Tucked in the midst of an older community of aging and graying shotgun houses in Houston’s Third Ward, the house of Cleveland Turner, the “Flower Man,” stands apart like a huge parrot in a tree filled with sparrows. The corner on which Turner’s house sits is a raucous display of color and texture that grabs the attention of anyone driving past on Elgin Street. Mirrors, horses, flowers faux and real, Mickey Mouse, two versions of the Last Supper, two Santa Clauses with brown-painted faces, European knights in armor, and toy train engines attach to the building in unpredictable formations; three full packages of lipsticks in an array of reds and browns adorn the west wall. Clocks of all types, none of which work, are displayed in abundance, serving as reminders of our own destiny. The artist does not impose on us how we should choose to spend our time or define joy; he simply offers up his own version of everyday pleasure, as van Gogh did with his sunflowers. It all resembles an ocean liner on its way to a Caribbean festival, or a Mardi Gras float.
Cleveland Turner was “practically born in the cotton field” in 1943, in a small farming community outside Jackson, Mississippi. Like many African Americans in Mississippi and Louisiana, Turner decided as a teenager to move to California, and like many of them in the 1950s, he discontinued his journey when he reached Texas. After holding numerous jobs, a disabling construction-site injury in 1970, and a subsequent bout with alcoholism, triggered his decline. As Turner puts it, he became a “weed-patch drinker,” raising money for his next drink by selling soda bottles and junk iron. “I was uncivilized,” he says. In 1983, Turner was found near death, dehydrated, lying on a sidewalk. During his ensuing five-week stay in the hospital, Turner had time to reflect. “This big, pretty thing going around and around like a whirlwind, all colors, like in outer space, with people watching, all came to me in a vision,” he recalls. He made a vow that if he could remain sober, he would create a house that honored God and replicated that beautiful vision.
A “yardman” by day, Turner often can be seen now riding his elaborately decorated bicycle, his sunglasses and cap firmly in place. He has fully planted the nooks and crannies of his yard, and the corner land, with cotton, papaya and avocado trees, caladium, hibiscus, snap-dragons, and marigolds. (He had learned the art of gardening from his mother and aunt back in Mississippi.) Constantly looking for fanciful objects to mingle with the plant life, Turner searches the sidewalks for materials, and he recycles items that he has gathered on his bicycle trips through the neighborhood and beyond. He is like a bird nesting, constantly building, adding, finding the perfect twig, embellishing with a glittery something, padding with moss for comfort. He is never at a loss for time to create new images. “I’m going to take time to work on my house,” he says. ‘Wherever I go, I’m looking for something. You never get through with this vision because it always changes.”
The interaction of the work with its environment is an important part of what makes Turner’s corner so appealing. Movement of objects and materials yields an active sense of energy about the space that complements the changing growth patterns of the pocket gardens. A number of objects such as fan blades and pinwheels, commercial fringe and flags, and Christmas tinsel, catch the breeze at the corner and animate the area in a quiet manner. The fluttering leaves of a banana tree add subtle kinetics to the installation.
Though thoroughly covered with festive regalia, the house maintains an aspect of privacy, even secrecy. One cannot tell where the entrance is, there is no clear path to a doorway, and there are no visible windows. All of this lends a sense of spontaneity and confusion that may really be part of the artist’s plan. For a person living alone, this barrier of fanciful constructions becomes a security buffer. The unpredictability of the home’s exterior announces that the artist is a man of mystery, a man that must not be underestimated. Turner, amidst his spreading of joy, is still a private person. He draws attention to himself and then deflects it.
Like many self-taught artists who create yard environments, Turner has had to face opposition from officials who failed to recognize the importance of his creativity. The city cited him for obstructing the curbs with his plants, and there was an effort to force him to dismantle the environment. Fortunately, arts advocates in Houston spoke to the City Council on his behalf, and the citations ceased.
Cleveland Turner is amazed at the interest his house generates. Visitors come from all over the world. Many are seeking special powers from the house. “Some people think its a healing house. People come to me with money asking me to pray for them. I never take their money. I just say, We can pray together and leave the rest up to God.” Other sightseers think that the house is some kind of gift shop or store. “They’ll ask me, Is any of this for sale?’ They just want to take a piece of the house with them.” Turner stands in front of his home, talking proudly of his special place, and waves to people moving through the neighborhood. Strollers who happen by again soon are guaranteed to see an addition to this work in progress.
Quotations are taken from interviews with Cleveland Turner by Alvia Wardlaw in 2001.