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- June 23, 1997
- Vol. 47
- No. 24
Some Say It's Trash, but Grandma's Fans Call Her Legacy Litter Perfect
Prisbrey's was the kind that began at the dump. In 1956, Prisbrey, then a 60-year-old retiree in Simi Valley, Calif., stacked a mélange of bottles, joined them with mortar and created a wall. Over the years she added more here and there, until the walls grew so uncontrollably that at her death she had melded more than a million bottles and thousands of bits of bric-a-brac into a dusty Disneyland of recyclables—13 one-room buildings and 22 whimsical structures, including a tree made entirely of pencils—all packed into a third-of-an-acre plot.
But is it art or an eyesore? "Simi Valley has something that could be a cultural landmark, a focus of cultural life in the city," insists John Beardsley, a Washington author who has written about visionary artists. Says Daniel Paul, 24, an art history major who has devoted himself to restoring Tressa's dream since graduating from Cal State at Fullerton last year: "I was moved by the magical quality of this place. I want people to experience what I did."
Naysayers would rather not, thank you. "I could go out right now and raise $5,000 to have it thrown in the dump," says local Republican Rep. Elton Gallegly.
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and as a beholder Grandma was eclectic. In addition to bottles, she collected dolls' heads and TV tubes, clock springs and license plates. One area of her village pays homage to world religions. "Originally, Grandma didn't know what to use for Judaism, so she put in a Manischewitz bottle," says Paul. "That was her favorite drink."
Some art experts postulate that Prisbrey's obsessive collecting was a way of dealing with grief—she had divorced one husband, outlived another and lost six of seven children to cancer. Prisbrey's stated reason was more prosaic. "Ever since my second husband drank himself away, I had to figure out something to do with the bottles," L.A. artist Richard Posner recalls her saying. "I didn't want them to go to waste."
Now, Simi Valley faces a similar predicament. Due largely to the 1994 Northridge earthquake, much of the site is once again mere heaps of bottles. Since Prisbrey's work is listed in the National Register of Historic Places—one of only nine folk-art structures so designated—the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced earlier this year that it would grant $436,000 in relief funds for its repair. Gallegly, provoked by angry neighbors still awaiting their own disaster aid, led a successful effort to block the grant. Now, Paul and a small band of volunteers are seeking more modest backing to keep the place standing, inspired no doubt by the Prisbrey credo: "Anyone can do anything with a million dollars. But it takes more than money to make something out of nothing."
IRENE ZUTELL in Simi Valley
- Irene Zutell.
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