If, in the world of outsider art, Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) represents the hip urban neighborhood where Chihuahuas sip their own six-dollar lattes, Louisiana’s Abita Mystery House is the somewhat sketchy part of town that still draws local creative-types for its cheap rents and lack of pretense.
Don’t get me wrong – I love AVAM; it’s a truly unique space in the art museum world that celebrates untrained artists whose work is generally born of very personal and singular obsessions, and a must-see for anyone visiting Baltimore.
But I can’t help saying it: in presentation and form, the Abita Mystery House is better than AVAM.
Situated in the hamlet of Abita Springs, a few miles north of Lake Pontchartrain and about a 45-minute ride from New Orleans, the Mystery House is a rough-hewn, meandering compound of buildings that include a century-old Creole cottage and vintage filling station, all packed with (and covered in) the work of local artist John Preble, utilizing recycled ephemera and cultural detritus drawn from just about every facet of modern existence. Road signs. Circuit
boards. An Airstream trailer. Here, visitors will also find the likes of a Feejee Mermaid; a two-player piano; a 32-foot alligator; a crashed flying saucer; and sundry animated miniature scenes, including one that depicts a New Orleans jazz funeral. (TIP: Bring quarters for the fortune-telling and souvenir-token machines.)
Yet, for all of this strangeness, there is certain sincerity evident in everything on display; nothing feels like it’s trying too hard – not too shiny, not too “forced”. Even Preble himself is not the overtly misanthropic and slightly deranged hermit one might expect to find behind the curtain, but rather a genuine, quite affable fellow as quick to strike up friendly conversation with visitors as hand them a leech (really).
And the gift shop is no less engrossing than the museum itself, stocked with everything from very cool screen-printed AMH t-shirts to reasonably priced matted prints of Preble’s incredibly detailed woodcuts depicting various animals (including a nutria); select quotes (“If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers.” – Charles Dickens); and blues legends like Slim Harpo and Bessie Smith.
Indeed, the Abita Mystery House is a lens through which visitors may vicariously view the world as seen by a most unique and talented artist, exemplifying wonderfully bizarre Americana in the tradition of such obsession-built roadside attractions as Rock City and Coral Castle. Like those places, AMH offers visitors an experience that will long outlive any chain restaurant meal or mass-produced trinket.
Abita Mystery House / UCM Museum
Address: 22275 Hwy 36, Abita Springs, LA 70420
Hours: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. 7 days a week