The Flower Man (Gone)
In the Third Ward, a blighted section of Houston, there are lots of weed-strewn lots and one-story frame houses in need of repair. It's a happy shock when we spot a brightly colored jungle of plants and junk bursting from all sides of one -- home of the Flower Man.
The folks at the Orange Show Foundation tipped us to where we could find Cleveland Turner, a local and very active folk artist, who daily transforms the assemblage of junk and greenery around the house at 3317 Sampson into something... different.
A sign out front refers to Cleveland as "a legendary folk artist" and to his junk house as "an installation that will keep your eyes wandering." A rooster crows from behind a wall of folk art assemblages -- mostly bits of toys, painted tools and appliances, and other people's discarded art. Artificial and genuine flowers seem to sprout between items.
Answering our knock with a friendly hello, Cleveland stepped out, hot mug of coffee in hand, gold-capped teeth glinting in the oppressive August sun. He cheerily launched into an amazing story.
"I had a Smart Vision. This is when I was coming off the skid row..." Cleveland spent 17 years as a homeless bum, "sleeping in old empty houses and under bridges, eatin' out of Church's Chicken dumpsters and Popeyes, you know, whenever I feel like eatin'... a wino like me didn't eat that much, and that's what like to killed me."
Cleveland was found on the street, "laid out for dead," and rushed to a hospital where he was treated for alcohol poisoning. His flotsam and floral epiphany came towards the end of a five week, wheelchair-bound convalescence.
A few days before they released him from the hospital, "I had this vision. It was just junk, you know, like a whirlwind going around and around, and it was just going up so high... pretty, pretty, pretty..." He vowed to build the vision as part of a pact he made with God to help him stay sober.
The house where he lives is rented, formerly condemned; the landlord doesn't seem to mind Cleveland's augmentations. He is on friendly terms with everyone, judging by the frequent greetings shouted from passing cars and strolling neighbors.
Born in Mississippi in 1935, Cleveland always liked flowers. "My mother raised flowers. I always thought, whenever I got to be a man, I'll have my own house full of flowers." He came to Houston in 1961. "I was going to California and I stopped to visit a friend. We got to drinking and I never did make it to California."
The Flower Man house is decorated with darts Cleveland finds in daily jaunts on his Flowercycle. He looks amazingly fit for his age, peddling ten miles a day to his AA meetings or scouring the richer Houston neighborhoods in search of prime junk. His structure is in a state of constant mutation, as kids and visitors occasionally grab a piece off the house. Cleveland doesn't mind. "It's just junk. I don't mind if someone takes something, because it's just JUNK!"
Visitors also drop by with occasional contributions -- "old toys and things. But I get the bigger joy out of finding it." He loves to share his vision with anyone who's interested, whether it's a limousine from the airport "full of people from that country... whatchacallit? London!" or the neighborhood children.
We ask about a few of the specific objects, but Cleveland is vague or forgetful about their origins or purpose in his overall art environment. He just senses the right spot to stick 'em -- plastic plants, baby heads, old street signs -- then leaves them there until they get knocked off.
He has also built a dome out of bicycle rims, held together by wire, over a "Kwanzaa Cow" in a vacant lot down the street.
He walked the Flowercycle out his front door, pointing out its plastic bloom-festooned front and back baskets, handy for hauling choice objets d'art.
We had to ask:"Is your bicycle junk, too?"
"This isn't junk! This is my mode of transportation!"
Update - December 1, 2013: Cleveland Turner passed away in a nursing home after being hospitalized. December 2004: The Flower Man moved to a new house on the same street -- now 2305 Francis St. (formerly 3317 Sampson St.). According to Wesley Treat: "He relocated about a year ago, and although all of his stuff went with him, he is still in the process of planting new flowers. He is, however, happy to report that he's no longer renting."