Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Mill Valley's Unknown Museum and the Gluers Junk Art Movement

Embedded in my hitchhiking blog post, was a small story on the Unknown Museum, time for its own post, something i've been resisting for years—then I found the old photos. This is still very much in progress...
In 1969, on the long coattails of the Summer of Love, at the age of 22, eccentric LA artist Mickey McGowan moved to Sausalito with nothing more than the proverbial shirt on his back. Penniless, he shared a studio with a friend, Rat Soup, at the Sausalito Art Center for $80 a month. 

"A lot of us had our first shows there, myself with my drawings. Rat Soup with his sculpture." To make ends meet, he slept in his car, or sometimes in the studio, and worked at the Trident kitchen for chickenfeed. "Every night Miles would stroll in and Janis, or Crosby, the mainstays of the place." (Marin Nostalgia). My mom, who was working at the Trident, between theater performances, said even Perry Como used to drop in. And of course, the Limelighters All, were in situ.

McGowan, taught himself to make shoes, called himself the Apple Cobbler, and set up a funky little shop in downtown Mill Valley in 1973, and soon was court shoemaker to the rockstars (Grateful Dead, the Doobie Brothers, The Tubes, Journey), artists, and fashionistas. His wild hand-stitched leather boots and quirky one-of-a-kind brocade boots festooned with doll heads and toy tanks were in high demand. 

Mickey also made non-functional art shoes. (Combat Boot Stepping Out Shoes in World Culture, on exhibit at SFO International Terminal until Nov. 12, 2017.) Mickey was a Marin City flea market regular, often seen collecting kitsch for his art shoes and assemblage art. The small accumulations of ephemera and knick-knacks decorating the shop corners soon became a monstrous collection threatening to engulf the shop.

Around 1974, McGowan, in need of larger digs, moved into an old 
radiator shop at 35 Corte Madera Ave, across from City Hall, in Mill Valley to house what later was dubbed "the world's largest private collection of pop cultural artifacts" (Paul Liberatore). He also took over Ted’s Richfield gas station next door. Mickey shared his low-rent garage-atilier ($200 a month) with a motley collective of psychedelic-era glue artists, and the Unknown Museum was born.

Mickey had teamed up with other like-minded junk artists, later dubbed “gluers” or glue-artists, Larkspur artist Dickens "44" Bascom, Larry Fuente, and David Best at the Sausalito Art Center. 

I remember meeting them at the annual Sausalito Art Fair, held at the closed Bayside School—where the glue artists made a big splash when they lined a toilet bowl with copper pennies. And yes, it worked. The toilet made a serious impression on me as I really had to go. Pennies from heaven. (In those days the 65-year-old Labor Day festival was more of a funkadelic extension of the Marin City flea market, than the swanky affair it is today.)

Used with permission from David E. Gilbert's Lost Marin post on Facebook

My first recollection of the Unknown Museum was when it was firmly housed in the stucco automotive garage circa 1976. The roof was crenulated with 1950s-style TVs anchored along the ramparts. Mysterious banks of TV sets were o
vergrown with nasturtiums and electrical cords dangled down like roots. A decomposed teddy bear was caught napping too long in the baby carriage by a leafy green spear of dandelion blooming from his navel. A life-sized Colonel Sanders in front reigned over his court. A flying horse sign. The only thing missing was a Doggie Diner dog.

A bejeweled mannequin with a crown of antlers greeted the brave visitor at the door. Inside, you were assaulted by all manner of weirdness: there were stacks of tin lunch boxes, stuffed animals pickled in formaldehyde jars, homages to white bread. A large doll covered with spikes in a traveling trunk. A twist on the proverbial bed of nails. 

The visceral impact of seeing so much 20th c. detritus, everything in multiples, was overwhelming. Everywhere you turned there was also an invisible cloudbank of metaphors waiting to be plucked from the air. Mandalas made of bullets, toy cars, lighters, pens and pencils, bloomed like supernovae on what little wall space there wasA tower of dead clocks. A school of plastic sharks swam in a dry aquarium, other aquariums filled with toy water pistols, armies of GI Joes and Mr. Potato Heads. 

Broken TVs doubled as curio and diorama display spaces. McGowan said he had something like 300 TVs, many of them often blaring at the same time. Art was an act of resistance. We were confronted with bureaus transformed into nostalgic altars to JFK and Camelot, deep fur-lined drawers with tableau elegies to the massive backdrop of Vietnam, the fallout from Reganomics, and the threat of nuclear war. 

The museum was also home to a full-sized découpage fiberglass horse, along with odd metaillic otherworldly creatures that were vacuum cleaners in a former life. Another toilet lined with an assortment of coins at the back of the store looked like it also served as a de facto coin purse during more desperate times. 

I remember a very large record collection, 10,000 albums, and that's not counting the 45s; an eclectic musical archive, more records than one could listen to in a lifetime (I only owned a few records), and the impish gluer Mickey McGowan himself, a blue-eyed son in horn-rimmed glasses, presiding over his mad-hatterly realm. 

Gowan, in Irish, means smithy, as in the Goibniu, an alchemist god who forged iron from dirt. Mac means "son of." Mickey was a true son of the great Goibniu, the Tuatha Dé Danann patron god of blacksmiths. He hammer and tonged art from the most unlikely of things, making art from detritus. He was also a son of Lugh, patron god of shoemakers, the god of both skill and the distribution of talent. And we all know that Leprechauns are cobblers.

Declutter was not in his vocabulary.You might say he had highly refined hoarding instinct skills. A fertile garden for the mind bordering on the nightmarish guaranteed to haunt your dreams. But the controlled chaos was also very zen-like. Mickey arranged ordinary objects according to thematic structure, aesthetic sensibility, and often with humor. Because of Dickens and Mickey, arranging random objects is something I do to this day.

Mickey McGowan said in an Image Magazine interview: "I always thought that if your mom threw it away, the Unknown Museum was the place to come. Once I tried to create a sort of Zen space there, a room that was spare and austere, but when I'd go in there I'd go nuts wondering what I should put in. Gor me the perfect Zen space is jammed with all kinds of stuff. Zen is all one, isn't it? Well this is all one, the purity of allness." (Cabinet of Wonders).

The Unknown Museum was the place where one man's trash was magically transformed another one's art. It was an amalgam of Americana, or an "assemblage of American life," as Mickey dubbed it. Art masterpieces were created from the recycled detritus collected from the discards of American consumerism. The artist movement
was spearheaded by a group called the Moligator Manufacturing Company, the Northern Frog Works. They met and exchanged gluable materials like costume jewelry, rubber mice, teeth, baby heads, tennis balls, bottle caps, plastic salt shakers and beyond. Dickens Bascom, a noted northern California gluer, looked forward to the day when he could join other gluers and purchase a large office building and decorate it in their fashion. “I’m determined to do it,” he says. “I think it’s something people need.” —Art Car Central
The Unknown Museum became a counter-culture pilgrimage site (along with the Garden of Allah), where artists and the likes of John Beluchi and Bill Graham dropped in to check out the weirdness. It became a Sunday afternoon destination outing. I imagined zen beatnik Alan Watts, who championed disengaging from the past to live in the moment, also visiting and laughing his great laugh, as he lived down the street at the time. When queried about Watts' idea of the past and time present, Mickey said:
To deny the past would be foolish it seems to me, because it’s what you’ve lived – you can’t change it. You should accept what lessons you’ve learned and what’s gone on, and of course, look to the future....
As we sit here in this room now we have to think of the present, what’s happening. But we’re affected by the past and consequently we’re going to affect the future.... The past is a great teacher. (Donnakova interview)
Almost famous: The Unknown Museum was featured on Bay Area Backroads, and in museum guides, including Art in America. The Unknown Museum posthumously became the nostalgic darling of myriad articles, books, films, and television news spots, long after the museum met its ironic demise in 1984, when the old radiator shop was purchased by Smith and Hawken and morphed into an upscale nursery and garden shop. From proverbial eyesore to gentrification in one fell swoop. There went the neighborhood in more ways than one.

McGowan hauled his cargo of Americana to a rambling ranch-style house up the street
at 243 E. Blithedale Ave (now condos). I remember the gates were made of discarded skis. Bowling ball brooded in nests. The museum was off the beaten path, less accessible, but a sign, "This is your life" greeted you at the entrance. And it was true. It was what you made of it. (photos)

I'm not quite sure how I wound up with several pairs of skis, to carry on the slippery slope of collection. Or how much the museum impacted my own art. I recently found a cigar box art from my class with Inez Storer's class, lined with white rabbit fur. The Unknown Museum was something to behold with all its repurposed Americana detritus as iconography—the ultimate recycler's wetdream. But that too came to an end.

What survives the Unknown Museum are images frozen on film. Arrested time. The trashman cometh and he taketh away. Recycled technology. One man's garbage. Out of the rubbish heap, a phoenix circles the place of its birth. Glittering birds of memory.

The Unknown Museum closed its doors for good in 1989, and some 50 truckloads later, McGowan moved, with proverbial lock, stock, and barrel to San Rafael.The curious contents of the museum are shoaled up in a large old Victorian house that McGowan bought San Rafael, and to this day, vintage stuff continues to accumulate in every corner. According to Marin IJs Paul Liberatore:
He still collects every day, making a living liquidating estate sales and buying, selling and trading rare books, manuscripts, "ephemera" and neglected recordings of weird folk songs, bird calls and sound effects that he stores in a nearby warehouse. —Unknown Museum lives on, privately
McGowan may no longer be in the public eye, he gave up cobbling shoes, but he does rent out 50s-70s furniture and memorabilia to local film production companies. He also exhibited a collection of installations at the Falkirk Cultural Center in San Rafael in 1994. Mickey was also a curator for "Take Two: Refuse, Rescued & Re-created," at the O'Hanlon Center for the Arts in Mill Valley in 2009. The tradition has been passed onto the next generation of junk artists in the exhibit. Said Mickey:
"The Unknown Museum began by recycling and re-using things and paying attention to what we're discarding," McGowan noted. "It evolved into pop culture, but that was later.... We made our contribution as a matrix for the creative spirit," he said of the Unknown Museum and the "glue artists" he worked with, among them David Best, Dickens Bascom and the late Lois Anderson. –Exhibit of 55 recycled, reused artworks gets once-over from Mill Valley's Unknown Museum's ex-curator
When asked why he collected things by Marin Nostalgia, Mickey answered: "It’s a relaxant much like, perhaps, a mental Xanax. And that’s therapeutic. It’s cheaper and healthier. You don’t get the drugs in your system…" Mickey cobbled his last shoe in 1979. He said the glue was getting to him, he didn't charge enough money for his work.

Mickey's co-curator, Dickens Bascom (photo) is reportedly back in Marin after long sojourn on a small island near Costa Rica or Panama. (His recent work was exhibited at Sol Food in San Rafael a few years ago), Larry Fuente was spotted in Mendocino, and last seen slouching toward west Texas in an art car. David Best can be found in situ at Burning Man each fall when he's not at his Petaluma ranch on Sonoma Mountain.

Meanwhile, McGowan still dreams of resurrecting a new Unknown Museum at a new site. What brave new dreams may come of it, who knows?

Whatever happened to this silly creature?


Long before Burning Man, art cars were commonplace in Marin during the 1960s. The Merry Pranksters' school bus, Further was one trippy ride. I speak from personal experience. We saw a lot of Janis Joplin's a psychedelic painted white Porsche convertible, as she lived on my road. She never gave us a ride. But she'd always wave, her hair flying wildly behind her. To be fair, it was only a two-seater.

Most of the VW buses with their peace symbols hiding the VW logo, tooling up and down Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, were constantly evolving works of art. And they always braked for hitchhikers.

The Unknown Museum was the unofficial watering hole for art cars in need of a touch-up or a make-over. Dickens "44" Bascom's Ford Falcon mosaic art car was a moving mandala with a stupa on top. Apparently Dickens "44" Bascom, whom I called Dick, was born on the 44th day of 1944 at 44 minutes past 4:00 AM. The man famous for being a curator of the Unknown Museum and the car with a 1000 soles.

An old Rambler station wagon filled with doll's heads, and a vintage black Fiat chock-full of stuffed toys and imprisoned dolls with their faces pressed against the glass, were permanently parked out front of the Unknown Museum garage.

On the defunct Art Car Central website & Pinterest

Dickens Bascom's Ford Falcon car had sole, a lot of soles, actually. About a thousand crepe rubber sneaker soles standing in as scales on the fins.  It also had a resident typewriter ensconced on the trunk, which still worked, I once composed a ditty on it when it was parked outside the hardware store in Fairfax. He sometimes gave me a lift to Fairfax where he lived, when I was hitching home to Forest Knolls. I once gave him a bag full of my brother's broken toys to mend his car as some of the toys had fallen off. People used to toss coins into it, as if it were a wishing well, which took care of the gas money.

Bascom himself (gleaned from M. Kathryn Thompson, Facebook)
The Desert Sun, Palm Springs, CA 15 Feb 1974  • Page 44

David Best, a friend from ceramics class, told me about a chia-seed sprout covered Oldsmobile. He said they couldn't drive the car very fast. Late at night the deer came down to graze on the car. David said they were constantly repairing the bald spots from the deer's late night picnics. The burly bison head hood ornament didn't scare them off. And you had to water the car to keep the chia seed alive—this was during the drought.

One day, David invited me over to the Unknown Museum to take photos of his latest art car. David decoupaged an entire vintage ’50s Cadillac. The hood ornament was a water buffalo head with red eyes. The flanks of the car were lined with broken mirrors, like a Matisse study of light on water.

The Fiat stuffed with Disney toys and Barbie dolls, didn't run, but David's Caddy did—we sat in it, but I never got a ride in it. It was an occupational hazard to ride in an art car and expect to get to your destination.

That Cadillac was like a homage to water. A Las Pulgas water temple on wheels. This was during the great Marin County water drought, which rode hot on the heels of the great gas shortage. 

The sides of that gas-hog were of faceted glass and on the mink-lined back seat, plastic ketchup bottles, stuffed toys, rubber ducks, and toasters were chauffeured about in style.

Myriad mirrored prisms followed me as I circled the car. I was taking photos of my own reflections. It was a vast fragmented kinetic jigsaw puzzle. 

I was sufficiently blown away by the sheer magnitude of stuff ensconced on every available surface. The incredible attention to detail was overwhelming. These cars were glued together with resin and epoxy. Superglue hadn't yet been invented. At least I remembered to take some photos.

Perhaps the biggest surprise were the happy toasters nestled like lovebirds in the backseat. Thus began my career as a curiosity correspondent, and an arranger of things.

I'm not sure when these photos were taken, somewhere between 1973 and 1977.  Mickey McGowan said that the museum wasn't founded until 1974. I went to College of Marin until 1973. I returned for a few classes at CoM, as I didn't like San Francisco State, I dropped out, and was transitioning to Sonoma State by 1976-77. So, other than the horse, which I clearly dated on my photo album, the photos are anywhere from 1973 -1976ish. I also have slides awaiting digital somewhere. 


One time, Dickens Bascom and Larry Fuente hauled the decoupaged life-size model horse out to a pond where the Dollar house once stood—on the San Geronimo Golf Course in the winter of 1977. Luckily I had my camera with me (and a fresh roll of Kodachrome) so, I stuck around. 

Larry and Dickens did a great Lady Godiva number at sunset. The girl wore a red cape and had a lot of red hair. Not much else. Commuters returning from in town nearly drove off the road, when they spotted her. With that kind of horsepower, I'm sure some were muttering about looking under the hood. Alas, I don't have any photos of Lady Godiva on the horse, perhaps I was too shy, but I did manage to get a few shots of the horse.

Larry Fuente & Dickens Bascom tacking up the horse.

You can see the foreleg and chest of the horse inside the Unknown Museum in this photo which was probably taken between 1974 and 1977.

I never got a photo of Dickens' art car, but I did manage to document his horse at the San Geronimo Golf Course. Sadly Long's Drugs Kodak developer sliced all my negatives in two lengthwise. I was able to salvage a few sliced photos (magically healed with a cloning tool). I don't actually know if the horse was Larry's or Dickens' creation. (Or both.) But Dickens and I were friends of sorts, so I mostly related to him.

Note bene: I cannibalized the core of this piece from a blog post I wrote in 2010: Hitching in Marin during late 60s, early 70s   And I lifted a few bits from my Letter to David Best from 1989 which mentions the Unknown Museum. This was the Facebook thread that got me on a roll on this post. I didn't realize that i had conflated Larry Fuente with Dick Bascom, until I saw Bascom's recent FB page. Those crazy eyes! I still call Dickens Dick, as that's how I learned his name. So, stet already.

Still to do: research Al Farow (sp), who, like David Best, was more prolific with the support of Rene di Rosa.

Lois Anderson (aka Lotus Carnation) was one of the artists at the Unknown Museum in Mill Valley. According to a FB thread, she was a school librarian who dressed outrageously.  Bethany Argisle who was a performer at the UM, and has boots made by Mickey. We're now FB friends. I've written to Paul Liberatore and Mickey McGowan to see if I can get more first person perspective. Wait and see.


Mickey McGowen's The Unknown Museum Donna Kova, no date, ca. 1988 Unknown Museum lives on, privately Marin IJ Paul Liberatore, 04/03/06 The Unknown Museum Cabinet of Wonders 12/162007 The Unknown Museum - Mill Valley, CA Captive Wild Woman blog 5/28/2008
Exhibit of 55 recycled, reused artworks gets once-over from Mill Valley's Unknown Museum's ex-curator Marin IJ Paul Liberatore, 09/09/09 (ya gotta love the date) Metroactive Features | The Bohemian's 25th Anniversary David Templeton, 9/4-10/2003 Knowing the Unknown: (cached) In the mid-1970s, eccentricartist Mickey McGowan established the Unknown Museum in Mill Valley, and with its mysterious towers of TV sets, stacks of discarded lunch boxes, and jars full of formaldehyde-preserved Snoopy dolls, the place instantly became a kind of weirdness central. The subject of numerous articles, books, and television news spots, themuseum met its ironic fate in 1984, when the site McGowan had been renting was purchased by Smith and Hawken and became an upscale garden shop. The contents of the museum, now more unknown than ever, are still in storage in San Rafael and continue to accumulate, as McGowan dreams of resurrecting themuseum at a new site, sometime in the future. We support such a move. The world could use a shot of that kind of creative weirdness.

Mickey McGowan Marin Nostalgia, Jason Lewis, ca. 2013
The Unknown Museum forum, Marin Nostalgia, Jason Lewis, ca. 2013
"Dust & Grooves" Tome Spotlights Unknown Museum Creator Mickey McGowan on Mickey's massive record collection, 2015 MoMA: Mickey McGowan, 2017, video, Easy Living,1984 Stepping Out Shoes in World Culture, SFO International Terminal 4/1/2017 to 11/12/2017

Mickey McGowan's assemblage art, pop culture icons from the 1950's -1970's, furniture and decor may be rented out for video, film and photo shoots in San Francisco at Productionville SF

Dickens 44 Bascom Art Car Mystery  Art Car Central ca. 2012 (Another defunct site, cached, so I'm pasting it here for posterity) This mosaic Ford Falcon art car was created by artist and former curator for the Unknown Museum Dickens 44 Bascom on facebook a mystery worth investigating.
At first all I found was that Bascom 44 was born on the 44th day of 1944 at 44 minutes past 4:00 am. I am guessing that’s were the “44” part of his name came from.
With the help of my friend Amanda who did some more digging I found out that he was part of a growing movement called the “gluers” spearheaded by a group called the Moligator Manufacturing Company, the Northern Frog Works. They met and exchanged gluable materials like costume jewelry, rubber mice, teeth, baby heads, tennis balls, bottle caps, plastic salt shakers and beyond. Dickens Bascom, a noted northern California gluer, looked forward to the day when he could join other gluers and purchase a large office building and decorate it in their fashion. “I’m determined to do it,” he says. “I think it’s something people need.”
Larry Fuente who knew him said he was always raiding people’s basements for ‘art supplies’ and hanging stained glass windows from their trees, engaging neighbors in making art and “an expert at getting people, whole families, to do art together.”
Dickens 44 is still painting and gluing objects after all these years and has managed to produce a very large and wonderful body of art found on his site. The art car itself is pretty amazing and deserves its place here on art car central. Mystery somewhat solved.

Dickens 44 Bascom Art - Fiesta en La Calle ca. 2013 Sol Food Facebook page, San Rafael

Dickens 44 photo album, Dickens' own Facebook page, 2016. Sounds like he could use some financial support and people to buy his art, which is stored in Novato.

Art car Wiki

Letter to David Best 1989, my blogpost mentions David Best and the Unknown Museum
Hitching in Marin during late 60s, early 70s, 2010, my blogpost mentions Dickens Bascom & Larry Fuente, about half-way through

KQED Spark -YouTube link 2003 David Best has transformed more than 30 vehicles into mobile works of art. Spark tags along as Best and his team transform a 1973 Cadillac into a 40-foot rocket car, their mode of transportation at the 2003 Burning Man Festival. Original airdate: August 2003.
Artful codger / Rene di Rosa converts Napa home, grounds into gallery for the unpretentious 2002 "photo of Saddle Car" by David Best

Mad Cad Art Car by Larry Fuente the detail on this car, signature shoe soles, flamingo fins
Cowasaki Art Car By Larry Fuente a stuffed Hereford cow trike
Rex Rabbit Art Car by Larry Fuente a stuffed carnivorous albino rabbit. Yep.

The art car movement is alive and well in the North Bay, at David Best's studio on Sonoma Mountain. One of his caddies is at the di Rosa art preserve in Napa. And you can see other anthropomorphic chariot oddities across from Grocery Outlet on East Washington in Petaluma.

The Pen Guy covered his old Mercedes with pens. He has drop off points in West County, two in Forestville right down the road from my cabin.
My Mendocino friend Blake More took a brand new Mercedes convertible and drew all over it with metallic markers. Her old 1978 Mercedes was well découpaged, but it was long in tooth and sank into a coma and that was that. You can see photos here:  Eartha Karr - Mercedes Art Car  She has an art-bus as a closet too.

I've taken photos of art cars I've spotted in the East Bay. I'll post pix when I find them.

Google art car just for fun.
Marin hippie art legend returns from 36-year exile Dickens Bascom has returned to Marin after a 36-year exile. There's to be a big retrospective of his work.

Thank you David E. Gilbert for letting me use your Lost Marin photo

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