This presentation is part of the Are We There Yet: Preservation of Roadside Architecture and Attractions, April 10-12, 2018, Tulsa, Oklahoma


Speaker standing at the podium

Erin Turner

Erin Turner:  Great. Thank you. Hi. I am going to be speaking, excuse me, about grassroots art environments or visionary environments, which are collections of immobile constructions or decorative assemblages created by self-taught artists and/or craftsmen made from a variety of surplus materials that are easily found or collected.

This is a photograph of the Totem Pole Park, an old postcard, in fact. These environments are found all over the world in a variety of shapes, sizes, and materials often built to a monumental scale. The visionaries behind such environments are oftentimes solitary humans on the fringes of society, creating transformative environmental works that speak to the reality of a society creating or excuse me, of marginalized human experience.

In the American context, the visionary voices behind such environments include mentally ill immigrants, African-Americans, the poor, women, homosexuals, elderly, born-again Christians and other marginalized populations.

Here are some examples. This is in Los Angeles, California, the Watts Towers. This is not far. It’s located in Lucas, Kansas, the Garden of Eden, which utilizes concrete primarily. And Eddie Owens, Martin’s Pasaquan in Georgia.

Although these works encompass a multitude of perspectives, we can still look at trends that exist within this genre to understand the importance of their function in our society and about a history that is oftentimes ignored.

By taking measures to preserve these creations, we can fortify a history of multiple dimensions of the American experience. However, due to the unconventional attributes, atypical locations, and immobile nature of many of these grassroots art environments, preservation is challenging for a variety of reasons, including funding, public perception and the understanding of the historical context of such sites.

This is another view of the Totem Pole Park, and an older view. So this restoration project is currently underway at the Ed Galloway Totem Pole Park, just three miles east of Route 66 in Foyil, Oklahoma. Built between 1937 and 1948, it’s the vision of its namesake and includes large and small concrete structures, hand-built and carved with bas-relief embellishments depicting animals, creatures and Native American portraits.

The site is a creation of a poor American man from rural Missouri and Oklahoma whose sculptural works monumentalized both the American Indian and the natural world. Born in 1880, he offers us an interesting point of view, one that saw the shift in social history from Indian territory to Oklahoma statehood and who clearly understood the importance of celebrating those cultures, which were on this land first.

This is a photograph of Ed Galloway in his studio, which we will also be visiting today. He was a craftsman and an artist from a very young age and after serving two years in the Philippine-American War, he was discharged in May, 1904.

He swiftly began to create larger carvings and sculptures. The influence of Eastern art from his time in the Philippines is apparent in his relief in lay woodwork, ranges in sizes from very small items to very large figures. Such as this beautiful piece, which is from about 1913 and he at one point was working in a studio for an exhibition and there was a fire that caught in a neighboring studio. So this sculpture, it was the only one that he was able to save and he pushed it out of a window. It rolled down the street and to this day you can see little pot marks from the road.

Here’s another sculpture. So his interest in woodworking developed into a long teaching career. For over 20 years, he taught manual arts and woodworking to orphan boys at the Sand Springs Home just west of Tulsa. Although he made only a meager wage, he was devoted to helping those who had less means than himself. This perspective was not only his way of life, but would also become the mission of the Ed Galloway Totem Pole Park.

After Galloway’s retirement at the Sand Springs Home in 1937, he began to utilize concrete as a material for his art objects. This is another view of the Garden of Eden, which is found in Kansas. Concrete had become popular in the early 20th century and was both widely available and cheap due to the opening of many Portland cement factories across the United States.

Kansas became the fourth largest producer of Portland cement in North America and throughout the Midwest, there was ample supply of the minerals necessary to make cement limestone and shale. Natural gas fueled production, which Kansas and Oklahoma had an abundant supply of, and concrete was shipped from the plants via railway, often widely distributed.

Its weatherproof properties enabled large-scale construction in a short amount of time and with amazing durability. From the increased availability of this material, came a rise in concrete art environments. These environments popped up across the Midwest following the popularization of concrete as a new material.

Ed and his wife, Villie bought land near Foyil, Oklahoma in the early 1920s. There, Ed built a very small house where he and Villie would live for the remainder of their lives. Shortly thereafter, he began constructing a turtle body from a large outcropping of sandstone near his new home. So this is an early photograph of the construction of the Totem Pole.

It is all concrete, but there was an original outcropping that this is built on top of. So on the back of this turtle island, he would spend the next 11 years building a 72-foot tall totem pole, all in bas-relief, adorned with over 200 fastidiously hand-carved animals, creatures, and portraits of American Indians.

At the pinnacle of the totem stand four and nine-foot tall, full figure Indian chiefs. “Looking into the rising sun.” This is a quote from an early article from Claremore, “Looking into the rising sun is the peacemaker, Chief Joseph, Nez Perce. Ominously watching the setting sun is the stalwart Apache Warrior, Geronimo. Gazing severely yet serenely to the northward is the champion of the historic battle of Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull, chief of the Sioux. And the grave intelligent man with the winning personality chief of the Comanches, Quannah Parker. The eagle scans the horizon into the Lone Star state and all the Southland.” Apparently, Ed had used a lot of National Geographic’s and other photographs to build these relieved images into the side of his concrete.

The Totem Pole Park is a monument to the American Indian and the natural world. And although totems are traditionally produced by tribes along the northwest coast of the United States and Canada, Ed took care to include a variety of significant Native American figures and tribes represented figuratively, symbolically and architecturally through the park.

So here you see, you know, kind of the traditional totem from the Northwest. And this is a representation found in the Ed Galloway Totem Pole Park of more of a traditional aesthetic. However, you see a lot of different tribes represented. So this is a large arrowhead flanked on one side by Oklahoma’s five civilized tribes, the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole, and on the opposite, Western tribes. Important figures from four distinct plains tribes look out from the top of the large totem and representations of the Omaha, Kickapoo and Mandan tribes have been identified, as well.

The Fiddle House is an 11-sided building inspired by the Navajo Hogan. This structure acted as a workshop, studio and exhibition space open to people visiting the Totem Pole Park. Over 400 fiddles and other inlaid carvings were on display. Preceding Galloway’s death, the park slowly fell into neglect and several hundred fiddles were stolen, never to be recuperated. Presently, 135 fiddles hang on display in the Fiddle House for the flocks of tourists who visit every day.

As the iconic Route 66 became an attraction in the 50s, Galloway saw an opportunity to share his park with passersby and place signs along the highway directing them towards the Totem Pole Park. A number of newspaper articles brought local visitors while Route 66 attracted people from all over the world.

Galloway built picnic tables and a barbecue so that people would stay and utilize the park from the beginning of its existence. This park has been free and open to the public 365 days a year.

After Galloway’s death in ’62 the park became overgrown with weeds and the sun bleached the paint on the surfaces. In the early 80s, the Kansas Grassroots Arts Association became interested in the totem and began the long process of restoration and preservation.The group based in Lawrence, Kansas, poured through piles of old photographs to determine how the totem was once painted, as the paint at this point was weathered completely.

They conversed with local residents about the brilliance of the colors and analyzed paint chips, worked with local paint companies that had been in operation during the 40s and 50s and identified 18 colors, which reflected popular hues of the era, that matched two paint chips that they found on both the inside of the fiddle house and on the exterior structures.

This is a photograph. You can see complete decay on the interior of the totem. This totem is an exterior structure, but you can enter into it and at one point there were seven different levels that you could climb up into.

Instead of using a lead-based paint like that which Ed Galloway would have used, they switched the material to modern acrylic paint based on consultations with conservators at the time. The work that the KGAA did to recover the paint scheme is irreplaceable and is the only compiled record of what is considered the original color palette.

So this is our color palette that we implemented based on the original colors that they had used. And these are some of the original diagrams that the KGAA had built to reconstruct the 18 colors. These hand-drawn diagrams indicated the color codes of each of the figures on a paint-by-number graphic used for accuracy.

This volunteer restoration project would take over 16 years to complete, which included research, fundraising, stabilization and restoration. The Rogers County Historical Society would buy the property and eventually take ownership of the totem in 1992 in collaboration with the KGAA, Joy Galloway and the Rogers County Historical Society.

In 1999, after two previous rejections, the Ed Galloway Totem Pole Park joined the national register of historic places. Virginia Klugloff repainted the lower third of the totem in 2009 but this still left over 50 feet badly in need of a facelift. In 2014 a new conservation effort began spearheaded by myself and Margo Hoover and overseen by directors of the Totem Pole Park, Patsy and David Anderson and the Rogers County Historical Society. It’s needless to say that the groundwork laid by the KGAA has been invaluable to our preservation efforts.

Spaces has also been integral to our preservation plan. Spaces is a nonprofit public benefit organization created with an international focus on the study, documentation and preservation of art environments and self-taught artistic activity. Spaces’ founder, Seymour Rosen, was instrumental in providing grassroots art environments. Introducing, excuse me, grassroots art environments as a genre to the world. His life was dedicated to the documentation of art environments and he visited the Totem Pole Park in 1981 to photograph the then weathered and decrepit structures.

This was the interior of the Fiddle House. You can see their murals all lining the inside walls. This is the exterior of the the Fiddle House. This is the top, the Indian, full-figure Indian chiefs that you saw on an earlier slide, and our beloved giant face.

Rosen’s 22,000 photographs initiated the Spaces Archive, which is now recognized as the most extensive archive of art environments. Spaces Archive presently provides information on over 1200 art environments located all over the world. We have been dedicated to grow the online archive of the Totem Pole Park at Spaces Archive by digitizing all photographs, both archival and present, preservation diagrams and other pertinent information.

We believe that contributing this information to the public domain will ensure future grassroots conservation and provide greater protection for the Totem Pole Park. Spaces provides extensive resources for preservation of concrete art structures, and we decided to switch the paint from latex to a silicate-based paint, also the KEIM mineral coatings that Kelly had mentioned earlier.

After consultation with Spaces and KEIM, this mineral-based paint petrifies into the concrete substrate through natural chemical bond. The paint is environmentally safe, anti-static, keeping the surface clean. The color is unaffected by UV rays and will not fade in the sun. Water vapor permeable allowing the surface to breathe, which is important as a concrete material. Non-film forming, which means it won’t peel, water repellent, does not contain solvents and plasticizers and is algae and fungi resistant. This paint lasts more than double the time that latex would in the same circumstances. The variety of colors available is limited due to the constraints of mineral hues, but we were still able to closely match the original latex colors with a thorough process.

So this is before we started painting, so you can see that the latex paint was already starting to peel. We’ve currently completed two phases of the restoration, which includes the top two thirds of the structure. The surface was cleaned down to the concrete substrate using a low pressure power wash, working in small sections so that the concrete would not be left bare for extended periods of time.

In areas where we found exposed metal, we cleaned and coated with a rust coating. In other areas where there was damaged concrete, we patched and repaired. So this is the face currently, and these are kind of a series of before and after photos. This is one of my favorites. And I believe that’s Steven Anderson, the director of the Totem Pole Park at the top there.

So this restoration project has been supported through small fundraisers, including local asks, the Annual Totem Pole Barbecue, a Kickstarter campaign, and donations made to the gift shop. We’re currently in the process of another round of fundraising for the next phases of the restoration project, and I’ll be passing a hat around soon. We’re applying for grants that will supply more money to help complete the restoration of the large totem, remaining structures in the park and the Fiddle House.

The next phase of the project is to remove the latex paint from the lower 25 feet of the totem, the large totem, and replace it with the silicate-based paint. It’s important to complete this phase as soon as possible so that the age of the paint is consistent throughout the entire structure.

Phase Four will replace the paint on the other structures around the park. These include the Arrowhead, which I’m painting here, the picnic tables. This is a large concrete tree. There’s a view from atop lift, looking down at the tree next to Mimosa. Some fences, some smaller totems, the facade of the Fiddle House.

During this phase we’re excited to engage with community members for hands-on support. I’m actually going to go back here. We hope to offer a class on grassroots art environments at a local university. Students will learn about visionary environments through a hands-on approach by participating in the restoration project.

This class will build community involvement by engaging students to be empowered to protect regional treasures and take ownership of the future of the park. We believe that by involving people directly, we will be able to educate not only on the Totem Pole Park, but about the relevance and importance of other grassroots art environments. We believe that by promoting a national context for these art environments, this will help in the evaluation and preservation of many other visionary art environments.

The last phase of the project focuses on the interior of the Fiddle House. Wooden art objects, old photographs remaining fiddles and other displays from the Ed Galloway’s life are currently exhibited here. We’d like to stabilize the archival prints, design a better display for the museum, create an educational component available for visitors and school groups and digitize all information available on the park and the preservation process.

As Galloway was committed to the education of children, we would like to promote this mission at the Totem Pole Park. We’re working with educators to develop curriculum focused on cultural history and creative activities, as well as developing a walking tour for visitors. By focusing on education as a mission, we also believe that the Fiddle House could operate as a small library focused on visionary art environments, Oklahoma history and Native American tribes.

The small reading area would not only give context to the Totem Pole Park, but also create a resource for those interested in the preservation of such sites. Included in this last phase is a digital open-access web source to host all pertinent information on the Totem Pole Park and the restoration process. We feel that making these resources available for future generations will further protect and promote the survival of these amazing visionary environments.

We not only will work with Spaces Archives on this project to digitally display Ed Galloway’s Totem Pole Park, but we’ll also push other digital content that will exist in the public domain. We’d like to promote more pride and understanding about the importance of visionary art environments and to make the Totem Pole Park a site for education on not only Ed Galloway’s life and art, but also on the genre and importance of these sites as American treasures and non-institutionalized art practices.

With this project, we promote rural American perspective and vision, folk history, Native American cultural history, the importance of the natural world and grassroots community initiatives. Throughout this project, we’ve been committed to furthering the mission of Ed Galloway, Seymour Rosen and the Kansas Grassroots Art Association.

Ed Galloway built this park to be free and open to the public 365 days a year so that anyone could enjoy his creations in nature. He was not only committed to the education of all children, especially those who experienced adversity in their lives, but also to the education and monumentalization of all Native American tribes.

The KGAA was committed to fostering community support and understanding local, and ensuring local understanding on the importance of these sites. It is our goal to completely restore the Totem Pole Park and structures, promote education by offering rich curriculum, and demonstrate commitment to the indigenous communities who persist in Oklahoma.

Part of the realization of this goal is to establish relationships with more Native American artisans and to sell their handiwork in the Fiddle House. The other aspect of the school is to continue to educate visitors about not only the history of Native America, but also the vibrant present and future of these tribes and the role they have in Oklahoma and the nation at large.

That’s it.

Mary Striegel:    Thank you. Remember we’re going here today on our field trip, which will be fabulous. Do we have questions?

Speaker 1:  Thanks. Hi. Thank you for that. It was a nice comparison. What repair materials did you use for … You said you did some patch repairs where there were losses.

Erin Turner: Yeah, so there were very minimal losses and cracks and we, you know, by talking with KEIM, they recommended different concrete mortar mixes to use in certain instances. So we worked with them really directly through very specific sites along the sculpture.

Speaker 1:    Okay, great. Thanks.

Mary Striegel:  I have a question. How are the silicate paints holding up thus far?

Erin Turner: Well, that would be a question that David Anderson could answer. I haven’t been out there in two years.

Mary Striegel:  David, I’m bringing you the microphone.

David Anderson: Well, they’re essentially just as brilliant as they were a couple of years ago when you put them up. I’ve been looking to see if there’s any fading, particularly on the south side, and so far so good. They’re looking really good. You’ll be able to see that this afternoon.

Mary Striegel:  Thank you. The reason I ask is because we get lots of questions about silicate paints and we have not done research on them, so we’re curious. Other questions? Here we go.

Speaker 2:   Hi. I was curious what led you to want to spearhead the restoration effort? If you had maybe childhood memories of the park or?

Erin Turner: Yeah, no, actually, this is part of the reason why I became so kind of enthusiastic about this. I grew up in Oklahoma. I currently live in New York City and was back visiting a family friend who’s another artist, and I was in his studio and I’ve gone to his studio years and years and years, and seeing these photographs that I didn’t really ever ask about, that were old archival photographs of the Totem Pole.

And so, I think in 2013 or 2014 we were in his studio talking and he was like, “You’ve never been here before?” And I was shocked that I didn’t know about this place because I think it’s so amazing. And so we took a trip out there and, very kind of off the cuff, the woman at the gift shop was like, “They’ve been trying to find somebody to paint this thing for years.”

And I was like, “I’ll do it.” So from there, you know, we started the conversations with David and Patsy Anderson and the Historical Society and built a restoration plan and spoke with a number of different consultants on how best to go about this project. And so that’s how it started.

But you know, that’s also why I think it’s important to have like a big educational component because, as an artist who grew up in Oklahoma and didn’t hear about this, I think that having access to the site for a broad spectrum of people is really important.

Speaker 2:  Cool. I had a quick follow-up question too. So I’ve heard the term “outsider artist” and “outsider art” used a lot and then I’ve also seen that that could be problematic. Is visionary art a term that has maybe come to replace outsider art? Or do you have any-

Erin Turner:  Yeah, so there are at least 10 different terms and they’re kind of interchangeable. So art brut was the first term that was used and this came about in the 40s from another artist who kind of took inspiration from these people who are not trained in art traditionally, from an institutionalized kind of perspective.

Outsider art is still very widely used, although I find it problematic because now the art world has grabbed onto the term outsider art. You can go to an outsider art fair, which I think is kind of polar opposite. So obviously, the art world is constantly kind of cannibalizing things and this is one of them. With these sites in particular, for a while, folk art environments was used, visionary art environments, grassroots art environment is a term that I think is the best to use for these sites because with folk art traditions or with folk art, tradition is very much a part of that word. You have a number of people who use a similar tradition to create a folk art, whereas these people are clearly like singular visionaries of a specific aesthetic that they choose to implement. So I prefer grassroots art environment, but there is no term that’s kind of better than another.

Speaker 2:  Thanks. Yeah.

Mary Striegel:   Any other questions? One last question from me. How many visitors do you average monthly or yearly?

Erin Turner:  Well, I’ll let David answer, but I do know their gift shop is open five hours a day. So that’s how they’re able to monitor the number of visitors, which leaves out a number of others who have kind of gone to the park outside of those hours. And as I have worked on the totem, you know, dozens and dozens come each day for sure.

Mary Striegel:  Okay.

David Anderson:   Like Erin said, we do keep track, tried to keep track of people that come, but they only document our guest sheet in the afternoon. So I think we probably miss about half of them. We will have 10,000 people that’ll come through that we can document or close to it, between 900, 10,000 people.

It’s interesting, one of the things that interested us when we first started doing this, is the number of out-of-the country people. It is absolutely amazing, and we’ll have over a thousand of those that’ll be from other countries. It’s always a … Great Britain is always leading. Usually, it’s Germany the second, although they were beat out this year.

My wife and I a couple of years ago, we’re in downtown Rome and we’re walking along in the evening and here, a Route 66 cafe in downtown Rome, I actually took a picture of it. It’s just amazing. In the fall we will have tours, a lot of times from different countries. There’ll be a whole tour bus comes through, different countries, very, very popular outside the United States.

Mary Striegel:  And do you take donations at the park?

David Anderson:  We most certainly do.

Mary Striegel:    They take donations at the park. Okay. We’ll remember that.

Speaker 3:  I just have a question about the cultural context of the site. Similar to Civil War monuments, sites like this are under some scrutiny for representation or misrepresentation of tribal culture. And so my question is, have you engaged with tribes to understand their perspective and incorporated that, or had a chance to incorporate that into your interpretation?

Erin Turner: Again, I’ll direct this towards David, but the Cherokee tribe has given us significant donations for this project. And you know, in terms of the interior of the Fiddle House, there are some artisans that are being, that the handicraft is being sold. And this site itself kind of falls under, I think kind of a tribute to and monumentalization of American Indian as an important presence in our country.

So outside of that, one of my personal goals is to really reach out and engage more of the Native communities in Oklahoma and around to really provide their own information. And that’s where the component of the library, I think is really important to provide context for what we’re looking at and how we’re looking at it. This is a question that artists are constantly given, how do we look at something from a historical perspective in new eyes? And that’s constantly something that we are trying to implement in our restoration goal.

David Anderson:  I’ll address that because that that is really an interesting question, particularly about the Totem Pole itself. We were given good, good donations by the Cherokee people. I happen to be part Cherokee myself and most people, and when I talk about this, I represent as a man who although it’s controversial, he probably was no part Native American.

But he really valued that. We have a quote from him that says he wanted people to know there were people here before us, before the Europeans. So most people understand that and value it. We have run onto some purists, for example, they’ll say, “Well now here, this is supposed to be Cherokee,” and they have a headdress on, Cherokees, didn’t wear headdresses, and that’s true.

So we have had some criticism from Native American leaders because it’s not authentic. So both happens, there’s appreciation of it and there’s some people would criticize it.

Erin Turner: Well and I will add, there is, I think many if not all portraits that were taken of Native Americans in the late 19th century and early 20th century were to … I mean, Edward Curtis was kind of the biggest, the guy who did this the most but would actually photograph the Native American in their cultural context and bring props to add to the body in the studio, to make it look more Indian. Removing any kind of Western influence from that. So this is a tradition that unfortunately has prevailed through most photographic representation of Native Americans and it’s something that we definitely need to address, always I think. Is you know, how do we be as respectful as possible? And the people who are being represented, what is their agency in that and how do they want to be represented?

Mary Striegel:  Debbie, last question.

Debbie Smith:  We had a presentation yesterday morning, Dylan Thuras from Atlas Obscura. Do you know if you’re listed in Atlas Obscura?

Erin Turner: I do not know.

Debbie Smith: It would be something to look into because of your foreign visitors.  It’s a very popular book and website for places like yours.

Erin Turner:   I’ll definitely look into that. Thank you.


Erin Turner is a site-specific installation artist and social practice artist who is interested in land-based practices, preservation, and collaboration. Recent work has been seen in the Queens Museum, CODA Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, Sideshow Gallery Brooklyn, and Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa Hardesty Arts Center.  She has contributed to Hyperallergic, Social Action: An introduction to the Principles and Practices of Teaching Social Practice Art, This Land, and is a member of Social Practice Queens. She is currently working on a long-term project restoring the Ed Galloway Totem Pole Park in rural NE Oklahoma. Erin has attended Pratt Institute, La LLOYTA in Barcelona, the University of Tulsa, and La UMSA (Universidad de Museo Social Argentino) Buenos Aires, receiving her BA in Fine Arts with emphasis in Painting in 2007. She resides between the Rockaways, NYC, and Upstate New York, and is an MFA graduate of Social Practice at City University of New York, Queens College.

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