Folk Artists vs. the State

Truckhenge, Bishop Castle, the Garden of Eden, and the anti-authoritarianism of outsider art


Bishop Castle
Glenn Asakawa/The Denver Post/Getty Images

Hanging a painting in your living room isn't likely to inspire a visit from the county zoning board. You may get away with a collection of garden gnomes in your front yard, especially if you live in the countryside. But start artistically upending antique trucks in your lawn or constructing a 16-story stone castle and you're almost certain to find yourself mummified in red tape.

"Art environments" like these exist all around America, created by people who have no formal training and thus are considered "grassroots," "folk," or "outsider" artists. And a lot of these artists have an anti-authoritarian bent-sometimes because they're naturally inclined that way, sometimes because the local authorities just won't leave them alone.

Approaching the two stone towers of Bishop Castle that stretch above the Rocky Mountain pines, you'll see one of many hand-painted signs clustered near a full-sized portcullis and drawbridge:


An additional sign features a brief list of commonsense rules, including "Children must be with an adult" and "No climbing on the sand pile." The rest reads: "You are welcome if you agree with everything. IF NOT NO TRESPASSING! In my opinion unreasonable & unfair laws force me to write this sign. By my hard earned power, Jim Bishop (castle builder)."

These are some of the milder signs posted around Bishop's 160-foot castle in the rural town of Wetmore, Colorado. He began building the structure back in 1969, and now wrought-iron cages, swooping spiral staircases, and a fire-breathing dragon's head loom over the trees. The 2.5-acre property is isolated, bordered by National Forest on three sides. Bishop says his creation will be finished when he's dead.

The artist's distaste for the government seems to have developed in the 1970s, when the county started hassling him about zoning. "In the beginning, [county representatives] come up here and they didn't know how to assess this, so they told us we couldn't build anything over 45 feet high," says Phoebe, Jim's wife of almost 50 years. "Even our little cabin was higher than 45 feet. It was just little nit-picking stuff," she continues, gesturing up at the maze of metalwork walkways and stone stairways that entwine the granite towers.

Such scuffles with the local government seem to have shaped the Bishops' views. "There's a difference between lawful and legal. It's code now," Jim says. "It's about making money—controlling people and making money. They don't care about the Constitution."

The authorities' interest finally began to let up in the early 1990s, and today they leave the Bishops in relative peace. "Once they realized that the entire community of their county makes more money than we do [on the visitors], they don't bother us," Phoebe says.

"People that come up here [to Bishop Castle] from all over the world use their gift stores, use their grocery stores, their pharmacies, buy hunting licenses," Jim says.

"I can set the public on them now," he adds. He has an extensive fan base that's ready to jump to his defense. "There's 24 hours in the day and five business days…If I've got their phones ringing where their answering machines are loaded up and they can't conduct any business except about me, then they're out of business. The power of the public."

The Bishops see their little kingdom as a place of freedom. "Look at our riches," Phoebe says, eyes glittering at the visitors gaping at a giant geodesic aviary high above the stained glass of the third-story ballroom. "I can walk out into the middle of my yard, and I don't have to worry about what I have to say. Do you know why? Because I didn't charge you to come in here…and I'm not charging you to leave. So where can you find a better situation than that?"

One state over, in Kansas, a drive down desolate Route 400 quickly turns into a political cartoonist's fever dream, complete with street sign windmills rolling in the never-ending Kansan breeze and Bosch-esque cut-metal figures labeled "Socrates," "Prometheus," and "Honey-haired Enchantress" looming atop poles above the road. Their creator, M.T. Liggett, retired from military service in 1988 and soon returned to the rural farmland of his childhood to take up metalwork. His hand-wrought metal signs and windmills are sometimes three deep along the roadside. Among the fanciful "totems" and visual odes to women he's loved, you'll find his 15-foot-tall feelings about local, state, and national government.

One portrays Hillary Clinton as "Our Jack-Booted Eva Braun," her larger-than-lifesize body a swastika holding a hammer and sickle. Next to her is Laura Bush, equally beswastikaed. Down the road, signs read: "Evolution is wrong; only a miracle from the Almighty could have created the moronic dumbasses on the Kansas State Board of Education" and "City Council Gestapo; Mental Midgets; Anti-military pukes—draft dodgers; yella-coward sphincters."

"I'm not a Libertarian. I'm not a Republican. I'm not a Democrat. I don't have any agenda," Liggett says. But he's still got plenty of opinions.

"Gay marriage? I don't give a shit, it's none of my business." ("Kansas: Support Gay Marriage; Love Lesbians; Jesus Did," says one of his signs.)

Or, Liggett told the photographer D. Gorton in 2010, the planes on September 11, 2001, "crashed into our freedom."

"One of the worst jokes I've ever witnessed in my life is these turkey politicians standing out on the Capitol steps singing 'God Bless America.' If those bastards would have done their job it never would have happened."

Liggett says he isn't making his politically incorrect art for fame or fortune. "These people in San Francisco and New York, these so-called centers of commerce, have no idea what's going on in the workshops of Kansas," he said in the Gorton interview. "I've never once tried to get in on the action back east because I will not be obsequious to a bunch of turkeys like that. They ought to come out here to Kansas and see what the old Kansas farm boys and farm women are doing out here, because it's original. They didn't follow anybody."

"Most of these artists don't actively market themselves," says Rosslyn Schultz, executive director of the Grassroots Arts Center in Lucas, Kansas. "But deep down they hope somebody notices."

S.P. Dinsmoor, arguably the father of white Kansan folk art environments, certainly knew how to market himself. Like many Civil War veterans, he was lured to the state by propaganda that portrayed it as a lush, unspoiled territory. An experienced farmer, Dinsmoor was undaunted by the unforgiving landscape he found. But many of his neighbors were underwater on their loans and struggling to turn a profit. The railroad often charged more for cargo transportation than the crops were worth at market.

In 1904, Dinsmoor built a "log cabin"—made from locally mined limestone carved to resemble wood in a state with precious few trees—as a tourist attraction. The cabin's yard gradually became a tangle of concrete sculptures up to 40 feet high. Dubbed the Garden of Eden, its playful biblical elements—such as a grape arbor featuring a gangly, larger-than-life Adam and Eve—were soon joined by three-dimensional political cartoons, a vent for Dinsmoor's undying Populist beliefs.

The octopus, a common symbol of corporate power in Populist Party literature, appears several times in the Garden. Even before women's suffrage, Dinsmoor sculpted a man and a woman high in the sky, sawing a branch representing the chartered rights of corporations off the tree of liberty with a saw labeled "ballot." His last sculpture, wherein a man marked "Labor" is crucified by a banker, a lawyer, a doctor, and a preacher, remains forever unfinished. Dinsmoor died in 1932.

"We have heard that when he built it most of the townspeople thought he was a little off and wanted it torn down," says Mary Ann Steinle, tour guide at the Garden of Eden and Dinsmoor's great-niece.

The artist ran for office multiple times, even once winning a position as justice of the peace, but that didn't stop him from tapping illegally into the city's water line or from digging up the body of his first wife from the city cemetery to inter her on his land.

"He was a Grand Master of the Masons and they were very powerful in Kansas at the time, which is probably why he got away with thumbing his nose at the town," Steinle says. "They pretty much let him do his own thing."

"It took 85 years for the community to realize [the Garden of Eden] could be a plus," Schultz says.

Dinsmoor's remains are still on the property, in a concrete mausoleum he built to house his corpse. As per his will, his body is now part of the tour, viewable through plexiglass laid atop the coffin.

© Franck Fotos/Alamy Stock Photo

More recently, Ron Lessman buried something rather different on his farm near Topeka, Kansas. Since 2000, Lessman has planted antique trucks bumper-first into the ground and spray-painted slogans on their sides: "Freedom isn't," "Rise up," "Rome didn't kill Jesus, bureaucrats did." He calls the place Truckhenge.

While other art environments acquired the ire of the local authorities after they were built, Truckhenge was born of that wrath. "We managed to piss off a local millionaire by underbidding him for a project he wanted to do, so he called his friends the county bureaucrats," remembers Linda Lessman, Ron's wife.

The inspectors told them to remove all the debris from their property, claiming that because of their position on a flood plain, it was "all going to float down the river and kill everybody in Lawrence," according to Linda. The material they wanted removed included some old trucks the Lessmans originally used as hog shelters on the farm.

"The judge told him to pick the trucks up, so [Ron] picked the trucks up with his front-end loader," Linda says. He dug holes and put the ends of those trucks in the ground, sealing them in with 20 tons of concrete.

This did not appease the county prosecutor. When the government pushed the issue, Ron said the judge had "told me to pick them up, he didn't tell me how to do it." Amazingly, the judge agreed. But that was not the end of it.

"They took us to another judge and charged us with criminal public nuisance," Linda recalls, "because not only were [the trucks] now going to float down the river and kill everybody in Lawrence with 20 tons of concrete holding them in, but they were going to take out all the bridges and infrastructure now." Or that's what the government said, anyway. "Anybody with a lick of sense knows that next time it floods they're going to sink," Linda scoffs.

They were assessed a fine they've yet to pay. "We're not going to remind them about it," Linda says.

"Neither one of us are anti-government," she adds. "We're anti-bad government. It's an old boys' club around here."

Later, a zoning inspector hassled the Lessmans about calling their property a farm. So Ron installed a fence made of front and rear fenders to show everyone they had a "bumper crop."

The local authorities have finally embraced Ron's vision—or at least the exposure and tourism dollars it brings in. Truckhenge has its own page on the official tourism websites of both Kansas and Topeka, and the Shawnee County Recycling and Preservation Association has declared the farm an official art park.

"I think the artists who build these places are saying much more than 'look at this' or 'I was here,'" says "Narrow" Larry Harris, an art historian who documents folk art sites. "They're creating entire new worlds that have never even been dreamed of before."

And since dreams don't always fit into a familiar zoning category, the strangely symbiotic relationship between outsider art and authority will continue indefinitely. With one hand the local powers-that-be will take in extra exposure and tax revenue from these singular attractions. With the other, government's intrusive controls will keep fueling the folk art fires.

"Day after day they're taking away my freedom and if you say anything about what's happening to you…they come in and kick your door down and throw tear gas through your windows," Liggett told Gorton. "It's not going to change the way I act. I'm going to keep on making my totems, making my political statements about these silly politicians."