All Bottled Up:
Reinterpreting the Culturescape of Grandma Prisbrey

by David Ensminger
Grandma Prisbrey’s makeshift “culturescape,” a series of homemade buildings known as Bottle Village in the arid stretches of lower California that has been cocooned for nearly thirty years as a California State Historical Landmark, is a looking glass into the mores of a generation that survived the lean years of the Depression, with its boom and bust years giving rise to a national lore of both hardscrabble toil and tinsel town bliss. Her installations, rendered in the most humble of terms, also offer an eyewitness to feminism writ clear and concise as prairie haiku: these buildings, assemblages, and sidewalks are the work of a woman who needed no man to tell her story. Whereas some writers argue she constructed the village despite being a woman, I suggest her sense of homespun feminism, deeply and realistically entrenched in her point-of-view, harkens back to a central, unfettered notion: people should feel unhindered when seeking and living out free and flexible gender roles. Additionally, even though she underwent tremendous sorrow and loss, losing six out of seven children, not to mention two husbands, I feel uncomfortable pathologizing her work as trauma art, one that serves some need for therapy by providing a way for her to repair the fragments of her life. Ultimately, that approach ghettoizes her work. Instead, I prefer to see her work as a syncretic cultural conversation.

From what we understand, Prisbey built the site because she wanted to fend off the smell of a local turkey farm. Mixing the concrete by hand, she avidly used bottles -- artfully arranged so as to prismatically capture colors -- to form the exoskeleton of her rooms, not unlike some Hispanic folkways, which include using broken bottles on the tops of adobe walls to fend off would-be thieves trying to scale them. The approach also resembles rasquache, the Chicano cultural practice of ‘making do’ with limited resources, very prevalent in her locale: southern California. I also imagine the careful arrangements of over a million bottles as an earthy homage to the neon-drenched, kaleidoscopic landscape of Las Vegas, which Prisbey immensely enjoyed. In the film Grandma's Bottle Village: The Art of Tressa Prisbrey (1982), she even shares a few photographs of herself in Las Vegas during the “salad days” of her previous married life. Furthermore, her culturescape recalls colors emanating from stained glass church windows, or crushed glass in grottoes, all over the world; thus, I imagine the bottle house as a vernacular memorial to the gods of Fordism -- the assembly line plants that made one million bottles possible in the first place. Her walls also become a kind of “riff” on bottle trees. Such cultural tendencies harken back to Southern yard art and an earlier era of African history, when cultures, such as tribes from the Congo, used them to trap evil spirits in the night.

If we simply talk about how the work serves to “heal” her in some way and use the installation site as a psychological index of her state of being, we seem to neglect the intertextual conversation that occurs within her art. One may want to read the broken dolls assembled on poles tilted in almost severe dereliction as a way for her to cope with childhood memories or the memories of her deceased children. Could they, instead, constitute a disturbing look at how capitalism eats, or zombifies, the young, and the dolls represent the aftermath? Suh an appoach, however, seems to contradict Susan Sontag’s advice in “Against Interpretation,” in which she suggests that one should not interpret art but attempt to see a work for what it is: “The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art - and, by analogy, our own experience - more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means” (1963).  By solely focusing on Prisbey’s intent to repair or negotiate her past by using self-administered art therapy that responds to her tragedies, we offer a slippery slope approach, since we do not know her thought processes and intentions beyond one fact: she suffered, but she also embraced her life. We cannot know whether or not her grief and aesthetically appealing recycling can truly be tied to her overweening need for a surrogate family and reborn self-worth, as suggested by Verni Greenfield (1991). This tethers all meaning to the sphere of the biographic, personal, and subjective, almost all but eclipsing the actual “new meanings” latent in the nuanced and layered art forms.

Obviously, the approaches of folklorists such as Michael Owen Jones have enriched public perceptions. To a great degree, they seem to interrogate the classic approach of formalism, which isolates and analyzes art by detaching it from makers and a living context. For instance, Jones notes how Prisbrey seems to erect shelters and enclosures to protect her from further tragedies. To extend that perspective, maybe we could “read” her briccolage of items subsumed in the concrete walkway, including scissors and guns, as a way to bury the violence in her life, including the sharp edges, domestic pitfalls, and phallic symbols that plague her. I might argue, instead, she is simply drawing our attention to the very nature of concrete: it is a mix (the Romans added blood and horse hair to their version) often rife with seashells, river stone, and crushed glass, but her version literally “captures” the flavor of the industrial era by wholly recycling and reintegrating cast-offs into the domestic landscape.

She is a reverse archeologist in the age of plenty. Like Rauschenberg, she becomes an Americana cataloguer, a maker of ready-mades (or in his case, “combines”) and assemblages that explore the multiple meanings of objects taken from one setting, discourse, and use, and then placed, in the case of Prisbrey, into a new cement “batter” – a sedentary mixology of quick dry cement. This, to me, resembles what Rauschenberg told Modern Painters: I wanted to use the surprise and the collectiveness and the generosity of finding surprises. And if it wasn't a surprise at first, by the time I got through with it, it was. So the object itself was changed by its context and therefore it became a new thing” (2005). In Prisbrey’s vision, the new thing equals the once bland and humdrum concept of a sidewalk now bristling with an inundation of everyday objects that literally snag both wayward feet and the glint of the sun.

Prof. Daniel Wojcik at the University of Oregon reminds us that Prisbrey might represent a simple case of neurotic hoarding, yet in her interviews she did not seem quirky, offbeat, or even indulgent. She seemed like a collector bored by the pretense of most people’s lives. She was a doer, cut from an almost Midwestern Protestant work ethic, as her sister describes, and is unshaken by police, thieves, or people who don’t understand her way of life. When upper class people purchase and hunt down objects, they are collectors, yet when the lower class and the poor do so, they are hoarders. When the wealthy maintain large museum-like shelves of curios and exotic items, they are dubbed eccentric, not neurotic. Class biases often shape how we frame people’s relationship to material objects.  Prisbey is not simply creating a hodgepodge, anything-goes environment for her pencils: there is a sense and sensibility. In “…The Art of Tressa Prisbrey,”  she actively ponders one display while she glues pencils to a decorated board, noting her age and trembling hand. She adds handwritten text, like “A Conversation Piece," to displays juxtaposed to a shelf of bullet shells, adding a dimension of wit and self-awareness. She even spontaneously sells the necklace off a doll, proving that her connection to the objects is not “unnatural,” fetishistic, defined solely by sentimentalism, or indicative of her being overly obsessive-compulsive.  She seems to recognize the temporality of her undertaking.

Hence, I believe that this environment is not a walking tour of trauma fossilized and turned to kitsch, but a living museum of fading “modern” American detritus undertaken by a resolute woman willing and eager to take the time and energy to capture what we, in our ample ambition and workaday rush, “could not see to see,” to quote Emily Dickinson. She is, in the end, the conscious poet undertaker of the consumer grade leftovers we no longer desire.