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
"I could tell you just how much a pile of trash is valued. Just a small one is probably $500 lying right there on the sidewalk. Or $5,000," he says. Adding, with a casual wave at Plantation House, "Look at this. This would be in a landfill right now."
It's not an exaggeration. The bits and pieces that — thanks to 36 gallons of glue and more than 100 tubes of superglue — make up Plantation House are mostly materials others tossed away. And Woods' excellent memory is best displayed when cataloging detailed components of the work, describing not just what an item is made of, but exactly when and where he found it.
For example, Woods found an old fan belt that became part of a decorative garden display. A shopping cart wheel, also part of a garden display, was from a visit to the supermarket, found on a broken cart.
Woods admits that he sometimes hangs on to old objects longer than he should, his entire house turned into his studio, waiting for the day when he can use them in Plantation House.
He's almost famous in his west side neighborhood too; he tells of folks appearing at his door, looking to foist their junk off on "Recycleman." He usually says thanks, but no thanks. He finds enough stuff on his own.
Pop cans have become fuel tanks for the tractors. An old earring serves as the hood ornament on the little green car. Spark plugs are smokestacks. Part of a stethoscope is a satellite dish. The hot and cold handles from a shower faucet became flower pots. The helipad is constructed from an exercise bike wheel, a string of beads from pre-Katrina New Orleans and the wheel cover from Woods' own '66 Mustang Pony, stolen and recovered with only one hubcap remaining. When Woods' daughter bought a new refrigerator, he gladly took the old one, transforming one ice cube tray into a boat, another into a pool and cutting the racks into support railings. Part of his daughter's old air conditioner also makes an appearance as the entrance to a room at the back of the house known as the pool room. A baby crib dumped in the vacant lot behind Woods' house was cut up to construct part of a patio. Even parts of Plantation House are recycled into itself — Woods used the wood he cut out of the base to create the lagoon to fashion shingles for some of the buildings' roofs.
Wristwatch batteries, umbrellas, picture frames, old pliers, hearing aid batteries, paper clips, a battery cable — the objects are as varied as the ones in a garbage pile should be. Their value is not just granted by what Woods builds from them, but also what he saves because of them. The artist says one of his main goals with Plantation House was to spend as little as money as possible, it's a rule he has strictly adhered to: Rather than spend $24 on shingles from the dollhouse store, he cut each one individually and glued them by hand.
Woods was prepared to blow a grand or more on landscaping. But as he was driving down the road four blocks from his house, he swerved to avoid a discarded Christmas tree that had blown to the center of the road. He found himself pulling to the shoulder and putting the tree in his truck. He cut it into different size trees and shrubs, spray painted some, submerged others into boiling water so he could easily bend them into different shapes. And so Plantation House was landscaped for free.
Woods' life and the Plantation House are closely intertwined; in fact the word Woods uses most often is "vision." As a young boy, he had a "vision" that he be able to draw, though he didn't own a pencil. He started building models because he had a "vision" that he should be able to make the things that he drew. He created cars from clay because he had a "vision" of what cars should look like that did not match the ones he saw on the road. He had a "vision" that he should become a sign painter, even though he had no experience. When he sees discarded items, he has a "vision" of their worth. When building a carrier for his car, he had a "vision" to make it a garage — a vision that resulted in this impressive manifestation of his most detailed and desired dream.
The Plantation House has only been on display four times in its history, and each time it has become larger and more exact, closer to that which only Woods can see. True construction of the house began in 1977. By '83, when it was exhibited in public for the first time, in Somerset Mall, it was 28 feet long. In 1993, it measured 36 feet, in 2000 it was 48 feet.
Plantation House is now 52 feet long, displayed a mere half block away from where Woods began building it in his first home in Detroit, at Forest and John R. When Woods pulled up to that apartment in 1959, one of the thousands of African-Americans who left the rural South in search of a better life in the North, he was already trying to figure out a way he could move back to Louisiana. He imagined making millions and settling in a grand home. The millions never came, but the vision remained, and with the resourcefulness and dedication he applied to all his other ideas, from drawing to building to sign painting, he made it come true.
As committed as Woods is to Plantation House, describing how some weeks he worked as many as 70 hours on it, he also talks of selling it. "What am I going to be doing with it at 82?" he asks with a laugh. But in virtually the next breath, he describes how his vision continues to grow. He wants to build a replica of the church he attended as a boy, leaving one wall off so viewers can glimpse the clay parishioners in the pews. He wants to build the general store from his youth, and have dolls made to represent his imaginary inhabitants of Plantation House, Joseph Pointer Sackall III and his family. An even more distant fantasy is to build another house on the other side of the four-lane highway, the residence of Sackall's brother.
But the work is already difficult for galleries to display. Even with Woods' instructions on how to assemble it (sketched on old window shades, of course), it takes almost an hour to set up, not including transport, and its size is prohibitive. But when it was only seven ft. long, folks were already saying it was too large, and Woods didn't let that stop him: "I refuse to let what someone else says affect what I do," he says. "I'm going to do Plantation House my way, no matter how long it takes."
In Woods' mind, Plantation House has already expanded, stretched outside the front window of N'Namdi, across Forest Avenue into the parking lot of the church across the street. Granted enough time and enough trash, there's no doubt that he could make that vision come true.
Plantation House displays as part of the exhibit Homeland through Aug. 20, at the N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, 52 E. Forest Ave., Detroit; 313-831-8700; nnamdicenter.org.
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