In retrospect, it seems inevitable that the Flower Man House in Houston’s Third Ward could not live on beyond its creator, the late Cleveland Turner.
For years, Turner was a fixture of the neighborhood, seen riding his bike every day, foraging for cast-off flowers, misfit toys, and other brightly-colored urban detritus to decorate his home, 2305 Francis St., the third location of Turner’s decades-long, ever-evolving masterpiece of African-American yard show art. But when the Flower Man, as Turner was known, fell ill with stomach cancer, the house ailed as visibly as he did.
“In the final months of his life, when he was unable to work on it, he would apologize to all his visitors, saying ‘Sorry, it’s not lookin’ just right. There’s not enough flowers here,’” says Susanne Theis, director of programming at Discovery Green, former director of the Orange Show Foundation, and long a champion of Turner’s work. “And you could just hear in his voice how horrified he was that people were seeing it like that and thinking that it was the best of his work.”
After Turner died in December 2013, at around age 78, the home began quickly decaying. To passersby, it was little more than a forgotten sloop with a busted mainmast.
And now 2305 Francis is to be demolished.
The home is beyond any chance of salvation, says Pete Gershon, coordinator of the Core Residency Program at the Glassell School of Art and the author of Painting the Town Orange: The Stories Behind Houston’s Visionary Art Environments. “The house was damaged during Hurricane Ike,” Gershon says. “Water got in. There are animals living in there. They ran a mold report and human beings should not be in that house, like, ever. It’s a real toxic, unhealthy situation, and as sad as it is, and nobody loved the Flower Man more than me, but I’m good with his legacy being preserved through photographs and videos. To keep the house up, in disrepair, undercuts his legacy.”
Even if the home was structurally sound and safe for human habitation, with a work like this, how do you keep it moving forward? Turner was constantly adding and subtracting from the work, cycling many miles in all weather on his mission. Who would tend the cotton plants he planted on the curb to remind him of his childhood in Mississippi? Or care for his side-yard orange tree?
“You would have to make all kinds of difficult decisions to maintain the house in his absence,” says Gershon.
”Who would maintain it? Who would arrange the materials? If something needed to be replaced, what would it be replaced with?”
Susanne Theis agrees, saying that Turner’s death brings the work to a natural, if sad end. “Once the artist is gone, how do you maintain an environment like that before it quickly passes from becoming the work of the artist to becoming the work of the preservation team? I’ve never had a good answer for this. All across the United States, the environments that are being preserved are the ones like the Orange Show or the Beer Can House, the ones where there’s a little more structure. Those aren’t as improvisational as places like the Flower Man’s House, which is almost like a work of jazz.”
By contrast, two other Houston art landmarks, Jeff McKissack’s Orange Show and John Milkovisch’s Beer Can House, were static works, with Milkovisch’s such a laughably straightforward idea that his home’s name says it all. (As Milkovisch would explain it: “It’s a house, see, with the beer cans I drank out of on it.”)
Not so with the Flower Man House. Here’s how one reporter captured the second incarnation in 2001.
There are enough Christmas lights and ornaments to decorate a parade route. Hundreds of broken toys and mangy stuffed animals. A cannon fashioned from a cotton-picking machine with a vampire’s head sticking out of the muzzle. A rubber shark bouncing from the end of a fishing pole. A collection of Revlon Super Lustrous lipstick. A ceramic Jesus missing an arm next to a collection of wooden Bambis and a naked doll. An old mule harness that Turner used as a boy in his native Mississippi. A framed picture of a baby girl.
“Have no idea who that is,” Turner said.
Turner loves rocking horses. He has five; no, make that six. There’s one on the roof, up where Turner put a dead squirrel he gutted and stuffed.
And here is how it appeared to another visitor—Houston curator Alvia Wardlaw—on a different occasion:
Mirrors, horses, flowers faux and real, Mickey Mouse, two versions of the Last Supper, two Santa Clauses with brown-painted faces, European knights in armor, and toy train engines attach to the building in unpredictable formations; three full packages of lipsticks in an array of reds and browns adorn the west wall. Clocks of all types, none of which work, are displayed in abundance, serving as reminders of our own destiny.
And therein lay warnings, as Turner knew full well. His was not exactly the kind of stuff designed to withstand the test of time, especially in a climate as steamy, sun-baked and soupy as Houston’s. “We’re talking about a lot of moldy stuffed animals and rotting wood,” says Gershon.
But it never seemed to have been Turner’s intent to have his work outlive him. For him, it was less a work of art than a mode of life. “The Flower Man’s House was always in motion, always in flux, he was always adding things and taking things away,” Gershon says. “It was a beautiful kind of social practice, and in the end, the Flower Man was the art”.
“His legacy is hard to capture in an objective sense. So much was about him as a person, not just the house,” said Project Row Houses founder (and 2014 MacArthur genius grant winner) Rick Lowe, in a statement released today. “Many people in the neighborhood remember him for the way he carried himself: that smiley face, always trying to share some of that renewed optimism he felt about life.”
Turner came by his positive outlook in a hard way. His arrival in Houston in 1962 was an unintentional migration. He got off an LA-bound Greyhound and was quickly seduced by the nightlife on and around Dowling Street, then a hopping bar and nightclub strip and the commercial heart of Third Ward. Turner spent the next few years working contruction; he was also a functional alcoholic at the time, before an on-the-job injury in 1970 removed “functional” from the equation. Turner embarked on a Thunderbird-fueled lost weekend of thirteen years’ duration. As he told one interviewer, at his worst, each morning when he woke, he was so tense and hungover that he could not unball his clenched fists. Showing the sick ingenuity of the chronic drunkard, Turner devised a system. Each night before blacking out, he would leave an open bottle of T-Bird by a dog bowl. When he came to in the morning, he would nuzzle the bottle over, tipping its contents into the bowl, from which he would then lap enough wine to make his fingers work again.
Turner was very open with his struggles; after all, his recovery was the wellspring of his art.
“I came off Skid Row. I was a wino, hooked on Thunderbird. I wouldn’t beg, but I spent 17 years eating out of Dumpsters, sleeping under bridges. Finally I got so sick I couldn’t drink any more. A white woman found me, sent me to a hospital. I prayed good I could stay sober. That was in 1983. I haven’t had a drink since.” Turner said he had a dream the day before the hospital released him: “It was so pretty, all these colors coming from junk, flying high and about like a whirlwind and coming down pretty. So the next day I said, ‘I’ll get me a little house and find junk and hang it up.'”
Houston arts organization Project Row Houses facilitated his move to 2305 Francis in 2003 after a fire at his previous home on Sampson St., located a mile or so east of his final homestead. PRH deeded Turner the home for the span of his life and the property has now reverted to the organization.
Gershon says they have salvaged enough evocative material from the home for “some sort of memorial display sometime in the future,” and he is collecting photos, videos and memories on the Cleveland Turner: “The Flower Man” Facebook page. A second-line jazz funeral / street parade-type event culminating in the home’s demolition is slated for Saturday, February 7.
Turner’s legacy will also live on via a Flower Man float created by artist Phillip Pyle II and Everything Records. The float debuted last year at Houston’s Thanksgiving parade and has been donated to the City of Houston. Project Row Houses is working on designing a commemorative billboard for installation at Dupree Park and sculpture garden, right by the last of Turner’s homes.
Turner only reluctantly embraced the idea that he was an artist. “When I started in on this, I really didn’t think I was working on art,” Turner told the LA Times in 2001. “I was just working on the vision in my head. But the vision just turned out to be art. That surprised me.”
But probably not as much as his home surprised unknowing passersby. As Wardlaw once put it, Turner’s work stood “apart like a huge parrot in a tree filled with sparrows.”
(Photos: Pete Gershon)