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Free Minds & Free Markets

Folk Artists vs. the State

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

Bishop CastleGlenn Asakawa/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesHanging 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:

"NO DRUNK TAXPAYERS."

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."

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