Flowering Environments

Not far from Third World is the house of Sylvester Williams, which is a playful shrine to various elements of Americana, and specifically to important figures in black history. No more than two miles to the south is the Orange Show, which postal worker Jeff McKissack spent 25 years constructing. Off Memorial stands the celebrated Beer Can House of the late John Milkovisch. And only four blocks up Sampson Street from Third World is the house of Cleveland Turner, the Flower Man.

Turner is one of the best-known of Houston's self-taught creators. Unlike Harper, he is a talker, and a prodigious dispenser of folk wisdom.

Also unlike Harper, who simply always wanted to build, the wiry 51-year-old Turner had a clear turning point in his life, one that pointed him in the direction of creating beauty. As a young man he "went down on skid row," as he says, drinking heavily. After he had been admitted to the hospital with alcohol poisoning, he promised God that if he could be delivered from his addiction, he would build a place of beauty in thanks.

Turner successfully went through AA and immediately began planting all kinds of flowers, fruits and vegetables around his Third Ward house. He began painting his walls and hanging up discarded musical instruments and other curiosities, creating a corner of intense color and life in the middle of a generally drab world.

Turner began his environment not long after Harper started building Third World; without saying very much to each other, the two men and their creations create an uncanny dialogue along Sampson: Turner, the Flower Man, with his anarchic and liberating sense of color, and of a plenitude of life, and the tight-lipped Harper, the Fan Man, with his rigorous sense of order and otherworldly abstraction.

It appears that Houston has an unusual number of such sites. Rebecca Hoffberger, director of the American Museum of Visionary Art now under construction in Baltimore, has studied such hard-to-fathom art around the world. Asked if Houston is some sort of world capital, she at first demurs. After a moment, however, she seems to reconsider. "I don't know, something fabulous is going on in Houston," she says. "Houston is a larger-than-life kind of place. Maybe there is some kind of cosmic energy here. And you often read that during certain art movements, one famous painter happened to live near another."

-- David Theis


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