Off the Beaten Path. Way Off.
Vance Lauderdale's Mid-South Travel Guide
(page 3 of 6)
Brownsville, about halfway between Memphis and Jackson, Tennessee, has plenty of interesting sites — antebellum homes in quiet neighborhoods, and several restaurants worth a visit (don’t pass up Helen’s Barbecue, followed by a stop at the Kream Kastle). It’s kind of a typical Southern town in many ways. But not many Southern towns — or anywhere else in America for that matter — have Billy Tripp’s “Mindfield” — growing right in the center of town.
I say growing because that’s the only way to describe a sculpture (and I use that term loosely) that has been a work in progress for more than 20 years now. And I don’t know what is more fascinating — the “Mindfield” or the artist himself, Billy Tripp. And yes, that’s his real name.
Tripp came to our attention years ago when he sent Memphis magazine copies of a novel/autobiography called The Mindfield Years. The subtitle was certainly intriguing: “The Sycamore Trees, Billy Pyrene’s Biography of Ned.” The hefty work, written in a stream-of-consciousness style that even the author later admitted “was a hard read,” was thought-provoking, to say the least. And when my colleagues learned that Tripp was also working on some sort of massive folk-art assemblage smack in the middle of Brownsville, our first thought was “road trip”! So we piled in a car and headed east on Highway 70.
What we discovered was Tripp himself, hard at work cutting and welding giant steel beams into a geometrical construction that didn’t seem to have any definite shape, but just grew bigger and taller with each passing day. Over the years, since he first began it in 1989, he has added all kinds of embellishments — silhouettes and numbers and sayings and all sorts of other things — all cut or forged out of solid steel. The whole grouping, many parts of it now painted in bright colors, presently soars more than 125 feet high.
Now at first, as you might imagine, the townspeople of Brownsville tried to look the other way, and if you asked about the weird sculpture going up in a once-vacant lot next to the Sunrise Inn on West Main Street, they’d act like they didn’t know what you were talking about. (Tripp is like their town’s Prince Mongo.) But now that the “Mindfield” has begun to attract national attention — Tripp is being recognized as “a nationally known practitioner of outsider art” — well, his neighbors are now taking quite a bit of pride in his work.
And that’s a good thing, because this endeavor has really gotten out of hand. I don’t know how Tripp acquires all the pieces that go into the “Mindfield,” but on a recent visit I discovered he had added a complete water tower (tank and all) acquired from an abandoned factory in Kentucky. And he was in the process of adding the 17-foot canoe that author William Least Heat-Moon had used to cross the U.S. — a marathon voyage documented in his 2001 bestseller, Riverhorse.
If you visit the “Mindfield,” try to chat with Billy. Anybody who names his truck Elizabeth, his motorcycle Sylvia, and his bicycle Pyro obviously has a lot on his mind. “I enjoy talking with people who have a sincere desire to understand what I do,” he says on his website. “But I really didn’t make it to talk with others about it. It’s a conversation I have with myself, and if people want to participate in their own way, that’s fine with me.”
And don’t forget to pick up a copy of his book; it’s free at the “Mindfield.”