Field of dreams

How a self-taught artist and craftsman defines himself through an elaborate dream set in hand-crafted miniatures

Aug 10, 2011 at 12:00 am

Opposite a four-lane highway, an expanse of manicured gardens winds up to a meandering lagoon. A single narrow bridge leads across the water to the neatly trimmed front yard of a 16-room colonial mansion known as Plantation House. Also boasting a pool, security guardhouse, guest residence and helipad, the Plantation House is the residence of worldwide trucking magnate Joseph Pointer Sackall III. After rising from humble beginnings to become a multimillionaire, Sackall returned to his hometown of Monroe, La., to retire on his idyllic country estate, occasionally piloting his helicopter to the roof of his 60-story office tower downtown.

It's a lovely estate, the type of place that an average person could only dream of retiring to. But, the problem is, it lives in someone else's head, in a dream that's gradually more and more focused.

It's a world born of 82-year-old artist Jother Woods. It's his "Plantation House," the backstory to his own dream, to his life, created slowly, over the last 37 years. And it's an epic exercise in miniaturization; a model of a large rural estate painstakingly crafted almost solely from recycled materials.


Tall, slender and slightly stooped with age, Woods shows off his life's work with obvious pride. Soft-spoken but loquacious, he shows an impressive gift of memory as he tells story after story about his childhood and his more recent past, about the construction and design of the Plantation House. Woods is eager to discuss his work with visitors to the N'Namdi Contemporary Art Center, where the house is currently displayed. He greets them graciously, quickly providing detailed answers to questions about his show-stopping construction. "Recycleman," as others sometimes call him, knows that he has created something special, and his enthusiasm is contagious.

The Plantation House, he shows us, extends in a narrow, tabletop strip beginning just before the four-lane highway with a small swatch of wooded land that houses the estate's power shack. Beyond the highway, precisely arranged flowerbeds and tiny clumps of trees make up the Earnestine Robinson Woods Memorial Garden, named in honor of Woods' mother. The security guardhouse is positioned before the lagoon; a boathouse provides access to the water. A series of gates leads up to the front lawn and the main house, located at the mid-point of the work. Its address — 13181 Eagle Path — also honors Woods' mother, marking the date of her death.

Behind the house is a back yard complete with a pool, barbecue pit, children's play area and patio. Farther on sits a toy helicopter on the helipad, the garden house and more gardens. A guesthouse and property manager's residence come next, then a play area and pool for the dogs. From there, Plantation House steps back in time — a two-lane stretch of blacktop road marks the division between the present and 1930s rural Louisiana, the scene of artist Woods' boyhood. Beyond Zeus Road, named for Woods' sharecropper father, a small forest and a dirt road flank a three-room sharecropper's shack, a re-creation of his childhood home. And with that homage to the artist's youth, Plantation House ends.

From a distance, the work appears as a chaotic jumble, but closer inspection reveals an amazing, almost obsessive amount of detail. Tiny handcrafted furniture fills much of the house — the children's area even features a chair slightly larger than the rest, meant for an adult supervisor. Towels hang from a clothesline between the outhouse and the smokehouse of the sharecropper's shack. A neatly arranged woodpile rests on the porch. Wallpaper and carpeting inside the 16 rooms of the main house can only be glimpsed through its many windows. Tractor tracks mark the dirt road, birdbaths are filled with water, deer and chickens wander the grounds, clumps of trees dot the landscape. Toy cars and trucks from resale shops emulate speed on the highway, while three of Joseph Pointer Sackall's semi-trucks — constructed by Woods — also travel past. Lifting one of the trucks' cabs reveals a sleeper compartment for the driver, a detail that could only be revealed by the artist himself.

"All of these are some of my own grand ideas from many years ago of how I would live back in the quiet and stillness of the rural South," Woods says. "When I grew up, I didn't know they called huge houses 'mansions.' I would see these old, big properties — these plantation owners, they'd have these grand houses — and sometimes they'd be back in a pecan orchard so far you couldn't even see the houses," he says. "And I'd say, 'I'm going to have this grand estate one way or another. I'm going to have it in my imagination or I'm going to have it in real life.'"

In the end, Woods mixed personal nostalgia with self-actualization and designed a third option, spending more than three decades creating a replica of his fantasy residence. Even the inclusion of his childhood home, a three-room shotgun shack where he lived with his parents and five brothers, is true to what he envisioned: On visits from Detroit — where moved in 1959 to work in an auto plant — to his home state of Louisiana, Woods would travel past one of the houses that he grew up in. "My dream was to buy enough property and then have that house moved onto the property," he says. "In other words, my property would have been a tourist attraction."

The construction of this grand plan — the mansion, moat, pool, boyhood home — all started with a small green car that Woods began building in 1965. Once completed, the car was a handy way for Woods to show off the artistic skill he'd gained from years of practice, despite a lack of formal arts education. When Woods saw that Detroit's parks and recreation department had received a grant to hire crafts instructors, he applied, and with the help of the little green car, he landed the job. But one unforeseen consequence was the number of people who wanted to get up close and personal with his prize piece of woodwork.

Impressed with its detailed craftsmanship, other instructors and children in class wanted to hold the car, turn it upside down, poke and prod it. Fearful someone would drop it, Woods fashioned a carrying case for his mini ride. Modeled after the simple design of a shoebox, the display case was to be rectangular and glass, allowing the car to be viewed from all angles, while protecting it from clumsy hands. But something happened, an epiphany of sorts:

"In the process of cutting out the pattern, I focused on a shoebox. But for whatever reason I elevated the roof," Woods says. "That's the history of Plantation House. I elevated the roof because, for whatever reason, my mind switched from a carrying case to a garage. And as a result, it was on my dining table for two to three weeks, just the garage. Then all of a sudden I got the vision to do a sunroom with sliding double doors. Two glass sliding doors. So that was pretty good. Then I designed the breezeway. Plantation house! All because of the car."


While the impetus to build Plantation House was his model auto and its garage, its roots go back to Woods' childhood in rural Louisiana, where his inclination for both dreaming and building began at a young age. In the cramped quarters of their sharecroppers shack, he'd lay awake in the room he shared with five brothers, sleeplessly fantasizing and scheming as they snored. When the family got their first radio, he heard for the first time about faraway places that he could only imagine — Boston, New York, L.A. — and he'd lie in bed, picturing himself walking the streets of such exotic cities.

His earliest preoccupations were always houses and cars. Lacking pencil and paper, he'd use a stick to draw in the dirt road outside of the house, refusing to let natural (rain, wind) and immediate (cars) destruction stop him.

He moved from dirt drawing to tracing the mail-order model houses advertised in the weighty Sears catalog, before deciding to abandon tracing in favor of doing his own sketches. He found inspiration in his country surroundings — the farmhouses and the sharecropper's shacks, teaching himself perspective by staring down the dusty dirt road in front of his house.

"I would stand out in the road and I would see how the farther away, the narrower the road seems to become," Woods recalls. "I learned how to make a house look like it's far away, like its five miles down the road."

From sketches, he moved on to actual building with his hands, totally DIY-style, creating a flower garden for his mother from odds and ends that he picked up from the nearby railway. By 10, he was creating model cars from backyard mud, using his grandmother's empty snuff containers to shape the wheels and a kitchen knife loaned to him by his mother to cut them out. Woods says he perfected his talents for building in his late teens and early 20s, when he'd use scrap wood to create small picket fences for flowerbeds and gardens. It was also around that time that he decided to try his hand at sign painting, creating a career for himself as a professional sign painter and decorator.


Self-taught artists who create built environments are not uncommon and often can become quite well-known; look to California's Watts Towers and Detroit's own Heidelberg Project as large-scale examples that evolved from roadside attractions into destination spots for tourists and art lovers. Wisconsin boasts a tradition of vernacular artists who transform back yards, whole houses or large patches of land into fantastical art landscapes. While Woods' Plantation House does not match those works in terms of size, the scope of his vision — the detail, the preciseness — is in every way their equal, or more.

"There are definitely people who have such an imagination that it kind of just grabs hold of them, and they see in such complete detail inside that interior world," says Rebecca Mazzei, deputy director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and curator of the exhibit Homeland, in which Plantation House is currently displayed. (Disclosure: Mazzei was once arts editor of Metro Times.) "That's what interests me about all "outsider" artists — the completeness of the vision, even if it's not yet actualized. You can see that when you're looking at the work. He [Woods] was planning this for so long. Being so detailed, he had to finish it."

According to Mazzei, the term "outsider art" — which Woods uses to describe his own work — was coined to describe a number of different types of art in different eras. In the arts, it often describes self-taught artists who toil in the fringes, outside the "mainstream." Woods is definitely outside the mainstream and the realm where art is doted on in galleries.

Mazzei says, "He's driven by something else entirely." And she suspects there are more artists like Woods in Detroit than most realize. "My hunch is there are a lot of artists working in Detroit who have not seen recognition for their work because they're not part of any circuit," she says. "Probably more people in the city than we think have this kind of imagination. It's easy to assume because we don't have the best schooling for artists that that doesn't exist, but there are other ways to become an artistic talent than going to school. A lot of people do it by playing around and being resourceful."

History has taught us that much of the world's best art has risen from a need to be resourceful rather than affording art school. Necessity is, of course, the mother of all invention, and the Plantation House wasn't created out of desire as much as it was created out of need.

And Woods, whose only formal arts education was one two-hour class at a gallery in his hometown, was nothing if not resourceful with Plantation House. And it's when revealing those surprises — the way that trash and junk are transformed into parts of his miniature home, their true form becoming unrecognizable — that he becomes most animated. He takes delight in his audience's surprise, the almost childlike wonder on viewers' faces when they realize that a birdbath is actually the base of an old lamp, a piece of gate is actually a cut-up milk crate. Woods traces his penchant for recycling to his boyhood flower gardens and model cars; indeed, one man's junk is another man's treasure. He sees value in almost everything he stumbles upon; a pile of junk isn't just an artistic opportunity, but also an object of intrinsic worth and beauty. And that's where the vision is.

"I could tell you just how much a pile of trash is valued. Just a small one is probably $500 lying right there on the sidewalk. Or $5,000," he says. Adding, with a casual wave at Plantation House, "Look at this. This would be in a landfill right now."

It's not an exaggeration. The bits and pieces that — thanks to 36 gallons of glue and more than 100 tubes of superglue — make up Plantation House are mostly materials others tossed away. And Woods' excellent memory is best displayed when cataloging detailed components of the work, describing not just what an item is made of, but exactly when and where he found it.

For example, Woods found an old fan belt that became part of a decorative garden display. A shopping cart wheel, also part of a garden display, was from a visit to the supermarket, found on a broken cart.

Woods admits that he sometimes hangs on to old objects longer than he should, his entire house turned into his studio, waiting for the day when he can use them in Plantation House.

He's almost famous in his west side neighborhood too; he tells of folks appearing at his door, looking to foist their junk off on "Recycleman." He usually says thanks, but no thanks. He finds enough stuff on his own.

Pop cans have become fuel tanks for the tractors. An old earring serves as the hood ornament on the little green car. Spark plugs are smokestacks. Part of a stethoscope is a satellite dish. The hot and cold handles from a shower faucet became flower pots. The helipad is constructed from an exercise bike wheel, a string of beads from pre-Katrina New Orleans and the wheel cover from Woods' own '66 Mustang Pony, stolen and recovered with only one hubcap remaining. When Woods' daughter bought a new refrigerator, he gladly took the old one, transforming one ice cube tray into a boat, another into a pool and cutting the racks into support railings. Part of his daughter's old air conditioner also makes an appearance as the entrance to a room at the back of the house known as the pool room. A baby crib dumped in the vacant lot behind Woods' house was cut up to construct part of a patio. Even parts of Plantation House are recycled into itself — Woods used the wood he cut out of the base to create the lagoon to fashion shingles for some of the buildings' roofs.

Wristwatch batteries, umbrellas, picture frames, old pliers, hearing aid batteries, paper clips, a battery cable — the objects are as varied as the ones in a garbage pile should be. Their value is not just granted by what Woods builds from them, but also what he saves because of them. The artist says one of his main goals with Plantation House was to spend as little as money as possible, it's a rule he has strictly adhered to: Rather than spend $24 on shingles from the dollhouse store, he cut each one individually and glued them by hand.

Woods was prepared to blow a grand or more on landscaping. But as he was driving down the road four blocks from his house, he swerved to avoid a discarded Christmas tree that had blown to the center of the road. He found himself pulling to the shoulder and putting the tree in his truck. He cut it into different size trees and shrubs, spray painted some, submerged others into boiling water so he could easily bend them into different shapes. And so Plantation House was landscaped for free.

Woods' life and the Plantation House are closely intertwined; in fact the word Woods uses most often is "vision." As a young boy, he had a "vision" that he be able to draw, though he didn't own a pencil. He started building models because he had a "vision" that he should be able to make the things that he drew. He created cars from clay because he had a "vision" of what cars should look like that did not match the ones he saw on the road. He had a "vision" that he should become a sign painter, even though he had no experience. When he sees discarded items, he has a "vision" of their worth. When building a carrier for his car, he had a "vision" to make it a garage — a vision that resulted in this impressive manifestation of his most detailed and desired dream.

The Plantation House has only been on display four times in its history, and each time it has become larger and more exact, closer to that which only Woods can see. True construction of the house began in 1977. By '83, when it was exhibited in public for the first time, in Somerset Mall, it was 28 feet long. In 1993, it measured 36 feet, in 2000 it was 48 feet.

Plantation House is now 52 feet long, displayed a mere half block away from where Woods began building it in his first home in Detroit, at Forest and John R. When Woods pulled up to that apartment in 1959, one of the thousands of African-Americans who left the rural South in search of a better life in the North, he was already trying to figure out a way he could move back to Louisiana. He imagined making millions and settling in a grand home. The millions never came, but the vision remained, and with the resourcefulness and dedication he applied to all his other ideas, from drawing to building to sign painting, he made it come true.

As committed as Woods is to Plantation House, describing how some weeks he worked as many as 70 hours on it, he also talks of selling it. "What am I going to be doing with it at 82?" he asks with a laugh. But in virtually the next breath, he describes how his vision continues to grow. He wants to build a replica of the church he attended as a boy, leaving one wall off so viewers can glimpse the clay parishioners in the pews. He wants to build the general store from his youth, and have dolls made to represent his imaginary inhabitants of Plantation House, Joseph Pointer Sackall III and his family. An even more distant fantasy is to build another house on the other side of the four-lane highway, the residence of Sackall's brother.

But the work is already difficult for galleries to display. Even with Woods' instructions on how to assemble it (sketched on old window shades, of course), it takes almost an hour to set up, not including transport, and its size is prohibitive. But when it was only seven ft. long, folks were already saying it was too large, and Woods didn't let that stop him: "I refuse to let what someone else says affect what I do," he says. "I'm going to do Plantation House my way, no matter how long it takes."

In Woods' mind, Plantation House has already expanded, stretched outside the front window of N'Namdi, across Forest Avenue into the parking lot of the church across the street. Granted enough time and enough trash, there's no doubt that he could make that vision come true.

Plantation House displays as part of the exhibit Homeland through Aug. 20, at the N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, 52 E. Forest Ave., Detroit; 313-831-8700;