John Preble and His Whimsical Abita Springs Museum
The faded red gasoline pump stuck in some Pleistocene age at “34 cents a gallon” should be the first tipoff that things may be somewhat amiss inside this building a stone’s throw from the circle at Abita Springs. There is a “Twilight Zone” aura about this entire setting that’s obvious before you even get out of your car.
And as you wander through the tiny, somehow connected enclaves that make up this emporium of nuttiness, you take note of your surroundings and only hope that somehow, some day, you can find your way back out again. At one point, the “34 cents a gallon” can become your only touchstone with some past reality.
It may be the ceiling of the “gift shop” – made up of old computer motherboards – or the signs: “Free possum with every purchase,” “Prophecies and healings in gift shop” and “Creeps, jerks, liars, bums, cheats, snakes, dopes, losers keep away!”
By the time you get past the collection of garden hoses posing as art, “Buford the Bassigator” – half fish, half alligator – and the bottle caps and glass shards that decorate the walls of the place, you ask the obvious questions: “Who’s in charge of this madness?” or even, “Can anybody really be in charge?”
“Hello! Hello!” says John Preble, a tall collection of smiles whose hair resembles a silver mop just home from a recent encounter with a curling iron. “Welcome to the Abita Mystery House.”
“But the street signs around town call it the ‘UCM Museum,’” a visitor says as he stands in front of the “Homemade Harley Davidson” (use your imagination for this one).
“When I first opened it about 13 years ago, my son, Andrew, was 12 years old. We were trying to figure out a name for it when Andrew suggested using the initials UCM, as in ‘You See ’Em Museum. It sounded good at the time, so I went with it. But people had no idea what that meant. One guy came in and called it the UCM Museum. What’s that, the University of Central Madrid?”
In time Preble changed it all to the Abita Mystery House.
“That’s more direct,” he says. “It tells where it is and what it is. Who knows, in a few years, I may change the name again.”
The transplanted native of Chalmette, who swears he moved to the North Shore after stints studying art at Louisiana State University and University of New Orleans because of “… the clear, moving water here. I like that kind of natural aspect of things. South of the lake, there’s no moving water at all. The water is black there. It just kinda sits there. But that’s why I’m here – the moving water.”
To be sure, Preble is no nutcase space cadet looking for a place to land. He is an accomplished artist whose work hangs in many New Orleans homes and who has invested wisely in real estate, and has reached a comfort zone in life thanks to both enterprises.
In turn, that comfort zone allows Preble to define art, as he does with most things in life, on his own terms.
“I collect things,” Preble says as he stretches his frame out in a chair in his studio. “I got that from my mama and my grandmamma. I guess it’s in the blood. I never had a problem collecting things. Years ago we were in Albuquerque and stopped at a place called Tinker Town. It was just like this … except it was a western version. Well, I realized in an instant this place had all the same crap that I had. But Tinker Town changed my life. It was like a vision. Really one of those ‘life changing’ moments. That was it. We came back here to Abita Springs and it took about a year and a half to get all this stuff together. Now we’ve been open 13 years.”
Preble says the Mystery House breaks even. Some days, “nobody at all comes in.” Then again on other days, he gets nice crowds. They come in through the gift shop and most often buy a poster or any of the other nutty items from refrigerator magnets emblazoned with pithy sayings to … well, you name it.
“I had a group of Europeans come in. I knew they were Europeans because of their shoes. They were large and clunky. They were moving around the buildings. They were speaking in a language I later found out was Polish. All of a sudden one of them runs up to me and pulls me by my arm to the back. He points to a bottle cap I have on one of the walls. He tells me that it’s from a brewery in his hometown – a tiny place in Poland. He was thrilled! That’s what it’s all about. It’s really fun to have those kind of experiences with people. To see that somebody is moved by something.”
There is a Jax beer poster. There is another one advertising a Merle Haggard concert. There is “Darrel the Dogigator.” Over there in that pond is Tina, a live Louisiana alligator snapping turtle who’s the approximate size of a Mack truck. But don’t look for a program or a blue line on the floor to follow. You see as you go.
“If you look around, you’ll see there’s nothing up in any order,” Preble says as though the explanation is needed. “If there’s a blank space and something fits, I put it on the wall. What I like to do is watch people when they walk around this place. It is like at first, they’re not quite sure where they are. Then I hear the words, ‘Oh my!’ Oh my … that’s the phrase I hear all the time.”
As if to give credence without question, a man and his wife walk through. He points to a sign: “You might be a redneck if your wife’s job requires her to wear an orange vest.” You watch the woman’s mouth and you’d swear you can almost hear her: “Oh my!”
A smile crosses Preble’s face.
It is the affirmation that keeps Preble opening the doors to his weird art museum every day of the week at 10 a.m.
It is why people come in to stare; to take photos and to “… bring me stuff.”
And, it’s why Preble doesn’t hesitate to give away, free of charge, anything a customer might take a special liking to. “Hey, they give to me as much as I give away to them.”
Try walking out of the Louvre with something under your arm.
It all sets Preble to ruminate out loud about the “two art worlds he straddles.”
“When we first got back from Tinker Town I took all the junk out of my house, put it here, put it there,” Preble says. “People would bring me stuff. I moved into this building, built that building over there. Just kinda free-styled it. I had no idea I was in the art business. All of a sudden people in the folk art business started visiting me, taking photographs, putting me in books. Then I have people come in and say, ‘But, you do high-end paintings. How can you do this?’ It’s like to them it’s two different worlds that can’t co-exist. It just doesn’t work for them at all. It works just fine for me.”
The FedEx delivery guy comes in and Preble signs for a huge box.
What is in the box?
Your guess is as good as anybody’s.