Victory is mine! I have finally succeeded in getting past the gates of the Orange Show to see the metal whirligig wonderland created by folk artist Jeff McKissack. While the success was sweet, the actually experience was a bit underwhelming. Maybe I just built up the moment in my head during the last TWO times I stood outside the candy colored gates of the monument built to the orange (as in the fruit) in Houston and rattled them pitifully. Both trips, involving a six hour one way drive, ended with some karmic barrier keeping me from the kitschy goodness inside. That did nothing but steel my determination to get past the metal barrier. Entrance to the folksy monument became my traveling Everest, and to prove his undying love (and willingness to overlook my roadside attraction sickness), the Mister suggested that we travel to Houston to celebrate my birthday. Much like the day that I got shelves for the camper for Mother’s Day, I felt the deep and visceral love that can only come from someone who is willing to go to any length-even standing in the baking sun next to a pile of weird junk-to make you smile.
I was definitely not disappointed in the trip, because not only did I get to spend a rare weekend alone with my husband, I also got to relish in the roadside weirdness that draws me like a moth to a flickering fluorescent flame. I also got to mark something off my Travel Goal list for the year, which is enough to make my little list making heart sing. Unfortunately, the Orange Show is really starting to show some wear, and considering that the entire strange structure is comprised of cobbled-together cast offs, that’s really saying something.
Standing at the top of the two story structure, looking over the star spangled rows of tractor seats that offer tiered viewing of the stage below, I had an unsettling moment. Maybe it was just the scorching sun glinting off the peeling paint, but I had a soul searching moment when I had to ask-almost outloud-“what am I doing here???” That pointed question, or maybe it was the heat again, caused me to sit right down on the searing metal tractor seat. This kind of soul prodding is always unsettling. Not only was I questioning the unexplainable joy I get from stopping to see strange stuff on the side of the road, I was also leading myself down a broad and transcendental path fraught with life altering questions.
I’m sure that seems a bit dramatic for a silly roadside stop, but it’s a sobering line of thought when you find yourself a tourist in the middle of someone’s life work and passion. Jeff McKissack was inspired, for better or worse, by the orange. He thought it was the perfect food, providing the body with every necessary nutrient. Working from that inspiration and a handshake he once shared with Thomas Edison-who ironically hailed from West Orange-he gathered the cast off metal from the junkyards around his home and began to create. The result was a visual hurly-burly of spoked wheels, mosaics, and oddities that he believed would attract more visitors than the Grand Canyon. Perhaps it is a gift that McKissack died eight months after The Orange Show opened, saving him from the reality that his magnum opus was not the attraction he saw in his pie-eyed fantasies.
Of course, it wasn’t a total failure, and even though the crowds didn’t come in the numbers he expected, his commitment to his vision has had a far reaching impact. The Orange Show was purchased and preserved as the centerpiece for the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, an organization that promotes folk art projects throughout Houston. In addition to running the Beer Can House and the Art Car Parade, they have recently launched the Orange Show Art Bus. The Bus is a rolling art and music studio, serving some of the poorest schools in Houston, where art and music have been discontinued in the classroom. Not a bad return on investment for a folk artist who was just looking for a way to immortalize his favorite food.
With a better understanding that the Orange Show represented more than just a weird obsession combined with too much free time, I was able to focus on what had drawn me and others to the site. On the day that we visited, the other guests included a high school senior who was using the Orange Show as the backdrop for her senior pictures, and a man who was helping to spruce up the paint in preparation for his wedding at the site. These were people who were clearly attached enough to the monument to weave it into the watershed moments of their life.
It seemed fitting that, on the occasion of my 35th birthday, I would marveling with bemused condescension while asking myself the cheeky questions about what I was doing and why I was doing it-not just at this moment, but in all of life. I am sure that in the almost 25 years that Mr. McKissack single-handedly built his monument, there must have been at least one moment when he asked himself the same questions. Maybe the answer was as clear to him as the mock steamboat in the center of the property. Or maybe he never really knew why he was creating the monument, but he was just following his passion. Either way, what is left behind is a benchmark to creativity, tenacity, and believing in your passions-no matter how weird they seem to others. The inspiration may have been the orange, but that legacy is what is memorable.