Originally published February 19, 2013 at The Los Angeles Beat
About 30 miles outside of Los Angeles, and yet almost another world away, is a magical place where one woman’s dreams and obsessions created a small village of surreal beauty and splendor made from other people’s discarded garbage. You might say that Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village was created by taking the lost and unwanted bits and pieces of human lives and spackling them back together with love and hope.
Tressa Prisbrey was born in 1896, and lived during an era where women were expected to work hard and were often under appreciated for it. The mother of seven children and a wife ever since she was 15 years old, “Grandma” Prisbrey moved with her second husband in 1954 to the dusty scrubland of Simi Valley. Two years later, mainly to divert dust from the turkey farm next door, but perhaps also to keep herself busy in this lonely place where neighbors were widespread, Grandma began building beautiful retaining walls out of cement and bottles. She was 60 years old at this point, so late bloomers take heed, there is never a time that’s too late, until you’re six-feet under.
Grandma next began building a house to store her large collection of pencils which eventually exceeded 17,000 in count. Again, her construction was made of bottles gathered at the Simi Valley dump. Grandma Prisbrey drove daily to the dump for many, many years collecting bottles, discarded dolls, auto head lights and anything she considered a special treasure. She loaded these into her broken down pick up truck and headed home to work. Eventually her one pencil house turned into a village of 13 little houses and 22 sculptures with mosaic walkways connecting everything in between.
Most of her village was finished by 1961 and was already garnering world wide attention in the folk art community. People traveled great distances to see Grandma’s creations, often bringing her gifts that she incorporated into her never ending project. Interestingly enough, Grandma claimed to never think of herself as an artist and was somewhat surprised by the designation, but like everything else in the world she accepted her new title matter-of-factly. The bottom line is that Grandma Prisbrey put her heart and soul into her village, personalizing it in clever ways to commemorate loved ones and to express her world views. Self-expression is what art is all about.
Sculptures created by Grandma were often motivated by her own tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. Her “Spring” garden was built with actual metal springs, while her Headlight Planter was made of doll’s heads and car headlights. She also had a bottle sculpture which she called the Leaning Tower of Bottle Village because she couldn’t get it to stand up straight. For music fans out there, a photo of one of Grandma’s doll head sculptures was used as the 1982 cover photo for the 45rpm single “Mexican Radio” by The Wall of Voodoo.
Grandma worked on her bottle village until 1981, a total of 25 years, continually adding to it and tweaking it until she felt it was “just right”. In 1979 Bottle Village was made an official Ventura County Cultural Landmark. Three years later, in 1982, Grandma Prisbrey left her bottle village for good and moved to Northern California to be near her last remaining child. At this point in her life she had outlived two husbands and six children. Tressa Prisbrey died in 1988 at age 92. She lived a long life, completely committed to her art. While her bottle village was not built to stand the tests of time, especially California earthquakes, there is enough of it still standing that one can still experience the pure wonderment and magic that Grandma Prisbrey created. The 1994 Northridge earthquake did severe damage to most of the village’s structures and to this day the ones remaining are “red tagged”, meaning that a visitor may look into the structures, but may not enter. To get a complete idea of the idyllic majesty that this place once held one must look at some of the old films of the Bottle Village when it was at its height of grandeur. Several of these films can be found free of charge on the internet.
Today it is possible to visit Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village for a private tour and I would highly suggest doing so. Tours are by appointment only and a small donation is requested towards upkeep of the village. This place is in serious need of caring people to donate time, money and resources towards restoration. The Bottle Village was a product of Grandma’s love, and in order to bring it back to it’s former glory a lot more love is needed.
Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village: 4595 Cochran St, Simi Valley, CA 93062; (805) 584-3432.