After a hard-scrabble life of over 60 years, and after the roughshod course of a couple marriages and the tragic loss of most of her children, Tressa Prisbrey decided when she settled in Simi Valley with her third husband, Mr. Prisbrey, that it was time to properly display her lifelong pencil collection numbering over 17,000. (I know this sounds like an entry in a Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!’ segment, Bluff the Listener, but trust me, I’m not making this up.) Concrete block for the walls was beyond her budget, so she headed to the local dump, where the building materials were the right price.
I suppose outsider art by definition must have a quirky origin story, but it seems whatever the impetus, the function of the bottle houses evolved to protect mementos of her children and all the detritus she clung to during her peripatetic life, sheltered by the walls she made with the bottles she retrieved from the local dump.
To ruthlessly condense a remarkable story even further, this homespun shrine is now known as Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village and has been deemed California Historical Landmark No. 939 as well as being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A friend of Mitch asked him to photodocument the site, which has been crumbling since the 1994 Northridge earthquake, in need of funding for repairs.
There’s so many bizarre facets to this story, among them the rare instance of a woman (who had her first of seven children at the age of 15 by a husband 37 years her senior) being a practitioner of this kind of folk art/assemblage, especially in the mid 1950s. In these photos I see a busy innocence at play that miraculously was still intact and unscathed after a calamitous life of near constant sorrow. And on a technical level, I’m also struck by the realization that, in contrast to the 21st century, there must have been a relative purity to the public dumps she rummaged through in the 1950s, which lacked the complex plastic waste overflowing ours.
You’ve probably heard that all that paper, plastic, and glass we’ve been helpfully segregating into our designated bins every week, which prior to 2018 discreetly sailed away from our shores filling otherwise empty, offloaded ships back to China as “reverse haulage” for processing, is now, for many communities, garbage without a country. Ever since China said no to importing our waste in January 2018, we’ve been scrambling to keep it out of landfills, the ocean — and even when China was handling the stuff, the percentage getting recycled wasn’t that great anyway. I don’t know — maybe we should figure out how to handle our own garbage? There’s a moonshot moment for you right there. (See: “Piling Up: How China’s Ban on Importing Waste Has Stalled Global Recycling.”)
Who knew that our recycling infrastructure in 2019 would be about as effective in reducing waste as one woman’s bottle village?
“When curbside recycling…is often viewed in terms of profit rather than public utility, who sets the conditions and who reaps the benefits? When policy authority is largely deferred to state and local governments — which have a wide range of capabilities and authority themselves — where does the EPA fit in? When programs or products fall through the cracks, who is the last line of defense to catch them in an open market system?” — Waste Dive 11/29/18 “EPA Recycling Summit highlights lack of national responsibility”
“’We are in a crisis moment in the recycling movement right now,’ said Fiona Ma, the treasurer of California, where recycling costs have increased in some cities.” (The New York Times)
Waste Dive has helpfully compiled information on “How recycling is changing in all 50 states,” where you can look up your state to check on the current status of recycling your trash. For the moment, unlike the bottle village, it isn’t a pretty picture.