The first time I met John Preble, he introduced me to a stuffed iguana. A fan of his museum dropped it off a few hours earlier. “People just drop things off all the time,” he shrugged. Preble sits behind his desk with a pair of reading glasses nestled in a halo of soft grey curls. I ask him to pose for a picture with his new pet and he drops his lower jaw and widens his eyes. He displays a look of shock, which reinforces his “Be strange, not a stranger” catchphrase.
There’s nothing of monetary value in the Abita Mystery House, but the amalgamation of the odd and downright common is exactly what makes the place so extraordinary. The sheer quantity of kitsch that’s stuffed inside showcases Preble’s penchant for tchotchkes, the backbone of his Southern paean to the whimsical and the weird. The museum, comprised of a vintage gas station and a string of cottages, sits next to Highway 36 in Abita Springs, Louisiana, a sleepy postage stamp of a town an hour north of New Orleans. Three bucks gains me access to Preble’s world of delight, formerly known as the UCM (You See Um) Museum. I hand the cashier my three dollars and push the gift shop door open to reveal a Lilliputian self-made world .
The museum opened in 2000, which comes as a surprise to most visitors; Preble intentionally makes everything look antique. He wants a weather-worn, run-down feel to the place, which only adds to the mystery and charm. Preble assumed he was almost done with the project when the house first opened. “When we opened I felt that I was 80 percent finished, now I feel like I’m 20 percent finished.”
I sit down to talk to Preble in his private studio a few months after my initial visit. The studio, a circa-1915 Creole cottage that Preble transported from another property, overlooks a courtyard with a pond. A red-eared slider turtle suns itself next to a feejee mermaid . The turtle seems unimpressed with his pond mate. This might strike visitors as strange, until they notice a plethora of taxidermy with alligator heads fused onto dog bodies. Live alligator snapping turtles take up residence around the grounds in manmade enclosures. The House of Shards, located just past the main hall, crusted in pottery shards and glass, is home to stuffed Siamese twin chickens. They’re steering a bass boat; two other lifevest-clad cluckers cast a reel off the port side.
It’s not hard for me to get Preble to talk about his passion. He’s loquacious, opinionated, and entertaining. My single-sentence questions are answered with diatribes about the local and national art scene, the town of Abita Springs itself, and Tinkertown in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Preble credits all of his inspiration to his folk art hero Ross Ward, Tinkertown’s creator. He discovered the Western-themed self-made world while on a Southwest family vacation with his wife Anne O’Brien and their two sons. It became his mission to create a Southern version of Ward’s work in Louisiana. “It changed my life, born again, that kind of thing. It was really amazing because I had all the same crap that he had, but I never did open up a museum. Some friends of mine and I, we had a culture of collecting stuff and we started collecting stuff in college like postcards and doorknobs…people would come to my house and say ‘It looks like a museum.’”
A hand-painted sign outside of the Abita Mystery House’s main hall proclaims, “If you have three or more it’s a collection: a museum has over three collections.” The place has evolved from a pet project to a destination for fans of self-made worlds, aficionados of other art immersion experiences such as Tinkertown. The main hall is a trove of junk that showcases Louisiana culture. Inside there’s a 30-foot long diorama called “River Road,” which depicts “scenes along a typical old Southern state highway.” This collection of art and thrift shop decor has come together by some alchemical force. Aunt Chrisy’s Gun Shop is right next door to Uncle Byron’s Toy Store. Couples whoop it up at Rudy’s Rainbow Lounge, a good ol’-fashioned dance hall, and a baby defiantly jumps up and down on a motel bed. “The goal is to have so much stuff on walls and everywhere that you notice something behind something, but you can’t see it,” Preble explained. “So you have to move around at different angles and get a reflection or a shadow behind something else.”
The disheveled quality is intentional. “Nothing I ever do is perfect. If I get close enough, it’s good enough for me. If you get close the eye fills in the rest.” The jumping baby is a glob of styrofoam, controlled by the push of a button. I press the red button with my thumb, thoughtfully positioned by my navel, making it within reach of adults and children. A light inside the house starts to flicker and the baby begins its defiant dance. The fleshy lump makes sense in context; the sheer joy of being in control of the scene allows me to suspend my disbelief long enough to believe the infant is more than scrap material.
Preble decided to change the name from UCM Museum — after operating it under that moniker for seven years — as a direct result of attending a museum conference. Preble exists in folk art purgatory; he’s a trained artist, which doesn’t sit well with most folk art connoisseurs, yet he’s snubbed by what he calls the “black turtleneck” art crowd. “Since we’ve been open, art critics and folk art people come and it’s very disturbing for them. If I was [still] in the real estate business (Preble used to flip houses), and not the art with the capital ‘A’ business, they would accept it, but the fact that I’m in art with a capital ‘A’ and then art with the lowercase ‘a’, with the folk art, it’s very disturbing for the critics and the writers because ‘Well it can’t be folk art ‘cause you know about art.”
Despite Preble’s rejection of art house snobbery, the Abita Mystery House gets lumped into the museum category by default. He was asked to speak at a national museum convention on the subject of small museums several years ago. “I’m thinking I’m going to glitterize a suit…I go to this museum convention, there are all these museum people from all over the world, and they’re all wearing black suits, black ties, white shirt. I realized ‘I don’t want to be a part of this crew. I don’t even want to have anything to do with these people. These are the most conservative people in the world.’”Preble changed the name from UCM Museum to Abita Mystery House a month later. “I realized the word museum was scaring people away. You don’t look at a museum as a fun place to go for kids, with a family…. A 4-year-old and a 90-year-old can both enjoy it [Abita Mystery House]. That’s a big deal.”
Despite his self proclaimed art world pariah status, Preble maintains friendships with several New Orleans museum curators. “John Lawrence from the Louisiana Historical Collection came in with the guy from the Cabildo, and they’re sitting with me in the gift shop…I had people come in and we were talking about museum stuff…they’re fascinated that I’m running this by myself; they have to answer to a board and all of that…a family comes out and says ‘This is the best museum we’ve ever been to.’ And you’ve got these guys that are getting paid like $100,000 a year and they never get that response.”
I let out a gasp when I first walk into the museum. The sense of wonderment and curiosity of the place is palpable; I want to make the three headed dog spin in circles, watch the papier-mâché tornado rip through the toy trailer park, and listen to Al Johnson’s “Carnival Time” being piped out of tinny speakers as a Mardi Gras float rolls down Saint Charles Avenue. It’s this “Oh my” reaction that Preble considers a hallmark of success.
The difference between Tinkertown and the Abita Mystery House is the attention to detail; Tinkertown’s Western-themed dioramas are painstakingly hand carved; every detail is mulled over. Preble prefers a more unpolished look. Ward wouldn’t have dreamed of allowing contributions from outsiders, yet Preble welcomes them; fans drop off items with the hopes that Preble can add them to the collection. If an objet d’art isn’t quite right, Preble will give it his reverse Midas touch. “People really want to be a part of it. Sometimes I’ll say ‘Look, it doesn’t fit,’ but usually I can make it fit. I can spray a flat black [spray paint] to dull it down. A lot of it has to do with the patina. There’s no shiny glass, chrome, stuff like that [in the museum]. If there’s glass there’s a little dirt on it, and that’s by design. That patina is very, very important. If it can rust, I’d like some rust on it.”
Preble moved to Abita Springs in the ’70s, lured in by the artist community feel of the place. In the 80s he enjoyed a successful career working as a folk art painter. His paintings depict “Creole girls with green eyes” and afforded him a comfortable artist’s living. Prior to that, he flipped houses. “My wife was involved with the arts, made jewelry. We had children. I was flipping houses before I knew what flipping was. Then I got a gig teaching art at Loyola [University, New Orleans]. We were somewhat successful so we didn’t have to worry about money too much and then the real estate market crashed — boom, and I had kids that were 5 and 10 years old. I started painting [again] and the paintings started to hit…. When the real estate market crashed all of a sudden I had a painting career, but I was painting on my own terms; I wasn’t doing the black turtleneck crowd thing. I sold 100 paintings the first year. It was like printing money. It was wonderful.” Preble still paints; he also earns an income ghostwriting songs for musicians.
He was named Abita Springs’ 2014 citizen of the year, but takes no credit for it. “Shows you how lame this town is,” is his mock self depreciating response. Despite the recognition, Preble claims his adopted town hasn’t fully embraced what he’s trying to achieve. I ask how the town has reacted to the Abita Mystery House. “Overall, negatively,” he responded. “I run for political office every now and then. I’m very outspoken, and last time I ran there were seven people running for five seats on the council.”
Preble had the most name recognition, lived in town the longest, and had the same amount of signs up yet he got the least amount of votes. “‘It’s like ‘Whatever you do, you don’t vote for that guy.’ Town hall has like 20 people working there, and one of them has been here [to the Abita Mystery House] and they’re a block away.” I get the sense that Preble embraces the outsider status; it means he’s not the status quo. “I mean, it’s not for everyone, and it’s not for most people. If you don’t have that much imagination in your life you’re not going to come here. We get people from all over the world. You have to have a sense of adventure.”
I exit Preble’s self-made world and stand in the middle of the highway to snap a picture of the gas station that houses the gift shop. The museum is on a sliver of land that separates Highway 36 from Live Oak Street; one path leads into a quiet neighborhood, the other will take me out of Abita Springs. I can’t help but draw a parallel to the physical location of the museum to Preble’s own path in life; he hovers at an artistic crossroads, yet lives on his own terms.
. According to Forecast Public Art, “A self-made world is an art called outsider art by some, folk art environments by others, self-made worlds are generally the works of individuals not trained in the formal arts (but by no means untrained in their own fields), using nontraditional materials and building methods.” (Source)
. The feejee mermaid was a famous hoax in the 1800s. It is a monkey body affixed to the tale of a fish. The term now applies to “any gaffed mermaid.” (Source)
Christy Lorio is currently pursuing a Bachelor's Degree in English and Film from the University of New Orleans. Her work has been previously featured on Oxford American.org. She shares a hundred year old house with one husband, two dogs, and a healthy amount of cats. Find her on Twitter @christylorio, or read her personal blog Slow Southern Style.