World's Largest Ball of Paint
The World's Largest Ball of Paint hangs from an industrial-size hook: a solid mass of microscopically-thin layers, painted on top of each other day after day, year after year. It has slowly grown in size and stature from a freakish novelty to a ball worthy of a spot among America's mightiest obsessive orbs.
The Ball is the vision of Michael Carmichael. It's surrounded by five-gallon latex paint buckets, and slung from a steel beam in a custom-built Ball House next to the Carmichael home in rural Indiana. A rainbow of spatters coats the floor. A mirror beneath the Ball ensures that each new coat covers it completely, even in the hard-to-see spots.
It began, said Mike, on January 1, 1977. That day he encouraged his toddler son to cover a baseball with a coat of pastel blue house paint (A photograph in the Ball House preserves that fateful moment). That baseball is at the heart of a behemoth that is now over 14 feet in circumference and weighs 2.5 tons.
"My intention was to paint maybe a thousand coats on it and then maybe cut it in half and see what it looked like," Mike said in his soft spoken way, noting that each coat on his ball is a different color from the one before. "But then it got to the size where it looked kinda neat, and all my family said keep on painting it. And I've continued on for all these years."
Mike blew past 5,000 coats, then 10,000, then 20,000. In the early years Mike could paint the ball several times a day, rapidly boosting its size. Mike's compassionate wife Glenda has herself painted the ball over 8,000 times. But the ball is now so big that even a single coat requires a commitment of time and effort. "I let my visitors paint it for me," joked Mike, although either he or his son still dutifully paints it once a day.
Mike has never been possessive about painting the ball. It was conceived as a collaborative project, and everyone is invited to participate in its gradual enlargement. For Mike, sharing the process is part of the fun. "I want to see people's reactions when they paint it," he said. "I want to be here when they're here."
Visitors call ahead to make an appointment. When they arrive, they choose their paint color from a varying selection of buckets that Mike always has on hand (A tote board reveals that blue is the favorite). Some people like to wear old clothes or take off their shoes when they paint the ball, but Mike has perfected a system with a paint roller on the end of a long stick that eliminates collateral splatter. "We've had people in business suits paint it," said Mike. Glenda said that when the Oak Ridge Boys stopped by to paint the ball, they each wore an outfit that she guessed would exceed her clothing budget for an entire year.
Mike and Glenda take a picture of everyone who paints the Ball, have them sign a big guest book (currently on its seventh volume), then present the painters with a certificate that has their name, date, and the coat number that they painted. Souvenirs include "I Painted the World's Largest Ball of Paint" t-shirts and multicolor chips carved from the Ball, resembling dazzling slices of agate.
During our visit, the Ball, with its gently undulating surface and pastel pink color, suggested a giant brain or squishy body organ, dangling in a mad scientist's laboratory. Your impressions may vary -- giant grape?, alien egg sac? -- depending on its color when you arrive. "I tried for years to keep it round, but there's so much weight on there now," said Mike. "That's why it's lumpy like it is." He estimated that in two or three years the Ball will become too large for its current hanging arrangement. Then what? Mike has no intention of stopping, so he might have to raise the roof of the Ball House, or dig a pit into the floor.
"A lot of people can't quite understand it," said Mike of the Ball, but he and Glenda are welcoming hosts for those who want to drive out to the country and add a layer to -- or just look at -- the World's Largest Ball of Paint.
"Some people call it weird. I like the idea that it's something weird," said Mike. "We've probably been called worse," said Glenda, laughing.