5 Houses That Were Also Visionary Artistic Masterpieces

Jed Oelbaum

A house is a hefty medium for an artist to take on, but there’s power in transforming our dwellings, a chance to conquer the constraints of mundane places and create our own small worlds. Most people beautify and personalize their homes, of course, hanging pictures, remodeling rooms, and digging garden beds, all part and parcel with how a place locks into the grind of day-to-day life.

Every once in a while though, someone comes along with a profound vision and unstoppable urge to deconstruct or glorify what a house could, or should be. The five artists below were all driven to express themselves through decades-long quests to radically alter their environments, building complex, highly personal pieces that turn something monotonous into something magical—structures so beautiful or strange that they’d stop passers-by in their tracks.

If, as they say, the medium is the message, then these house-based works also divulge a vision of hearth and home as a space to become our most obsessive, intimate, and fantastic selves.

The Beautiful Holy Jewel Home of the Original Rhinestone Cowboy – Mississippi/Wisconsin

Long before the BeDazzler, glitter-bombing, or Snapchat gem filters, Loy Allen Bowlin was sparkling his way through life as the “Original Rhinestone Cowboy,” covering the surface of everything he could find—from his car to his glasses to his house—with gleaming flair. In 1975, the Mississippi artist found himself electrified by Glen Campbell’s version of “Rhinestone Cowboy,” and adopted a very literal version of its titular character’s persona. Over time, he attracted home visitors who came to hear his stories and take in his works.

Bowlin meticulously decorated almost every inch of his residence—which he called Beautiful Holy Jewel Home of the Original Rhinestone Cowboy—with glitter, collage, and complex, undulating designs. Raw Vision magazine described the house as “a shifting kaleidoscope of glowing colors … a private universe so abstract that eyes and mind struggle to contain it.” After Bowlin died in 1995, his Holy Jewel Home came close to being destroyed, but was rescued at the last minute, and moved to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC) in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Throughout last year, the JMKAC allowed patrons to observe the long, complicated process of restoring Bowlin’s home. It’s currently on view at the JMKAC through January 5, 2019.

Clarence Schmidt’s Miracle on the Mountain – Woodstock, New York

Up in the mountains around Woodstock, Clarence Schmidt found his sacred place, a patch of land he inherited and settled on in 1920 that would be the staging ground for his massive, sprawling architectural works. Schmidt became a local character, a beloved oddball, oracle, and junk collector, gathering wood, car parts, and other scraps around town to build surreal, towering castles among the Catskills woods. Facades of seemingly endless doors and windows crouched on his mountain’s edge, belying passageways and hidden rooms surrounded by grottoes, caves, shrines, and found-object sculpture gardens. It was like stream-of-consciousness architecture: Each piece looked like four different houses had exploded and been haphazardly reincorporated as a single structure, or maybe someone taken the idea of “a house” to its most absurd possible conclusion.

In the ‘60s, Schmidt began to draw the attention of other artists, journalists, and filmmakers, who came to visit what he called his “Dada Taj Mahal.” Authors William Lipke and Gregg Blasdel wrote a book about Schmidt, in which he’s quoted as saying of his career: “I’m a cross between Rip Van Winkle, Paul Bunyan [and] there’s a lot of Robin Hood in me. I became some greater part of this mountain up here. Why, when I walked down the road, the trees bent down on my behalf.”

Throughout the years, whether by the high flammability of his building materials, his habit of working by kerosene lamp, or some kind of cosmic bad luck, Schmidt’s pieces burned to the ground one by one. Though none of them are left standing now, his longest running effort, dubbed The Miracle on the Mountain, is firmly cemented in Upstate lore and Schmidt, though far from a household name, was recognized as a notable and influential outsider artist by academics and historians before his death. For a funny, fascinating, and sometimes-sad portrait of Schmidt, check out the recollections of Tad Wise, a Hudson Valley journalist who grew up knowing the artist.

Maud Lewis’ House – Nova Scotia, Canada

Maud Lewis probably never thought her life would be the subject of a successful film or her paintings would sell for tens of thousands of dollars. But since her death in 1970, the Canadian artist, who led a hard, spare existence and struggled with physical disability, has inspired what Maclean’s once called “Maud mania,” as art institutions and collectors have become increasingly fascinated with her story and work. Lewis’ cheerful depictions of idyllic rural life and the natural world have become prized, with one painting found in a thrift shop selling for $45,000 in an auction earlier this year. The Maudmentum recently culminated in a biopic based on Lewis’ life starring Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins, which focuses on the folk artist’s complicated relationship with her husband. The two shared a one-room home with no running water or electricity, which Lewis painstakingly covered with painted bird, plant, and butterfly designs.

Answering his ad for a maid in 1938, the artist met Everett Lewis, who she’d marry just weeks later. Everett was a gruff fisherman, who was reportedly cruel and miserly, but he met his match in Lewis, who decided that whether he liked it or not, she would paint the house as she pleased. Rarely able to leave because of her excruciating arthritic condition, Lewis lost herself in the work she created in the tiny shack. She began to paint on pretty much anything she could find—from stove to windowpane—and sold her works on the road outside her home. In her later years, when she began receiving some modest art-world attention, the CBC produced a documentary on Lewis. “As long as I’ve got a brush in front of me, I’m all right,” she told the filmmakers in 1965.

Everett may have been looking for a housekeeper when he placed the wanted ad that brought Lewis to him, but instead her painting got their modest abode preserved for the ages: In the late ‘90s, Lewis’ house was restored by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, where it remains on display.

Kirillov’s House – Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia

Sergey Kirillov’s father, the only blacksmith in the Russian village of Kunara, went off to fight in WWII and never came back. And so, at 11 years old, Kirillov took over the family blacksmithing business. Despite his early entry into the trade and the dawn-to-dusk demands of his occupation, Kirillov harbored an artistic drive that wouldn’t bloom until his 20s, when he got married and inherited a dilapidated house from his grandfather.

After fixing up his new home, Kirillov found himself unable to stop building. He crafted florid carvings, sculptures, and other ornamentation to decorate the house, painting it in bright colors that made it look like something out of a fairytale. Among the building’s little towers and figurines, Kirillov included nationalistic and Soviet designs, as well as optimistic slogans like “Fly pigeons, fly. For you, there are no obstacles,” and “Let there always be mothers, let there always be peace.”

Kirillov died in 2001, but the structure’s folk-art appeal still gives travelers a hit of patriotic Russian nostalgia. “We in Russia should be proud of this attraction,” wrote Sergey N. of Moscow, in a March Tripadvisor review. “It is something truly national.”

Heidelberg Project – Detroit, Michigan

A little more than 30 years ago, Tyree Guyton returned from his military service to find his childhood neighborhood in Detroit facing blight, crime, and abandonment. Along with his wife and grandfather, Guyton began the Heidelberg Project, a large-scale, outdoor art installation that would stand against local decline, transforming the block with abstract spectacle, bright colors, and bold political symbolism. Unlike the other entries on this list, the Heidelberg Project is not a single structure; instead it’s a statement on neighborhoods and on housing itself, most recognizable from its epic transformations of empty homes.

Guyton adorned houses with dolls, bicycles, car parts, appliances, and pretty much every other type of household item that could stand in for the type of urban domestic normality Guyton felt was becoming impossible there. “Most of the things used are things that I didn’t have coming up,” Guyton told Newsweek in 1990. “We didn’t have a phone, we didn’t have toys to play with. So a lot of the stuff that I relate to is stuff that has played a part in my life—stuff that I didn’t have, stuff that I wanted.”

For years, the Heidelberg Project has been drawing thousands of tourists to the area, but recognition was an uphill battle for Guyton—other neighborhood residents condemned his found-object, garbage-incorporating efforts as adding to local blight. (Though Guyton is fond of painting cheerful polka dot designs, his installations could also be dark and imposing—like his Babydoll House, covered in damaged and dismembered dolls, meant to represent missing and abused children.) A string of Detroit mayors fought the Heidelberg Project’s growth, razing Guyton’s adopted houses and other installations, claiming the works were not art, and citing their frequent location on city property. Even more challenging has been the shocking string of at least 12 suspected arsons that burned down large chunks of Guyton’s sites.

Last year, Guyton announced he would begin dismantling the Heidelberg Project—though he hinted it would eventually return in some yet undisclosed form.