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The Nation

Houston Home Is Garbage, Literally

Crafts: Alone, each discarded item is a piece of junk, but taken as a whole it rises to the level of esteemed folk art.

November 06, 2001|MIKE ANTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HOUSTON — The vision came to Cleveland Turner in a dream, arriving at 3 a.m. on a day in 1983 as he lay in a hospital bed drying out from years of drinking Thunderbird on the streets.

"It was so pretty," he said. "All these colors coming from junk, flying around my head like a whirlwind in the sky, and coming back to Earth again as junk.

"This is the reason why this is here."

"This" is Turner's house, a ramshackle shotgun shack of a place that the 65-year-old former skid row dweller turned into the embodiment of his vision. It's a menagerie of junk that has drawn thousands from around the world who come to gaze at one of the best-known examples of a "yard show," a form of folk art found in some Southern communities.

And make no mistake: It is all junk, salvaged from garbage cans by Turner on his daily bike rides, unwanted items that have found a home and a purpose in one of Houston's poorest neighborhoods.

Junk has swallowed the house like kudzu, filling the interior and the yard, climbing the walls and spreading across the sidewalk and down into a drainage ditch along the street.

There are enough Christmas lights and ornaments to decorate a parade route. Hundreds of broken toys and mangy stuffed animals. A cannon fashioned from a cotton-picking machine with a vampire's head sticking out of the muzzle. A rubber shark bouncing from the end of a fishing pole. A collection of Revlon Super Lustrous lipstick. A ceramic Jesus missing an arm next to a collection of wooden Bambis and a naked doll. An old mule harness that Turner used as a boy in his native Mississippi. A framed picture of a baby girl.

"Have no idea who that is," Turner said.

Turner loves rocking horses. He has five; no, make that six. There's one on the roof, up where Turner put a dead squirrel he gutted and stuffed.

Turner's house--painted red, white and blue with splashes of yellow and green--is a Houston icon. It's known as the Flower Man's House because Turner has planted hundreds of flowers in the nooks and crannies of his evolving masterpiece. Turner doesn't know who gave him the name, doesn't care.

Junkman would be fine with him. Certainly more accurate.

"When I started in on this, I really didn't think I was working on art," Turner said. "I was just working on the vision in my head. But the vision just turned out to be art. That surprised me."

It didn't surprise Susanne Theis, director of Houston's Orange Show Foundation, an art group that has made the Flower Man's House a stop on its annual tour of local folk art.

"He's got the eye of an artist. You simply cannot look at that house without smiling. It's aesthetically wonderful," Theis said. "He is using found objects to tell the story of his life."

It's a story of a life tossed away and reclaimed.

Turner's parents died when he was a boy in Mississippi. He was raised by an aunt and attended school only through the second grade. He can barely read.

When he was 25, Turner decided to leave for Los Angeles, where a sister lived. He made it as far as Houston, where he found a construction job and discovered the allure of cheap wine.

Eventually, boozing cost Turner his job. For 17 years, he lived in weed patches and in abandoned homes, selling scavenged scrap iron to get the next bottle.

"I fell in love with the wine," he said. "The wine ate my brains. I figured, I ain't going no further with my life. This is my life."

Then he almost died. A woman who lived in a mansion in the city's exclusive River Oaks neighborhood found Turner on the side of the road. She called an ambulance, and Turner spent five weeks in a hospital recovering from alcohol poisoning.

It was there that he had his vision. The rest is art history.

Last year, a local newspaper awarded Turner's house "best place to take out-of-towners." Buses filled with camera-toting tourists routinely stop by. Two weddings have been performed on the street in front. Recently, a rap artist from Los Angeles--Turner can't remember his name--shot a music video here.

Turner, a man with gold-capped teeth and a laugh that can be heard a block away, is a ready host. "People come from Europe and I ask them, 'What kind of art do you have over there?' And they say, 'Nothing like this.' "

Visitors often ask Turner if they can buy a piece from his house, a dented mailbox, perhaps, or a painted rock. Maybe one of the rocking horses.

"I tell them, 'There's nothing to sell. It's just junk.' Besides, if you've got one piece, you've got nothing. You've got to have the whole thing."

Turner's neighborhood is a lot like the stuff that makes up his art. It's an area that was cast off long ago by the city's power elite, a neighborhood of abandoned homes and homes that look like they ought to be, but are not.

Last year, Project Row Houses--which provides art education, after-school programs and low-income housing--was offered a collection of tax-delinquent homes across the street from the Flower Man.

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