Tanya Ward Goodman
THE WASHINGTON POST – On a recent Saturday morning, my husband and I were the only visitors to the Velaslavasay Panorama in Los Angeles. Situated in the historical Union Theatre in the West Adams neighbourhood, the attraction is open by appointment and affords a panoramic peek into Shenyang, China, during 1910 to 1930. Reached via spiral staircase, the 360-degree, three-dimensional terrain of painting and miniatures combined to create a breathtaking immersive experience.
We sat together, watching the light change across the city. Listening to the recorded soundscape of birdsong, the distant clatter of pots and pans, a train whistle and the echo of shoes on cobblestone reminded me of other times when I had climbed sets of stairs to look out over Marrakesh, Morocco; Paris; or San Gimignano, Italy.
Patented by Irish artist Robert Barker in 1787, the panorama became a popular form of entertainment in the 19th Century. It’s more than a painting on a wall. “It’s an interface,” explains Sara Velas, director of the Velaslavasay Panorama. “Because you’re using your own mind and sensibility to create the illusion, it’s then something that can live on beyond your encounter. You take an active part in making it happen.”
My visit to the panorama conjured recent journeys and also churned up memories of childhood road trips with my father, Ross Ward, creator of Tinkertown Museum in Sandia Park, NM, which my stepmother, Carla, still owns and operates. Dad’s enthusiasms turned every drive into detours trading standard guidebook recommendations for the wonder of concrete dinosaurs, clock collections and desert puppet theatres.
As the pandemic continues, small museums, roadside attractions and “art environments” present an uncrowded antidote to more mainstream offerings, and our visits can help to keep their doors open.
Whether you have weeks or only a few hours, a journey off the beaten path offers an opportunity to learn new things and deepen your appreciation of the surrounding area.
“The places that we think we know can actually surprise us and become unfamiliar to us in new ways,” said director of special projects for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles Todd Lerew.
With an ongoing mission to visit more than 600 small area museums, Lerew has explored troves of citrus, sneakers, streetlamps and archives of historical documents covering topics including refrigeration and Mexican migrant labour camps. “What I have done many times is open up Google Maps, type in ‘museum’ and see what comes up.”
Susceptible to a similar serendipity, my dad would let an article in a 40-year-old copy of Arizona Highways magazine lead him to a creased page of the Rand McNally road atlas.
He’d follow country roads and byways to places such as Bottle Village in Simi Valley, California, or the May Natural History Museum in Colorado Springs.
Now I use websites such as RoadsideAmerica.com and SpacesArchives.org, as well as the Atlas Obscura app, to locate all manner of attractions, including the Vanadu Art House in Hyattsville, Md. I’d seen photos of the place for years, but nothing prepared me for the sensation of stepping into this three-dimensional collage of metal, concrete, shard and shell.
“The spaces are meant to be experienced physically,” said Principal of vernacular art services Annalise Flynn, who oversees the Spaces website, a preservation project of the Kohler Foundation.
“They loom. They have winding pathways that you walk throughout. They sometimes are domestic spaces that are actively lived in, and that’s a unique and important experience when it comes to understanding the relevance of creativity to the human life.”
Flynn has helped to create a searchable database of art environments and attractions all over the country. “Anytime I’m going anywhere,” she said, “I always look to see what’s around, what’s on the way, what’s in between.”
Although it’s possible to drop into many of these attractions, they often don’t keep regular hours, and they may be part of a home or other place of business. Be respectful, and make an appointment if you can.
Once there, common courtesy (and the art of conversation) is your best approach.
“I’ll get out of the car, and I’ll be shooting from the street, and someone will come out and ask me a question,” said Kelly Ludwig, a road-tripper/photographer/designer who has spent years documenting the creative work of hundreds of self-taught artists. “The next thing you know, I’ll be in their double-wide drinking Pepsi out of a jar. One thing leads to another.”
This kind of personal interaction is indicative of both the passion behind the project and the often scarce or limited resources keeping these exhibits afloat. Unlike during a trip to Disneyland or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you’ll often have a chance to speak directly with the creator or steward of the collection.
It should go without saying that you should attend to both art and artist with the same level of respect and care you would offer at more mainstream venues.
“Often,” Flynn said, “people who build art environments are building in some way to create community.”
A great example of this is the Heidelberg Project in Detroit, where artist Tyree Guyton has used paint and found objects to transform abandoned homes and his street into a living art gallery.
“In essence, we’re not so much recycling things as much as we’re attempting to recycle the human spirit,” said President of the Heidelberg Project Jenenne Whitfield.
“So many of these places are a chance to see the possibility of sort of following through artistic inspiration without the confines of what you think you are allowed to and not allowed to do with your life,” said co-founder of Atlas Obscura Dylan Thuras. “You come away with what might be your own possibilities in life.”
For Thuras, a childhood trip to the sprawling House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin, sparked a desire to expand his exploration of the unique and unusual. This fervour led to a book, a website and, ultimately, a new take on guided travel.
The same Wisconsin attraction inspired my dad to start building his own museum in our backyard. His creation, in turn, moves untold numbers of visitors, including Curator of Louisiana’s Abita Mystery House John Preble, who writes on his website: “Before seeing Tinkertown, I didn’t realise that the public might be interested in seeing my collections and inventions.”
A visit to a small museum or art environment might motivate you to start painting, to research family history or to consider your own possessions and passions in a new light.
The price of a ticket is often low, but your contribution might help buy a bag of concrete, fund research for the next panorama, pay the electricity bill or feed the museum cat.
“That is my ultimate virtuous cycle,” Thuras said of Atlas Obscura. “We suggest a place, and you go there and not just have an incredible experience but are supporting this art project or small museum. You make a connection with that person in this intimate environment, and then that person who runs that thing is able to keep doing it. That is the ultimate goal of this entire endeavor, in a way.”
In some ways, writing this piece took on the velocity and spontaneity of a good road trip.
In every interview, I swapped stories and photographs and shared more than a few laughs.
My dad has been gone for nearly 20 years, but every day I’m grateful for the legacy of curiosity, flexibility and enthusiasm he passed on to me. I think of his maps each time I set down one of my own.