World's Largest Ball of Paint
It's a pitch black rural Indiana night as we roll into the gravel driveway of Michael Carmichael's house. He is waiting for us in the yard. Also waiting for us are his wife Glenda, a dozen cats, and a cloud of hungry mosquitoes. "My name's Michael Carmichael," he says, extending a hand, "and I believe I have the world's largest ball of paint." Mike is just being humble. His ball is the biggest and he knows it.
Mike does not have a paint ball, which is a hollow shell filled with liquid paint. He has a ball of paint: a solid mass of thousands of hardened microscopically-thin layers, methodically applied atop each other month after month, year after year.
Mike's ball is as big as a weather balloon. It exists -- like x-rays and antibiotics -- thanks to a fortunate accident.
Mike was playing baseball for the Knox County Children's Home in the mid-1960s when a ball accidentally fell into some paint. Mike was intrigued and kept the ball. "For two years I just dipped it, painted it, dipped it, painted it." The ball eventually grew to the size and shape of a football -- at the time probably the World's Largest Ball of Paint -- and Mike donated it to the Indiana Soldiers' and Sailors' Children's Home Museum in Knightstown, Indiana,, where it remains to this day. "When I was in high school, I didn't ever expect to do anything with it," he explains. "I tried to get it back, but they wouldn't give it to me."
The idea, however, stuck in Mike's brain like a poorly painted door to a frame.
On January 1, 1977 he had his oldest son, only three at the time, paint another baseball. That son has children of his own now, and that baseball is at the heart of the behemoth that hangs from a rafter in a small building in back of Mike's house, all 1,300+ pounds and 18,000+ coats of it.
"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 says 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 27 1/2 years." Mike's "goals" for the ball have expanded along with its girth -- 5,000 coats, 10,000 coats -- at which point it was accepted into Ripley's -- 15,000 coats, and now 20,000 coats. In May 2004 the ball earned a Guinness Book of World Records certification.
The ball hangs in its little shed surrounded by five-gallon latex paint buckets. A rainbow of spatters coats the floor. On dry days Mike can apply as many as ten new coats of paint, but damp days slow the pace considerably. "I put four coats on it today," Mike says, casually adding that Glenda has painted the ball 8,000 times. "I don't get over-possessed with it," Mike explains. "I'll come out here if I feel like painting it. And sometimes I don't. I've gone as long as a year not painting it. I had kids that were little. I just wasn't enthused about it at the time."
Mike's willingness to share his ball with others has moved him to promote it as a hands-on tourist attraction. Mike sought and received sponsorship from a company that gave him the buckets of paint as well as money for a new, bigger shed next to the road. The new building will display the ball from a steel beam, enable it to dry faster between coats, and serve as a memorial to everyone who stops by to paint it. "This will be like a museum," Mike says reverently as he shows us the half-finished structure. "It will be a roadside attraction for the world."
Mike and Glenda have been laying the foundation for this project for years. They tally how many times each color has been used and keep a tote board of everyone who has painted the ball ("I'm behind about 300 people," Mike admits). They take a picture of everyone who paints it, have them sign a ledger, then give them a certificate to commemorate their contribution. Ours notes that we applied coat #18,430 -- yellow -- and politely overlooks that we inadvertently entombed several mosquitoes with our zealous roller technique.
The nearby town of Alexandria invited Mike to move his ball there, but he felt uneasy about the arrangement. "I'm still painting it," he protested to us. "I wanna see the ball. I wanna see people's reactions when they paint it. I wanna be here when they're here." We agree with Mike. The ball should stay next to the Carmichael house, off of the beaten path, where only the sincerely motivated will travel. As long as it remains here it is unlikely to show up in The New Yorker or on Oprah, or to be milked for droll postmodernism by the likes of Moby or Bono.
Mike insists that this ball is it; there will be no successor, no heir presumptive to take its place should it roll through a wall and into the woods or drop off of the beam and fall to the center of the earth. "This took forever and it's a lot of work and a lot more money than people realize," he says. "I never thought it would come to this. It was just a little hobby."
We wonder: Will the ball of paint someday become so massive that it collapses on itself and become a miniature sun? Our understanding of physics and latex is admittedly spotty, but paint is flammable, isn't it? Could Mike Carmichael be on the verge of another fortunate accident -- or will that new dawn breaking over Indiana merely illuminate our obliteration?
Update - June 2005: We checked in with the Carmichaels. Glenda filled us in (Michael was working at his job. "That ball doesn't pay the bills.") She said the ball is on its way to 19,000 layers. The new Ball of Paint Pavilion should be completed this month, and open later this summer if all goes well.