Shannon Lucy and I decided to take a field trip to Billy Tripp's Mindfield before we'd even decided that she would be June's artist of the month. We'd both heard about the Mindfield for the first time when Mark Hosford posted about it during his reign as CL artist back in March, and had been discussing a possible visit there for a while — it's in Shannon's artistic wheelhouse, and I wanted to make sure she was exposed to as much southern art as possible before she left town for L.A. I didn't know much about the place before I got there, but one of my favorite things about the South is that there's all sorts of weird undiscovered, unexploited pockets of art that exists completely outside the mainstream. And let me tell you — it doesn't get much more marginal than Billy Tripp's Mindfield.
Billy's wife Beth explains the monumental sculpture on his website:
The structure was begun in 1989 and will continue to evolve until Billy’s death, at which point it will become the site of his interment. Included in the network of steel are individual pieces representing various events and periods of Billy’s life, especially the death of his father, Rev. Charles Tripp, in 2002. ... It now stands as a memorial to Billy’s parents as well as a testimonial to his current life, his belief in the inherent beauty of our world, and the importance of tolerance in our communities and governmental systems.
So we cleared our calendars for a whole Saturday in May and headed west. After stopping at Loretta Lynn's family antique store and a gas station that sold dream catchers and those cowboy-shaped pots with a cactus growing out of its pants, we arrived. The Mindfield is easy enough to spot — get off on the Brownsville exit, head toward town, and stop at the 150-foot steel structure that takes up a full lot, right between the town's steakhouse and an unassuming laundromat. It's so massive and so unusual that it took me a while to really understand what it was that I was seeing. I think that's the intention — Billy wants to be noticed, but more than that, he wants to open people's minds.
Shannon, I think, is attracted to visionary art like Billy's in large part because of her father, who has schizophrenia and severe bipolar disorder. She was around eight years old when he had a nervous breakdown, and it's taken her years to come to terms with this man who used to love her like any regular father, but now depends on her to buy his groceries, shows up in the middle of the night in her backyard reading a religious tract through a magnifying glass, and scrawls paranoid rants on every surface of his home. The love is still there — Shannon tells me her father likes to hold her hand — but the sanity is not. That gives Shannon an unusual amount of insight into what it means to become unhinged. The combination of childlike sweetness and mental instability shows up in her art, and she finds work like Billy's incredibly inspiring.
In a recent email, she expounded on this idea.
"I'm interested in the correlation of my father to a child — there's freedom and wonderment, but it's mixed with an unfortunate displacement by society. He's the misfit. Dad constantly reminds me that he's the one seeing clearly, and that if we're gonna use labels, that everyone's 'mentally ill.' I think there's a fine line. To an extent most artists, outsider or not, dwell in that space where it can be acceptable to misbehave. Well, that may not be the right word, but artists I think exist on the skirts of insanity. Sometimes insanity is just seeing between the lines, and making art to express what's there. I think my father is someone who takes that to an extreme, and would never proclaim himself an artist, but the 'visions' — the mania he experiences — proposes an 'other' private universe that's both magical and frightening. I got to see that up close as his child, and its inspiring.
The Mindfield is a tangle of steel that's been welded together in a way that seems ordered, but not in any understandable way. There are curves, a skull and crossbones, a basketball hoop with chains for a net, a bathtub, silhouettes of a people, alongside Tripp's favorite writers: Hunter S. Thompson, William Least Heat Moon, Ralph Waldo Emerson. There's also an assemblage of non-metal stuff in the small section of the lot that hasn't been covered in Billy's Mindfield-scaping. (Compare it with the lawn art in the Frist's Thornton Dial exhibit.)
On our way out, we were stopped by the town's mailman, who asked if we wanted to meet the artist. "You're in luck!" he said, and told us Billy was just around back. The artist was kind and patient with us, and he let Shannon pose in his enormous straw hat next to his truck for a photograph (pictured at the top of this post), and gave us both copies of a book he self-published. He's lived in Brownsville all his life, and I got the feeling that he's used to being a big, weird fish in a small pond — he's more than happy to talk about his work, but he does it with the guarded manner of someone who isn't quite sure whether you think of him as an artist or a freak. I'd like to think he's a little of both.
Find out more about Billy Tripp on his website, and more about Shannon Lucy in posts on Country Life throughout the month of June.