The following is an article that appeared in the New Orleans newspaper, The Times-Picayune on Wednesday, August 30, 2000.
Abita's Odd Ball Artist
It looks like hundreds of abandoned gas stations that litter rural Southern roads. But there's a fresh coat of paint, and a new red-and-white sign that dominates the roof line, obscuring a faded Standard Oil sign that betrays the building's humble beginnings.
Hardy Louisiana weeds, encroaching on the concrete drive, are the only landscaping on the narrow approach to the state's newest tourist attraction. Artist and self-styled curator John Preble cuts a meandering swath through bits and pieces of a disassembled pull-handle cigarette machine. In total disarray, it dominates the shallow portico of the early-20th- century structure that serves as entrance to Abita Springs' new UCM Museum.
Just say it slowly. "You-See-'Em Museum." Got it?
"It's Christmas every day in my driveway now, mumbles Preble, 50, as he extends an arm that lifts his cavernous blue- checked work shirt just enough to reveal a bit of Southern roadside undershirt. "People drop junk here all the time because they know I'll take it. And it's only going to get worse."
Preble runs a free hand through the naturally pouffed white hair that floats above his placid countenance like clouds above Mount Rushmore.
"I feel a little under-dressed for your visit," he explains, flicking open the rickety glass-and-wood front door of the museum with the other hand. "But you're lucky. Usually, I'm down here in pajamas."
The museum, which has consumed Preble for more than three years, opened
Aug. 7. Just inside is the gift shop, which retains the worn, claustrophobic
feel of those 1950s roadside stations that offered cold drinks, motor
oil and souvenirs. A large, sculpted, crab-boil-red crustacean hangs
from the low ceiling of this former gas station office, surveying the
encrustation of the surrounding walls.
On one wall, car keys, old phones and computer keyboards form a mosaic pattern of yesterday's technology. It's like they're new best friends. One can almost hear them whispering along the wall: "Hey, cell phone, I'm a former computer keyboard. Want to hang together?"
"When I grew up in Chalmette--'the parish', God's country,"
Preble proclaims with pride, "nothing was ever bought, so I learned
how to make everything."
Preble started collecting postcards with his college roommate, artist John Hodge. "Instead of going out drinking, I'd spend my money on stuff like this," he says, sweeping his arm toward an array of early-20th century postcards depicting huge vegetables being transported on flatbed rail cards or wagons. "They're as surreal as Marcel Duchamp's paintings. Can you imagine being the person who received one these? You'd think, 'Oh, my God,' because they look so real."
The artsy side of the museum includes a survey of the history of paint-by-number panels, with everything from "My Friend Flicka" to pastoral ballets. "The frightening thing about these," whispers Preble, only half in jest, "is that after a while, you can begin to distinguish stylistic differences."
The idea of the museum started by chance about five years ago, when Preble met Ross Ward at his New Mexico roadside attraction outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. Ward's Tinkertown Museum features a miniature Western town with carved and modeled characters. "As I looked at the scenes," Preble recalled, "I noticed the backdrop, a Western sky at twilight. It was painted with an absolute master's touch. I couldn't get over it."
Preble introduced himself to Ward, who was hanging things on the gift
shop wall. After a visit to Ward's studio, he recalls, "I drove
away from Tinkertown humble and somewhat stunned. I'd found my twin
brother, a Western me. I thought, I can do a Southern version of this.
When we got home, I said, 'Hey kids, let's make a museum like Tinkertown.'
They thought it was a great idea--it was going to be a big family thing.
My wife's response was more measured: 'Are you crazy?'...
The Prebles moved here in 1972. I knew right away that this was my kind of place, he said. A real neighborhood."
But some neighbors, as well as the town's historic society, feel as if they've been hit by a meteorite. Transplanted New Orleanians selecting Martha Stewart-type colors for the exteriors of their renovated country cottages might have preferred a vegetarian restaurant in the old gas station. And guardians of Abita Springs' architectural heritage have questioned the tiling of the "House of Shards," a former barn that Preble has covered with more than 15,000 fragments of tile and pottery.
"One evening, I had some old broken tiles. I looked at that plain stucco exterior and--well, I don't question things, I just do 'em. Now, if I'm at a friend's house and I hear something break in the kitchen, I call out, 'Hey, what color is it?"
"You know, I've been criticized for decorating that building by a man who lives in a trailer, of all things. Can you imagine that?" asks Preble, shaking his head. "They just don't understand. We need to save all this old stuff, not just what's pretty. If I could put a glass dome over Abita and keep things as they are, I wouldn't do a museum. But everything's changing."
Preble considers himself a kind of rural archivist.
"It's just like working for The New Orleans Museum of Art--I spend most of my time moving things from one place to another; John Bullard and I," he says, referring to the art museum's director, "are 'brothers.'""And Mother Teresa and I are sisters," chimes in wife Ann, a jeweler who could seek canonization for her support in the creation of the museum.
"The important thing to remember," Preble responds, "is that it's the perfect job for the Attention-Deficit-Disorder personality."
"I'll admit that it takes a certain kind of genius," Ann continues, her smile obscuring a slight grimace, "and John's got plenty of it. But our 10-year-old, William, can't figure out what he's doing."
"It's been hard in some ways. He and his brother"--Andrew, 15--"have kind of lost their dad to all of this." Whether it's family or community, Preble acknowledges, "You can't expect others to live your dream."
The focus of the museum and Preble's efforts, is the series of miniature Louisiana tableaux fashioned from "Sculpy," a bake-in-the-oven clay most frequently used for children's projects. "I taught pottery at Loyola for a few years and frowned on all this hobby stuff," he admits, "but now I love it."
"What's great about all these scenes is that I don't really have
to create any of this. It already exists. It just gets filtered through
my mind and comes out looking this way. They're all little Wal-Mart
people. When I need inspiration for the figures, I go to Wal-Mart and
there they are--from tank tops to heels."
Next door to the refinery is Donna's Refinery Fruits and Vegetables--"for
those who want their food completely natural," adds Preble with
a wicked chuckle.
"How can you not have an affection for redneck culture? It's all around us," Preble implores a visitor. "And folks who live this culture really love it," he says, referring to families who've already poked their heads into the museum's exhibition hall to see what Preble's been up to. "They'll be looking at Dog Pound Road and holler out, 'Gran'ma, come see? This looks just like your mobile home.'"
Ann Preble stops short in front of "Martians Come to Mardi Gras."
"She was in Wal-Mart the other day," he replies with mock
Things never get too serious at the UCM Museum, though. Just around the corner is a "Bambi II" Airstream Land Yacht with an alien flying saucer crashing into one side.
"I got it cheap," says Preble. "A tree fell onto one side of it, so I cut my satellite dish in half, painted it silver and stuck it on one side. Maybe someday we'll fix it up '50s style inside and let people relax in it."
Future exhibits include a grotto made of pastel pink, blue and yellow plaster dental impressions acquired from a friend, and a display of vintage mid-20th-century bicycles, designed to attract visitors cycling the Tammany Trace adjacent to the museum.
"Next time we talk, remind me to tell you about the ringing in my ears," Preble says with a parting wave of his hand. "That's really what drives me to do all this." END
©2000 John Preble