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!

4 thoughts on “Bottle Village

  1. This is amazing! I am so glad you got to go! I think my very favorite thing is Grandma Prisbey’s statement that all of the things she found in the dump were once treasures. I am so very enamored of the idea of everyday objects as repositories of memory. It makes me think of Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, a novel which shook me to my core and was the whole impetus for me learning Turkish and going to Istanbul. But back to California! The light through the bottles is truly gorgeous, and I love those mosaics too. And I want a rumpus room too! Now having seen Salvation Mountain and the Bottle Village too, I can only be struck by the enormity of the artistic vision that led these two extraordinary people to devote their lives to their incredibly unique work. It’s something I can’t even really fathom, but can only look upon with awe. Thank you for sharing! Especially since we were still sickies that day and didn’t get to go!

    • Maybe we should all go back! I want to look at it all again. I also love the idea that these things, once prized, were thrown away and then reclaimed and given new life as treasure. I want to read The Museum of Innocence.

  2. Okay, I am sharing this with several people. This is a GREAT tour. I never knew of this place and would love to see it! Your girls are so cute. And those cigarette lighters in the mosaic?! Wonderful.
    It’s amazing what was destroyed in the Northridge quake and what survived. Such disparate things in both camps. I’m glad so much of this survived!

    • Yes! I hope you will go! I think the next public tour is in July but if we can get a group of enough people we can arrange for a private tour, which sounds really fun!
      I have a little book that Tressa wrote about herself that You are welcome to borrow and we’ve ordered the children’s book about her life also.

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