Tinkertown: A faith in the small


by Pari

Last weekend, my family piled in the car on one of those gorgeous clear blue-sky days when New Mexico is the only place in the world I could ever want to be. Within ten minutes, we were out of town. Deep green pines and cracked rose-brown boulders flanked us on the winding mountain highway. Our destination was Tinkertown, a place I’d heard of for years but had never visited. Actually, let me be honest. With a name like “Tinkertown,” I thought it would be a dud. After all, “tinker” doesn’t exactly conjure grand images of fascinating locales. It’s a cozy word. Quaint. Cute.

And I’m rarely in the mood for cute.

 Prepared, in a condescending way, to be amused, I ended up being floored. Crammed with scenes of miniatures Ross Ward crafted during the too-short five decades of his life, the multi-room and meandering building is an overwhelming visual experience. A cacophony of sights. Crusty musicians greet you. Stick a quarter in the slot and they sing, strum the guitar. Here is a model of a town in the Old West complete with the Chinese laundry, brothel, saloon and so much more. Push this button and a miniature chef with raised cleaver chases an unfortunate chicken, bar doors open and close, the blacksmith bangs on a horseshoe. Go to the circus scene with its hundreds upon hundreds of characters. Push this button and a dog jumps endlessly through a hoop, tigers rear and raise their paws, a trapeze performer swings.

Oh, there is so much to see! The walls made of glass bottles – more than 55,000 – and spotted with inspiring sayings that can’t help but uplift. There’s the yacht (yes, you read that correctly) that circled the world and ended at its final port in the New Mexico mountains . . .

What does any of this have to do with writing?

More than you’d think.

Tinkertown’s emotional and visual richness moved and inspired me incredibly. The small “museum” stands as a testament to one man’s fierce independence, creativity and mad – wonderful – vision. Ross Ward’s compulsion to create, and the cumulative effect of his work, just blew me away. He and his family made this insanely marvelous gem simply to make it.

Tinkertown is unexpected, untraditional, unlike anything I’ve seen before. Every step I took there revealed the museum creator’s spirit though he died in 2002. By the time I wound my way back to the gift shop, I felt I knew him and that he was a friend.

In my own life, I’ve been told that I don’t write “big books,” that my works tend to be too quirky, too out of the norm, not the stuff of blockbusters. But seeing Tinkertown gave me hope that even if my books or stories don’t end up on national bestseller lists, there’s a place for the small – the different – in this life. After all, someone will always be there to enjoy seeing the world’s smallest fleas dressed in wedding attire . . .

For all of his life, Ross Ward marched to his own drummer. He made something fantastic in the process, something we can all enjoy and appreciate. What a wonderful legacy.

If I’m able to do the same with my writing, what a success I will be.


Do you know – or have you known – anyone who was a true original?
Please tell us about that person today and share his/her link if there is one.

(Also, for those attending LCC 2011, Ross Ward’s wife Carla said she’d be glad to open up the museum a few days early — by Sunday, March 27 — if we have a group that would like to go there.)



29 thoughts on “Tinkertown: A faith in the small

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    What an amazing place! I think the only thing I can liken it to is visiting the Winchester Mystery House – http://www.winchestermysteryhouse.com – in San José. Definitely a different drum.

    But the thing that resonated most with me was the comment in the final picture: ‘I did all this while you were watching TV.’

    Not that I intend a project of this scale, but we do want to build another house this year, and it reminded me why we’re glad not to have TV…

    As for your remarks about your own work, have faith, Pari! Who says they’re not ‘big books’? Who says they’re not bestseller material? Would you describe Alexander McCall Smith’s stories of Botswana as ‘big books’? Would you have thought that Alan Bradley’s tale of a 12-y-o aspiring chemist with a passion for poison would be on the bestseller lists? So much of this business is down to luck.

    Never give up! Never surrender!

  2. JD Rhoades

    Don’t get me started on the whole ‘big books’ meme. It makes me want to punch someone in the neck.

    Thanks for the view of Tinkertown. Seems that America has quite a few of these places–quirky, sprawling installations of folk art, like California’s Watts Towers and Florida’s Coral Castle. There really is a delightful madness to them.

  3. KarinNH

    My son and his girlfriend live in Philadelphia and last time I was visiting, they brought me to Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Gardens. Zagar started his project in the 60s and is still working on it and teaching classes. It is extraordinary!


    Philly also has a mural project started in the 60s and there are over 3,000 murals in the city done by different artists.

  4. billie

    Pari, look up Howard Finster – his home and gardens in Georgia is quite the unusual place. I have some black and white photographs taken there back in the 80s that are just gorgeous.

    I also love Minnie Evans, a self-taught artist who did all her work in crayon and often on odd found pieces of paper because she didn’t have access to "real" paper.

    There is something about the idea of creativity being so powerful it bursts out of people even when not nurtured or encouraged that I just love.

    And by the way, in my view, the wonderful quirky books like yours ARE the big books. And often enough, the quirky books of one time period become the traditionally big books later on. It absolutely thrilled and tickled me recently when Tinkers won the Pulitzer Prize. If you don’t know the story behind that book getting published, check it out. It is inspiring.

  5. Louise Ure

    My first thought after looking at the photos was "This is what happens when genius meets hoarding." But it is truly beautiful. And like Zoe, I’m struck by that final tagline "I did all this while you were watching TV." There’s a lesson in there for us.

    Think positive thoughts for our JT in flooded Nashville today, folks.

  6. pari noskin taichert

    I’d never heard of Winchester house and it sounds fascinating. Looks more "elegant" than Tinkertown . . .

    As to my books, I wasn’t bemoaning anything. I’ve just been through a round of rejects where the comments are all "great writer" but "too original." Hah! <g> I’m not going to give up. I’m going to keep writing what I want to write because at the very least I’m being true to myself that way.

    Yeah. I know, Honey.

    As to Coral Castle and Watts Towers, yes, those have the same spirit — the same intense need to create for the joy of creating — that so inspired me at Tinkertown.

  7. pari noskin taichert

    Thank you for the link to the gardens. They’re marvelous. What a treat to get up this morning and see other examples of this kind of unhindered creativity. Just wonderful. I’m sorry when I was in Philly visiting family that I never saw these.

    Thank you for introducing me to Finster and Evans. I’m going to all the links and taking a look. Somehow these examples in the world just bring me such incredible joy.

    And thank you for the kind words about my books. Again, I’m not upset — that’s not the lesson here for me, at least — it’s that I’ve got to go with my heart first in my creativity, see where it takes me, and not worry about the outcome so damn much.

  8. pari noskin taichert

    Oh, man, is Tinkertown cluttered. I’ve never seen anything like it. But somehow all of those tiny little items, the tens of thousands of them, work together rather than merely distracting or distressing.

    And yes . . . our prayers are with JT and everyone in Nashville –throughout the South — with the flooding and that horrendous oil spill.

    Keep the good examples coming; we can all use them.

  9. A Reader

    Thank you J.D. for the link to Watts Towers. I have never seen them. The video on Simon Rodilla is simply haunting.

    Thank you, Pari, for a peek into the life of a marvelously obsessed creator.

    I have been seriously inspired by this post.

  10. Allison Brennan

    My grandfather was truly original. He built a cabin, all by himself, on Kings Mountain (Woodside) and in it hung his history. He wrote a memoir, and it may never be read by anyone else, but my grandma and I enjoyed it immensely.

    I love the last picture the best. I gave up watching television for three years to make the time to write, because there was no way I could write, work full-time, raise a family AND sit down a couple hours every night in front of the television. I’m a bit of a tv addict, so this was a sacrifice, but very much worth it. (BTW, new favorite show: JUSTIFIED. The executive producer is Elmore Leonard and the character is based on one of his short stories.)

    Thanks so much for sharing Pari!

  11. Karen in Ohio

    Wow, Tinkertown is a monument to OCD, isn’t it? What fun it must be to see it in real life. Thanks for sharing the photos.

    Here in southwestern Ohio we have the Loveland Castle, which is a replica of a European castle, built of mainly concrete bricks made from milk cartons. I first saw it when it was only partly finished, back in the late 70’s, but it is now a tourist attraction. Here are two sites with explanations (the official site barely explains):



    Harry Andrews built this amazing castle largely by himself, and it has a lot of extra touches that showcase Harry’s love of sword-fighting and knights errant. He was quite a guy.

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Great post, Pari. I never knew this existed. It’s amazing how much is in New Mexico, hidden away in all the nooks and crannies. Hidden away in, say, Roswell. Intriguing places like White Sands and Carlsbad Caverns. I miss my home town.

  13. pari noskin taichert

    "A Reader,"
    If this post did that for you, my work is done. I’m just delighted.

    How fascinating. I’d never heard of this either. I wonder, is Sniff one person or many?

    I love what you say about your grandfather’s eccentricity. How wonderful to have that in your own family.
    And giving up TV? I’ve been considering it in the evenings, but have hesitated because when I write at night I can’t get to sleep — too excited.

  14. pari noskin taichert

    It’s a combo of OCD and incredible creativity. Ross Ward was a carnival/circus painter; he did the huge murals and paintings on fun houses and rides at fairs around this country and others. In his spare time, he carved and painted and sculpted for himself.

    You’d be surprised how much there is here in New Mexico. I still am and I actively look for it.

  15. Allison Brennan

    Pari, I had no choice. I worked all day, fed and bathed the kids, played with them and put them to bed–the only time TO write was after 8 pm. I quit my day job in 2005, but I never watched television in the same way as I used to. I only watch what I really want to watch, not just because "nothing else is on." And I never watch "live" tv. It’s always recorded, DVD sets or through AppleTV. I don’t think I’ve seen a commercial in years . . . unless I’m watching tv with the kids in the morning.

  16. Pari Noskin Taichert

    You know, there may be something to be said for the lack of commercials, Allison. I’m thinking about when I was on the Edgars committee for best television screenplay and got all of the shows w/o commercials.

    At first, viewing them was incredibly disconcerting because you could see how they were designed around those breaks. But then I realized that "1-hour" shows were actually closer to 40 minutes. What an eye opener . . .

  17. Karen in Ohio

    Pari, the commercials have gotten longer, too. 25 years ago when my husband produced a "half-hour show" it was 27 minutes. Went down to 23 minutes a few years later. Who knows how long it is now.

  18. pari noskin taichert

    Isn’t that astounding, Karen? I bet I was being generous when I wrote "40 minutes." The breaks are long but many commercials are now as short as :10. When we see a minute-long ad now, our brains can’t handle it; it seems like it takes forever.

  19. Pauline Guillermo

    Hi Pari. You mention the "yacht" (a motor only vessel) but it is actually a sail boat of some type. Great post! I love Tinkertown!

  20. pari noskin taichert

    You’re right, of course. It is a sail boat. A nice one. I love how it’s in that outdoor enclosure with the annotated map — especially the parts with things like:
    saw pod of whales
    fell out of boat
    broke ribs
    dolphins . . .

  21. Allison Brennan

    Apple TV and my DVDs list the time for each episode. The cable shows (like JUSTIFIED) are 45-48 minutes. The pilot was 54 min, I think. The network shows (like L&O and SUPERNATURAL) are 40-44 min. The pro to me is that I can watch 2 or 3 in a row comfortably! 🙂

  22. Tom

    We lived two miles south of Tinkertown on Highway 14. Across the county road from Tinkertown, immediately north, is The Triangle, the local grocery store for Cedar Crest, NM. You could look at the grocery store and its gravel parking lot, and marvel at what it took to keep the store going at about 6200′ in altitude. Then you could turn around, face Tinkertown, and marvel at one human’s tenacity.

    Farther north is the abandoned (and reclaimed) mining town of Madrid, another place with stories stacked deep on every property line.

    Land of Enchantment? Oh, yes, indeed.

  23. pari noskin taichert

    I love Madrid. Always have.

    A friend once commented that people in New Mexico have no idea how much history and the present intersect here, that we take it for granted. I think she is right. I’ve often thought about how that has affected my view of the world in general . . .

    And have you seen the Triangle now? It’s huge and has all kinds of events there on a weekly basis. It’s become a hub after all of these years.

  24. Alafair Burke

    Those pictures are amazing. No comparison, but the only place I’ve been that came to mind was the old Barbie doll museum in the bay area.

  25. kit

    thank you for this amazing post. I refer to stuff like this as the *outside vision of the inside thought*.
    it’s a compulsion to create…no rhyme or reason, except to enjoy the gift that it is.

  26. pari noskin taichert

    Thank you. From my perspective, my photos don’t even begin to show the wonder of the place. I think a Barbie doll museum would be a kick, especially for someone like me who never played with them.

    "outside vision of the inside thought"
    Man, that is one pithy phrase. I’m going to be coming back to that one for sure. And you’re absolutely right that Tinkertown, and some of the other examples mentioned today, are precisely that.


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