No place like home

May 19, 2010 at 12:00 am

The road winds past crowded gardens and flowering trees, past the horse barn and the pool, and up to the gated mansion.

It's a beautiful place for someone to call home. The main house has 16 rooms, a wide balcony on the second floor, plush furniture on hardwood floors, and lots of space in which to wander and get lost. 

This is Jother Woods' dream home. And he will never live here. 

All of it — the sprawling lawns, the big house with the white columns, the evergreens and the colorful flowers — are barely a foot high. 

"This is my imaginary estate," Woods says, proudly. He's 81 and a spindle of a man — tall and lanky with long limbs. He's dreamed of this place since he was a child growing up poor in the Louisiana countryside. And since he was never able to own such a home in real life, he created it as a piece of art. 

The project, which he named "Plantation House," grew piece by piece over the course of three decades. It started with his dream house and spread outward until it became a landscape 52 feet long and 6 feet wide.

It's like nothing else. It's deep and rich and thick with details and surprises. Everything in it is made from someone else's trash, from the house and the barns down to the tiny furniture inside and the shrubs and flowers bordering the roads that bend through the plantation.

The trees are made from the branches of a plastic Christmas tree that Woods found lying in the road. The swimming pools are ice cube holders from old freezers, which he fills with water. The gates were once air-conditioner grates, and knobs from kitchen faucets are turned over and made into planters that flank the mansion's doors. Its blueprints are drawn on an old roll-up shade.

Woods takes anyone who visits his house on a tour of it like he would an actual home, pointing out what each piece of Plantation House was before he found it discarded somewhere and made it useful again. "There's parking coming in off the highway," he notes, his finger tracing its path. "You cross the bridge, boathouses, boatyard, and then you're in the garden. ..." 

The project's so big there's no room to keep it in one piece. For now he's got much of it set up in his cinderblock basement, in the dark, waiting to be shown off. Several panels are detached and stacked against his basement walls or stored in upstairs bedrooms.

"... the garden house is here, I put my garden tools in there, and this is just for relaxing," he says of the patio. "I got beautiful outdoor furniture here. And you see the winding private road coming around ..."

As he talks, you can sense how this idea grew, layer by layer, in the mind of a kid born in a shack on a farm, dreaming of a better life someday.

Woods grew up
during the Depression in Horse Shoe Lake, La. "Nothing but cotton fields, corn and a river," he says. The family lived in an old wood house, where Woods shared a small bedroom with five snoring brothers crowded into two beds. Their father was a sharecropper.

The garbage provided most of the family's belongings. "We would just mostly search out white people's trash and throwaways, so I've been into recycling for over 60 years," he says, without sarcasm. Back then, down there, people just threw their garbage in ditches along the side of the road, he says. He and his brothers would climb down and sift through the refuse — from the better parts of their segregated town — for salvageable toys. 

"Those little white kids had the trappings we never thought of, like old beat-up bikes, scooters, tricycles, and little old trucks and things like that that were almost a mystery to us, you know, 'cause we were used to getting half an apple, half an orange and maybe one piece of peppermint stick. That was our Christmas most years. Not much, I tell you."

Some days, he'd walk up the road and see, off in the distance, the rambling plantations that contrasted so sharply with the tin-roof hovels he and his neighbors lived in.

"The big plantation owners, they had those big houses and all of the trees and pecan orchards and the big house way back off the road," he recalls. "I said I am going to create my version of my personal country estate, however long it takes."

His vision started humbly. "I didn't even have pencil and paper," he says. "I didn't know what that was, so I got a stick, maybe like a grapevine or something, and I would stand out in the dirt road and I would draw in the dirt." He made images of the cars that passed by, and outlines of those big mansions, fantasy images of a world that was itself almost a fantasy.

He later joined two brothers who'd already moved to Detroit, got a job in a car plant, did some landscaping and some wall sign painting, all while still salvaging things. He began creating art out of the found pieces. 

"I had the blessing of being born an artist," he says. "I could draw, that's all I knew. I would take my stick and draw this big house and this car. Finally I said I should be able to make this."

It all started
with a little wooden car. Woods carved his dream auto out of a solid block of wood, a blend of the era's car styles and models in his head. It was so impressive it landed him a job.

"I got the privilege of being interviewed at Parks and Recreation to teach arts and crafts," he says. In lieu of a résumé, he gave them the hand-carved car to look over. "That was my ace in the hole, to prove my ability to teach, and that's how I got the job, that little green car." 

To protect it, he built a portable container that was fashioned into a garage with a handle. Then he made a breezeway. And a sunroom. Then, he figured, what's a garage without a home attached to it? 

From there he couldn't stop adding to it — gardens, pools, guest houses. It became an imaginary home, with plenty of room for everyone, where nobody would have to share a tiny bedroom with five snoring brothers.

His Detroit home
is nothing like his dream estate.

He lives in the lower flat of a west side duplex that overflows with his artwork — models of semi trucks made from stray pieces of wood, a series of framed drawings of rotting sharecropper homes posted gallery-style on a wall, big lamps made out of industrial scraps, a dollhouse model of the shotgun shack he grew up in, and panels of his dream world stacked throughout the house, ready to be reassembled.

It's been exhibited over the years at the Southgate Civic Center, at the Somerset Mall, and most prestigiously at the Charles Wright Museum of African American History a decade ago. He's hoping for one more big show, one that will earn him enough money to go back home for good. 

He accepted long ago that he'll never live on such an estate, part of why his dream spilled into his art. Now he just wants the humid air and the long summers of the South, no matter the size of his house. After nearly a lifetime in Detroit, he still misses Louisiana.

 "I still want to go back and live my life out back there," he says. "I just need the wherewithal. If I could get a long-term exhibition or sell it I would leave tomorrow." 

He looks over the whole landscape of his project, a life's dream so big no room can hold it. "But I would miss it tremendously. I love it."

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]