Monday, April 14, 2008

The Orange Show

Unless you've been there, you probably can't fathom just how hot it gets in Houston.

Years back, I took some art classes at the University of Houston, one of which was a beginning drawing class. The entire class would often take the short trip from the main campus to a folk art environment called, “The Orange Show” and do our sketching for the class. I loved the place and returned often on my own. It is now hailed as one of the most important folk art environments in the United States.

Sketch pads in hand, we students would bake in the hot Houston sun as we drew our versions of McKissick's whimsical bird sculptures, the tractor seats, the circus arenas, kitch and mosaic work that had been created by Jeff McKissack to extol the virtues of his favorite fruit …the orange. It was difficult to concentrate because the heat was so oppressive, but when I look at the sketches I made back then, I long to return.

Jefferson Davis Kissick

McKissack was a rebel and a fanatic. All he thought about were oranges and how good they were for human consumption. His creation encourages visitors of all ages to follow his theories relating health and longevity to good nutrition, hard work and eating oranges. The Orange Show was McKissack’s life’s work.

The Orange Show brightly screams in a Houston neighborhood of small single story homes, an out-of-place cacophony of sculpture and junk turned to folk art. Multi-hued metal juts from a jumble of balconies and buildings; American and Texan flags flutter in the breeze. Did crazed cross-dimensional clowns crash land here? Nah -- but it's a stellar example of dementia concretia and the vision of a singular dreamer.

Jeff McKissack (1902-1980) spent the Depression transporting Florida oranges, and something about the happy citrus fruit sparked obsession in him years later. In the 1950s, as a Houston postal worker living in a quiet neighborhood at 2406 Munger Street, McKissack decided to buy two adjacent empty lots. His get-rich-quick notions of turning the land into a worm farm, plant nursery, or beauty parlor eventually gave way to something much better: an artistic tribute to the orange.

Starting in 1956, McKissack transformed the lots on Munger using bits of junk and material salvaged along his mail route. He fashioned tons of masonry block, tiles, and throwaways into whimsical sculptures, doorways, gates and displays, based on his personal philosophy that oranges were "the perfect food." The Orange Show filled 3,000 square feet with a multi-decked building and series of rooms, a wishing well, an amphitheater with an array of old tractor seats, a pond, and an oasis. He did all the work himself.

Amphitheater area.Finally in 1979, nearly 25 years after he began, McKissack officially opened the doors of The Orange Show to the public. He believed his creation would become a major attraction, but early attendance dropped off to just a curious few who Jeff would cheerily guide. Seven months after the opening, McKissack collapsed from a stroke and died in the hospital.

This might have been the place in the story where neighbors, suffering through local property value depressed for 25 years by a garish, hulking safety hazard, storm the gates of the Orange Show and demolish it. It happens. Fortunately, the Orange Show was rescued from real estate oblivion by a group of supporters who pooled funds and bought the property. They formed the Orange Show Foundation, which preserves and operates the attraction to this day.

The Orange Show is now a nexus for folk art events and exhibits in Houston. The Art Car Weekend, held the third week in April, is an internationally known event, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors. Avante garde and blues concerts, poetry readings, and folk art lectures are performed in the the tractor seat theater on weekend nights, and appearances by the strangest of the strange seem commonplace. The Foundation opens the Orange Show to the public frequently; volunteers spend some of the winter months preserving the attraction.

The man who loved oranges would be pleased.

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Stacy Alexander