Bottle Village

Grandma Tressa Prisbrey's Rumpus Room.
Grandma Tressa Prisbrey’s Rumpus Room.

Salvation Mountain reminded me of outsider art in the town where I grew up, Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village.  Although I spent hours upon hours as a teenager driving through my little town searching for remnants of history (including an old stagecoach-era bordello I’d heard was on the city’s outskirts), I managed to miss Grandma Prisbrey’s place.  Happily, the Cartigan clan and our friend Joseph remedied that sad state of affairs when we trekked out to Simi Valley and attended one of Bottle Village’s infrequent tours.  It was more interesting than most of the things I’d found on my teenage rambles combined (I never did find the Bordello).

Our fun began at the entrance where we could see some of Prisbrey’s bottle and headlight sculptures, as well as the beginning of a mosaic pathway that leads across the long narrow property.

Prisbrey created mosaics containing all kinds of little wonders she gleaned from the Santa Susana dump.
Prisbrey’s mosaics contain all kinds of little wonders gleaned from the Santa Susana dump.  Air rifles, cookie cutters, a license plate, cat’s eye glasses, and other doo-dads can be seen here.

The walkway mosaics were my favorite part of her array of structures and art installments.  My girls and I spent most of our time looking for all the funny and unusual things Tressa had included.  Of her mosaic floors, Prisbrey wrote “Everything that you can imagine is in the floor, and lot’s that you can’t.”  We found ghostly imprints of things that have since gone missing.  M and R’s favorite was the imprint of a toy horse, with yellow legs still intact.

“Embedded in concrete are the million and one items that once upon a time were prized possessions…” Tressa Prisbrey

Prisbrey used to drive her Studebaker pickup to the Santa Susana dump daily to collect materials for her home.  Locals also remember her pulling a red wagon filled with bottles for her projects.  Prisbrey told a story of driving her Studebaker home from the dump and being pulled over by a policeman who asked her if she had a permit to be carrying the load she was hauling.  Prisbrey didn’t.  She told him she didn’t have a working horn, working headlights or a driver’s license either.  I’m guessing that’s when the little red wagon came in.

M & R making heart signs on the heart mosaic. Behind the girls are mosaics in the shapes of a diamond, a spade, and a club.  Grandma Prisbrey made those on her return from Las Vegas.
M & R making heart signs on the heart mosaic. Behind the girls are mosaics in the shapes of a diamond, a spade, and a club. Grandma Prisbrey made those on her return from Las Vegas.  The center circle of the heart is surrounded by old lighters!

Prisbrey’s guilty pleasure was her doll collection.  According to one article, she visited her dolls in the house she constructed for them each morning.  Prisbrey’s bottle buildings are a rainbow of beauty but I cannot describe her doll collection as anything but creepy, creepy, CREEPY and not just because they have been sitting out in the elements for three decades…  Doll heads stuck on knitting needles are creepy from the get go!

Sun bleached doll parts.  What could be creepier?
Sun bleached doll parts. What could be creepier?
Tressa Prisbrey at the entrance of her doll house, which she called
Kindly Grandma Tressa Prisbrey at the entrance of her doll house.  She called it the “Parade of Dolls.”  I call it really creepy.

Inside Prisbrey’s largest structure, once beautiful Miss Havisham-like dolls remain and one has been decorated with old aluminum can pull tops.  It looked to me like a dress of keys.  I am fascinated with Prisbrey’s ability to engage and create within an imaginary world.  How did she see those silver curls? Were they simply light catching and pretty? A poor woman’s rhinestone? Or something else, maybe scales on a mermaid dress, or shimmering leaves on the mother tree. Or perhaps they are like Milagros and each one is a prayer to the Madonna.

Inside the Round Room.  The blushing bride, eternally waiting.
Inside the Round House. The blushing brides, eternally waiting, eternally creeping out the guests.  Especially the one in the shadows of the way back.  I know you are hearing the Psycho theme in your head right now.

This is also where some of Prisbrey’s remaining pencil collection is stored.  These pencils are said to have been the tinder that ignited Prisbrey’s passion for building.  She wanted a place outside of her trailer to display the 4,000 plus pencils she collected while working in politics in North Dakota.  Not only did she mount them on boards of different shapes and sizes, she hung them from trees, displayed them in toothbrush holders, and covered a lamp shade with them.  DIY, y’all!!!

The decorative fireplace in the Round House.
The decorative fireplace in the Round House.  There are pencils hanging from the aluminum Christmas Tree on the right.

Prisbey’s original fire screen is mostly gone, but the strings hanging down in front of the fire-place used to have glass I.V. bottles and gold beads on them.  You can see a heap of crumbled wall and bottles to the left of the fireplace.  The Northridge Earthquake badly damaged Prisbrey’s buildings and some are gone entirely.

Earthquake damage to Prisbrey's Relaxing Room.  Prisbrey said she didn't actually have time to lounge in there.
Earthquake damage to Prisbrey’s Relaxing Room. Prisbrey said she didn’t actually have time to lounge in there.
The bottles of Prisbrey's Relaxing Room.
The bottles of Prisbrey’s Relaxing Room.

What her buildings lacked in infrastructure she made up for with her unique presentation.  Ceilings were draped with swaths of fabric salvaged from the dump.  She even used shower curtains on the ceilings.  Horseshoes were nailed to door frames, pencils and bottles dangled from wire tomato cages.  Her creativity knew no bounds.  She even decorated her cats.  By brushing her fluffy kittens with vegetable dye she created her “Technicolor kittens.”  Reader, that sounds like one of the cutest things ever.

The Rumpus Room.
The Rumpus Room.  It looks like it was a good party.

In the reflection of the window above, some condos are visible but when Prisbrey moved in her property neighbored a turkey farm!  According to our tour guide, Prisbrey wanted to keep some of the dust and feathers (and general ugliness of turkeys) out of her yard, so she built her first bottle fence and topped it with Mrs. Butterworth’s bottles.

Just outside the Round House is Prisbrey’s Spring Garden.

Volunteers now keep Prisbrey’s property maintained.  It is clear that much of it has been lost or had to be removed after the Northridge quake but a fair amount remains, and as you can see in some of the photos, they have kept all of the unbroken bottles on the property with hopes of rebuilding some of Prisbrey’s lost work.

Headlight planter.
The Headlight Garden Prisbrey built for her daughter who spent her final days there.

In and around this headlight planter grow succulents and cactus that Prisbrey planted during her years there.  Although she was not terribly fond of cactus, she knew they would grow whether she watered them or not.  She wrote “They remind me of myself.  They are independent, prickly, and ask for nothing from anybody.”  She had hundreds of different varieties and said that once, they all bloomed on Mother’s Day.  Prisbrey was a mother of seven and survived six of her children.  Perhaps these buildings became her therapy.  Through her losses and despite her age she continued to build and create.

An unusual rainbow.
A Prisbrey prism.  These rainbows of discarded bottles are especially beautiful with sun shining through.

Prisbrey’s artwork is a California Historical Landmark, a Ventura County Cultural Landmark, and has historic designation from the City of Simi Valley but it is difficult to say how long it will be around.  Members of the non-profit Preserve Bottle Village hope to rebuild the site but it’s difficult to imagine a way to recreate Tressa’s eccentric charm without her vision.  It is sad to think about losing Bottle Village, but there is also something comforting about being able to slowly let it go over time, as it gives in to gravity, plate tectonics, and the elements.  Just as Grandma Prisbrey did, just as her children did, just as we all will do.

Tressa Prisbrey and her shrine to all religions.
Tressa Prisbrey and her shrine to all religions.

And when we do, I hope we’ll all get to live in that great Bottle Village in the Sky where all are welcome, and the discarded is once again prized.  And there are technicolor kittens.

Another creepy doll head!
Another creepy doll head!

I Went to the Mountain

Leonard Knight with my dad a few years ago.
Leonard Knight with my dad in 2004.

I’m tracing my connection back to my father when I go to the desert.  I can be quiet there.  One of my best friends told me he understood me much better after meeting my father.  I assume he began to understand the introverted part of me, The Hermit.  It’s the part of me that loves to be alone and holed up in a cave.  Or driving in silence for hours through beautiful and desolate landscapes.

It surprises me to find this part of myself, the part that feels so at home in the middle of so little.  In those formative years of adolescence I imagined I would be very different –  very social, very graceful.  I have grown into a very different sort of person and I can say with an immense amount of gratitude, I am happy with the unusual, quiet, often awkward, very human and well-intentioned person that I am.

The desert seems to welcome this sort of person.  The awkward and well-intentioned have a history of seeking the solitude and solace of the desert.  It feels like the land will wrap her mountainous arms around you, and only you, when you are there.

I don’t know if this is what Leonard Knight loved about the desert but I definitely count him in the ranks of the awkward and well-intentioned and he certainly found his place in the desert.  His remarkable creation, Salvation Mountain, is well worth the pilgrimage to middle-of-nowhere-Niland, California.


My dad told me about Leonard Knight and Salvation Mountain years ago, after his own first visit.  A self-admitted atheist (I can sometimes cajole him to concede agnostic/atheist), my dad is not the type one might expect to visit Salvation Mountain but he is the one who first ignited my desire to visit.  Then I started to see references to it here and there — a visit in Into The Wild, photos on A Beautiful Mess.

And so somehow this year of great loss and great joy, I knew it was time to make the trek.  I knew it in the way I love and appreciate the most because it is such a rare thing: I just knew.

Following the Yellow Brick Road.
Following the Yellow Brick Road.

I expected to find a riot of cake-icing color in a sea of sand and sage.  Perhaps the displacement was part of the call although I would have wanted to see this candy mountain of bible verse and folk art anywhere.  The attraction to the strangeness of it, however, did not prepare me for the way I felt when I arrived and stood at the base of the fifty-foot mountain.  I marveled at it, and then I started to feel something.  A wave of something.  The impulse to cry.  To cry? This caught me by surprise! I slowed down and tried to understand what was passing over and through me.  And reader, the thing, I think, was a great humility and joy.  I was small, standing in front of an adobe mountain made by one man emboldened by passion and a belief in the goodness of what he was creating.  It is a simple and effusive way of creating and sharing joy.

Salvation Mountain
Salvation Mountain

It seems important to share, before I go further with my experience of having feelings at Salvation Mountain, that I also identify as Agnostic and find myself leaning ever closer to Agnostic/Atheist.  I was prepared to be there to appreciate a thing of beauty, not to feel validated about my experience of what is greater than I.  I don’t like the term “sinner.”  It reads as synonymous with “failure” to me and that starts us down the rabbit-hole of my personal cosmology; another subject entirely.  What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t expect to find much in common with Mr. Knight’s beliefs but I found myself loving his mountain.  I loved the feeling of being transported into a magical new place, a place that welcomes people to wander up the yellow brick road, past imaginary waterfalls, and through forests of trees that espouse traits of gentleness, goodness, and peace.

Exterior of the adobe museum.
Exterior of the adobe museum.
Interior of the museum, looking up at skylights.
Interior of the museum, looking up at skylights.

I loved walking into what felt like a hive constructed of adobe with skylights made of car windshields and door windows that sunlight shone down through.  I loved all the references to love and being loved.  My favorite message was painted on one of the beautified cars “God. Is. Love.  I love you also.”  Suddenly conceptual became personal.  I felt gently loved in the space, celebrated in a way I imagine I might feel if I had a belief in what some call God.  It was a really nice feeling and I started to wonder about it.  A lot.

Leonard Knight's art decorates everything at Salvation Mountain.  He used window caulk to create raised designs.
Leonard Knight’s art decorates everything at Salvation Mountain. He used window caulk to create raised designs.

This stranger created a space where I felt special.  Loved.  Surrounded by beauty that he created in an effort to help others find a personal connection to God: a greater sense of meaning and a feeling of being valued.  And he did it with desert clay and old house paint.

Interior of the museum.
Interior of the museum.
All People You Are Loved
All People You Are Loved

In one of his interviews (I’ve watched them all obsessively now — has anyone yet extolled the virtues of minor obsessions? Perhaps in a future post…) Leonard says that people seem to feel good when they visit his mountain.  I felt that too, before I knew much about who he was or why he made what he did.  His interviews are wonderful, by the way.  I could hardly believe the interviews Huell Howser did with Leonard because both men are bubbling over with excitement — Huell’s excitement about discovering Leonard’s creation and Leonard’s excitement about sharing Salvation Mountain.  I’m trying now to recall if I’ve ever seen two grown men more happily engaged in conversation about something they both love, and are unafraid to show such affection for.  I don’t think I have.  Have you?

Detail of car hood.
Detail of car hood.

When I returned home and shared my experience of visiting Salvation Mountain, my dad said he was sorry that Leonard was no longer there.  Leonard died in February 2014 and some of his ashes were returned to the “technicolor mountain” he built.  It was upon my homecoming that I began to reflect on how I’d felt at the mountain.  I watched all the YouTube videos I could find of the Mountain and Leonard.  The more I watched, the more touched I felt by who Leonard was as a person and how so many have been impacted by his art.  Then the question of how I contribute to our culture arose.  How can I share something that will help others feel celebrated and loved?  I am not religious, so I cannot make promises of God’s love.  The closest I can get is to say that I believe in the power of our individual uniqueness.  I believe that our own unlikely combinations of traits and thoughts and perspectives make us valuable beyond measure.  It’s a sort of Mr. Roger’s take on the world — I like you just the way you are, because of who you are.  Your authenticity makes the world a better and richer place.  That is the message I would like to share.  I’m still not sure how that message will make it out into the world.  Leonard’s original plan was to do it via hot air balloon.  How magical is that?

The front of Leonard's vintage firetruck home.
The front of Leonard’s vintage fire truck home.

Have you had the experience of being unexpectedly bowled over by something beautiful? Or loving? or both? Do you wonder about how to bring beauty and love to others, or how to enrich it? Or maybe you don’t wonder about it because you are already doing it? I would love to hear from you.

Salvation Mountain. March 2015.
Salvation Mountain. March 2015.