls and scriptural references painted over a mass of adobe mixed with straw. Front and center is the sculpted “God Is Love” mantra above a massive red heart and a yellow brick road to climb up the side. One and a half hours from Palm Springs, near the just as uncanny Salton Sea, Salvation Mountain is a drive worth making to experience the eccentricities that the desert tends to educe.
3600 Heidelberg St, Detroit, MI 48207, USA
Detroit artist Tyree Guyton took a look around his neighborhood and was unhappy with what he saw. So he decided to do something about it. The Heidelberg Project, a public art display exploding across Heidelberg Street in eastern Detroit, is the result. The outdoor community art project draws from recycled material and found objects to pose questions about urban development and other social issues to viewers and visitors. The controversial installations have been razed by authorities twice; today, the Heidelberg shop tells the history of the project and its goals through guidebooks, DVDs, and other merch.
1020 South St, Philadelphia, PA 19147, USA
No photograph can capture this extraordinary art space created by mural artist Isaiah Zagar down at the quiet end of South Street in Philadelphia’s Center City—you have to see it to believe it. It’s also not easy to describe: an alternate universe? A magical mosaic environment? A creative outsider’s brilliant vision? A terrarium of otherworldly folk-art delights? Decide for yourself when you take a self-guided tour of this one-of-a-kind, ever-expanding project. The site includes an immersive outdoor-art installation crafted from found objects and handpainted tiles, as well as indoor galleries. The opening hours vary due to occasional public and private events; make sure to check the online calendar.

222 Malone St, Houston, TX 77007, USA
What started as one man’s simple hobby has turned into a Houston landmark that attracts visitors from across the country: The Beer Can House. Back in 1968, owner John Milkovisch, a retired upholsterer for Southern Pacific Railroad, realized he really enjoyed drinking beer but was tired of throwing his cans away. Instead, he decided to recycle them as decorations for his house, from aluminum beer-can siding to beer can garland that hangs from the roof’s edge. Now, 50,000 cans later, it’s a stunning work of art that stands as a testament to, well, beer. Admission is $5; children 12 and under are free. From June through August, the Beer Can House is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 12-5pm. From September through May, it’s open Saturdays and Sundays from 2-6pm. The Beer Can House is closed on most major holidays.
16th Ave, San Francisco, CA 94122, USA
The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps Project in the Inner Sunset is a reflection of the city’s creative spirit. Artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher led the initiative to cover a stairway in mosaics inspired by the Santa Teresa Steps in Rio de Janeiro. With the help of neighbors, they transformed the risers of 163 steps into a swirl of colored tiles depicting the union of the sea and sky. To climb the masterpiece, head to Moraga Street between 15th and 16th avenues. As beautiful as the steps are, don’t forget to admire the carefully maintained flora flanking the stairway. At the top you’ll arrive at the aptly named Grand View Park.
62975 Blair Lane
Throughout his life, African-American artist Noah Purifoy reimagined junk as art, using found materials to create sculptures inspired by Southern California’s culture and landscape. Some of his best-known pieces were made out of charred debris from the 1965 Watts riot, and he worked tirelessly to bring art programs into the local community and prison system. Then in the late 1980s, Purifoy moved to the desert, where he spent the last 15 years of his life creating his original and distinctive magnum opus: a series of large-scale sculptures sprawled across 10 acres of sandy red earth in the Mojave. The space redefines the notion of a museum, with an atmosphere that’s both meditative and reminiscent of Mad Max. While the found items are evident upon close inspection, the impact of the pieces themselves—with such titles as “The White House,” “Band Wagon,” and “Ode to Frank Gehry”—is deeply moving. The museum is open all day and free (though donations are encouraged), but you can also schedule a one-hour group tour or a private tour with a docent. Pro tips: Visit as early as possible or at sundown to avoid the scorching heat and experience the place at its most picturesque. Bring water and watch out for snakes.
83 Marina Green Dr, San Francisco, CA 94123, USA
Head to this jetty near the Golden Gate Yacht Club in the Marina district and simply listen. The Wave Organ, a wave-activated sculpture made of granite and marble culled from the demolished Laurel Hill Cemetery, provides an enchanting experience. As waves roll in and crash against 20 pipes that extend out into the water, the sound is amplified, creating a liquid symphony of gurgles, rumbling, whooshing, and swishing. The balance of high- and low-pitched sounds is both entertaining and strangely profound. A bonus: The views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge never get old.
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