Days 28 and 29 -- Thursday, May 28 & Friday, May 29

In Houston, I was able to veg out a bit for the first time in a while: no schedule to follow, no particular agenda, no lengthy list of things to see. I did enjoy some good meals: a really fine Mexican lunch, some great barbecue, a wonderful seafood feast. I also took in the Menil Collection, a privately owned and funded museum focusing on twentieth century art; chatted with my friend, Fran and met her two beautiful children; was feted with a delicious home-cooked meal at the home of Jim, Annette and Katherine Wheless; had lunch with my old friend, Stephen Brewer (his prowess in sandwich-making is unparalleled) and had a hot sausage at George Bush's favorite restaurant, Otto's Barbeque.

I also took in a couple of quirky sights. In the residential neighborhood behind Otto's, there is a house that is totally covered in beer can parts: pull tabs, flattened cans, cans with the ends cut off. The fence is made of beer cans, the walls are covered in beer cans, there are flowing aluminum streamers hanging from the roof; it's a sight that must be seen to be believed.

I also visited the Orange Show, the work of the late Jeff McKissack, a postal worker and citrus connoisseur who devoted 26 years of his adult life to building what has been called "his own personal utopia" in honor of what he considered to be the perfect food. The structure is rather a folk art masterpiece, made of plaster and scrap metal, with mosaics and pithy sayings imbedded in the walls. The sum of all these parts is a funky, quirky structure that might, had it been built by an artist, have seemed a little, well, precious, but McKissack didn't consider himself an artist at all. The inspiration just came to him and he set about building it. He started construction in 1954 when he was 52, it was completed in 1979 and he died about eight months later. A non-profit foundation was formed to keep the place going and now, children's workshops are held there, people rent the place out for parties and it opens to the public daily.

The Orange Show reminded me a bit of Howard Finster's Paradise Garden in that, in addition to its rather folk-artsy feeling, it is simply one man's vision, something he felt compelled to create. It was not commissioned, the arts community was not anxiously awaiting its completion; he simply and quietly went about building this tribute to the orange because it seemed to him something he should do. He hoped to inspire others to follow his philosophy of hard work and good nutrition.

I heard a great story about McKissack, by the way, that illustrates just how unpretentious, and perhaps uninformed, he really was. The painter, Willem De Kooning, came to view the Orange Show and when McKissack was introduced to him, he asked De Kooning what he did for a living. "I'm a painter," the acclaimed artist said. "Oh, well, they're doing a lot of construction around here," McKissack replied. "You ought to be able to find a lot of work."

Continue on the American Odyssey.
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