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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.