Billy Tripp's Mindfield
Resembling an immense electrical substation or wayward theme park roller coaster, Billy Tripp's Mindfield towers above Main Street in downtown Brownsville, wedged between the Sunrise Inn motel and the Payless Check Advance store.
It is the largest work of art in Tennessee, and we'd guess one of the Top Ten in the United States, matching mass with other single-minded visions such as The Orange Show and The Forevertron -- which, by the way, Billy was on his way to visit when he saw an abandoned water tower, bought it, then trucked it home to add to the Mindfield.
Billy has lived in Brownsville since 1963. He began building the Mindfield in 1989. Billy said that no one in town has ever told him that they didn't like it, although this did not necessarily mean that they approve. Theorizes Tripp: "Maybe they think, 'It's just not worth going over to tell him it's ugly.'"
The Mindfield soars 13 stories high, a vertical mass of salvaged iron and steel that Billy has painted a monotone battleship gray (It's his favorite color). Among the salvaged bridge trusses, building girders, screw conveyors, and railroad track rails, the artist has added cryptic messages in metal letters such as "My Life for it Lived Knowingly For Death" and "Paid With Cost Profit." Recognizable items occasionally catch the eye -- a basketball hoop, an old iron bathtub, a metal canoe -- but mostly the Mindfield is inscrutable. Artworks within the artwork sway high in the breeze, suspended by chains or mounted on pivots like weather vanes.
The Mindfield, according to Billy, is just the metal part of a conversation he's having with himself. "When I walk by it I want it to say stuff to me," he said. "I want it to grab my attention." He admitted that the Mindfield "sticks its nose in the traffic going by," but said that was unintentional. And since the Mindfield is just Billy talking to himself, he doesn't much care if tourists or his neighbors understands what he's saying.
(For secret tips, see Decoding The Mindfield)
Visitors aren't allowed on the Mindfield, so access is restricted to the front and side nearest the payday check cashing store parking lot. Here Billy has set up some temporary artworks repurposed from items left behind at a nearby car wash. There are a couple of comments boxes inviting passersby to record their impressions of the Mindfield, freeing Billy from the job of tour guide or interpreter. Billy stocks the boxes with complementary copies of his book, The Mindfield Years, Vol. 1, as an aid to communication, although he concedes that the 725-page stream-of-consciousness novel is "a difficult read."
If you're lucky, the day that you visit the Mindfield will be one where Billy is at work, barely visible ten stories high as he climbs around his metal creation. He intends to work on the Mindfield until he dies, and has already secured permission from Brownsville to have his ashes interred at the site, possibly within one of the urns already perched atop the Mindfield's tallest poles. He's also made arrangements with the Kohler Foundation to preserve the property long after he's gone, as they have with other artistic sites.
That future, however, won't arrive for a while, at least not if Billy can help it. He's already marked off areas for new additions, and was excited during our visit about some newly-arrived A-frames from a junked drive-in theater screen, and the possibility of acquiring a 150-foot-tall cell phone tower. The first 20+ years of the Mindfield, Billy said, were partly spent learning how to build the Mindfield. "I think the next 20 years should go quicker," he said. "It really needs to be twice this size to deserve some of the praise it gets now."