Field of dreams
How a self-taught artist and craftsman defines himself through an elaborate dream set in hand-crafted miniatures
Published: August 10, 2011
Opposite a four-lane highway, an expanse of manicured gardens winds up to a meandering lagoon. A single narrow bridge leads across the water to the neatly trimmed front yard of a 16-room colonial mansion known as Plantation House. Also boasting a pool, security guardhouse, guest residence and helipad, the Plantation House is the residence of worldwide trucking magnate Joseph Pointer Sackall III. After rising from humble beginnings to become a multimillionaire, Sackall returned to his hometown of Monroe, La., to retire on his idyllic country estate, occasionally piloting his helicopter to the roof of his 60-story office tower downtown.
It's a lovely estate, the type of place that an average person could only dream of retiring to. But, the problem is, it lives in someone else's head, in a dream that's gradually more and more focused.
It's a world born of 82-year-old artist Jother Woods. It's his "Plantation House," the backstory to his own dream, to his life, created slowly, over the last 37 years. And it's an epic exercise in miniaturization; a model of a large rural estate painstakingly crafted almost solely from recycled materials.
Tall, slender and slightly stooped with age, Woods shows off his life's work with obvious pride. Soft-spoken but loquacious, he shows an impressive gift of memory as he tells story after story about his childhood and his more recent past, about the construction and design of the Plantation House. Woods is eager to discuss his work with visitors to the N'Namdi Contemporary Art Center, where the house is currently displayed. He greets them graciously, quickly providing detailed answers to questions about his show-stopping construction. "Recycleman," as others sometimes call him, knows that he has created something special, and his enthusiasm is contagious.
The Plantation House, he shows us, extends in a narrow, tabletop strip beginning just before the four-lane highway with a small swatch of wooded land that houses the estate's power shack. Beyond the highway, precisely arranged flowerbeds and tiny clumps of trees make up the Earnestine Robinson Woods Memorial Garden, named in honor of Woods' mother. The security guardhouse is positioned before the lagoon; a boathouse provides access to the water. A series of gates leads up to the front lawn and the main house, located at the mid-point of the work. Its address — 13181 Eagle Path — also honors Woods' mother, marking the date of her death.
Behind the house is a back yard complete with a pool, barbecue pit, children's play area and patio. Farther on sits a toy helicopter on the helipad, the garden house and more gardens. A guesthouse and property manager's residence come next, then a play area and pool for the dogs. From there, Plantation House steps back in time — a two-lane stretch of blacktop road marks the division between the present and 1930s rural Louisiana, the scene of artist Woods' boyhood. Beyond Zeus Road, named for Woods' sharecropper father, a small forest and a dirt road flank a three-room sharecropper's shack, a re-creation of his childhood home. And with that homage to the artist's youth, Plantation House ends.
From a distance, the work appears as a chaotic jumble, but closer inspection reveals an amazing, almost obsessive amount of detail. Tiny handcrafted furniture fills much of the house — the children's area even features a chair slightly larger than the rest, meant for an adult supervisor. Towels hang from a clothesline between the outhouse and the smokehouse of the sharecropper's shack. A neatly arranged woodpile rests on the porch. Wallpaper and carpeting inside the 16 rooms of the main house can only be glimpsed through its many windows. Tractor tracks mark the dirt road, birdbaths are filled with water, deer and chickens wander the grounds, clumps of trees dot the landscape. Toy cars and trucks from resale shops emulate speed on the highway, while three of Joseph Pointer Sackall's semi-trucks — constructed by Woods — also travel past. Lifting one of the trucks' cabs reveals a sleeper compartment for the driver, a detail that could only be revealed by the artist himself.
"All of these are some of my own grand ideas from many years ago of how I would live back in the quiet and stillness of the rural South," Woods says. "When I grew up, I didn't know they called huge houses 'mansions.' I would see these old, big properties — these plantation owners, they'd have these grand houses — and sometimes they'd be back in a pecan orchard so far you couldn't even see the houses," he says. "And I'd say, 'I'm going to have this grand estate one way or another. I'm going to have it in my imagination or I'm going to have it in real life.'"
In the end, Woods mixed personal nostalgia with self-actualization and designed a third option, spending more than three decades creating a replica of his fantasy residence. Even the inclusion of his childhood home, a three-room shotgun shack where he lived with his parents and five brothers, is true to what he envisioned: On visits from Detroit — where moved in 1959 to work in an auto plant — to his home state of Louisiana, Woods would travel past one of the houses that he grew up in. "My dream was to buy enough property and then have that house moved onto the property," he says. "In other words, my property would have been a tourist attraction."
The construction of this grand plan — the mansion, moat, pool, boyhood home — all started with a small green car that Woods began building in 1965. Once completed, the car was a handy way for Woods to show off the artistic skill he'd gained from years of practice, despite a lack of formal arts education. When Woods saw that Detroit's parks and recreation department had received a grant to hire crafts instructors, he applied, and with the help of the little green car, he landed the job. But one unforeseen consequence was the number of people who wanted to get up close and personal with his prize piece of woodwork.
> Email Megan O'Neil