Sam McManis

A grandma’s obsession becomes a folk art mecca in Simi Valley

Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village in Simi Valley is a folk-art installation that has survived the death of Tressa Prisbrey and, mostly, damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village in Simi Valley is a folk-art installation that has survived the death of Tressa Prisbrey and, mostly, damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Sam McManis

My unquenchable ardor for outsider folk art has more to do with the backstories of the artists than any highly refined aesthetic consideration.

Which, in the case of Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village, is good, because, sad to say, the place is kind of a mess. Don’t blame the artist, the late Tressa Prisbrey, or the devoted volunteer nonprofit foundation that maintains the grounds. It was the Northridge earthquake of 1994 that leveled many of the bottle-and-cement structures – augmented artistically and painstakingly by Grandma P. with found objects from the local dump – and reduced other works to mere shards of their former glory.

Seismic retrofitting, alas, was not in Grandma P.’s skill set.

What remains of this eccentric edifice, one woman’s vision of … well, no one’s really sure, is worth a stop in this Ventura County suburb. Tours are available by appointment and are led by a member of the nonprofit, which is fortunate, because you need context for what you’re seeing. You need that backstory to fully appreciate what care and craft went into the decades-long construction, what flights of whimsy led a kindly, white-haired retiree to comb the refuse of her neighbors and to fashion elaborate mosaics and rooms from the detritus.

My guide was a board member of Preserve Bottle Village, Debbie Dennert, who unlocked the iron gate on the lot, which looks out of place sitting between a senior living center and a residential home. (Once, though, there was a turkey farm on one side of Grandma P., open space on the other.)

Dennert gladly filled me in on the backstory but acknowledged that some of the facts are in dispute. It seems that only Grandma P. really knew the motivation of her life’s work, and she could be coquettish and cryptic.

Tressa Prisbrey, who died in 1988 at 92, came to California from her native Minnesota at 16 as a “child bride” to a man many decades her senior. She had six children and eventually divorced, “which was huge back then,” Dennert says. She bought an empty lot at 4595 Cochran St., lived in a trailer on the property and systemically went about collecting bottles and other solid waste from the local dump to serve as ballast for her artistic vision, which would slowly emerge through her own spackle and sweat.

As you roam the grounds, try to ignore the crumbling walls and focus on the intact gems: the tile mosaics that look like playing cards; the “spring garden” made from reclaimed mattress springs; the wishing well made from deep-blue milk of magnesia bottles; the planter populated by bulbous car headlights rather than flower bulbs; the winding walkway embedded with all sorts of bric-a-brac, from automobile hood ornaments to shotgun shell casings, soda can pop-tops, a 1939 California license plate, a partially decomposed dishwasher cutlery rack and old TV tubes.

“She was totally ahead of her time in recycling, or upcycling,” Dennert said. “We have people from all over the world coming here. They ask a lot of questions.”

Most questions deal with Grandma P.’s artistic motivation. About that, several theories circulate:

1. Grandma built the first two structures just to house her ever-expanding collection of pencils — yes, pencils — and then got carried away.

2. Grandma collected all those beer bottles to, as the Los Angeles Times once delicately put it, “to remind the founder’s husband how much he drank”.

3. Grandma’s affinity for gambling in Vegas inspired her work, as evidenced by sculptures of playing cards — heart, clubs, spades, diamonds.

4. Grandma’s initial purpose was to build a concrete-and-bottle retaining wall to keep out the neighboring turkey smells.

5. Grandma often baby-sat her grandkids and needed some play structures.

All theories hold some validity, but Dennert cautions it’s better just to appreciate the Bottle Village for what it is and to salute Prisbrey’s octogenarian pluck in taking on such an ambitious project when many her age would’ve settled for a nice game of canasta while watching the afternoon soap operas.

“She once said, ‘Anybody could make something with money – look at Walt Disney – but I did this without money,’” Dennert said. “I don’t think she had any real (artistic plan). The dump was down here, close. And there was an auto place here where she got a lot of headlights. You can tell when she had more or less money by how thinned out she mixed the cement.”

But Dennert lends credence to the theory that the turkey farm was a motivation.

“This place was really rural back then, the early ’60s,” she said. “It wasn’t even Simi (Valley). It was Santa Susana. I do know that the very first thing she built was a bottled wall, which I think was 263 feet long and 6 feet high to keep all (the smells) out. Then she built one on the other side. But she also collected pencils. So she built her first house to store her pencil collection. She built more and more buildings, one for her doll collections and …”

… and then got carried away?

“Yes.”

Before the earthquake, no fewer than 15 bottle-built structures stood. There was a “Round House,” whose shape extended to the interior, with a round bed, round furniture and a pink glitter pole in the middle. There was a cabana with a palm-frond roof, and a “School House” where she entertained the grandkids while baby-sitting.

Much of that is rubble now – or free-standing walls with exposed bottles – but the nonprofit hopes to raise enough money via grants, school field trips, tours and donations from the folk-art community to either bolster the structures or rebuild.

“There’s stuff I’ve never seen before every time I come here,” Dennert said. “Those milk of magnesia bottles? She liked to joke around that Simi had a BM problem. She had a great sense of humor. I tell people to look her up on YouTube. There are a few videos of her from documentaries (one is at www.folkstreams.net) that are fascinating. She was quite a woman.”

Grandma Prisbrey, on YouTube, looks just the way I pictured her — fluffy, white Jiffy-Pop hair, thick, round glasses, blood-red slacks and a mischievous mien. She looked into the camera and said: “There was a man come in the other day from over there, and I was coming here about halfway and he says, ‘Are you the crazy woman who built this place?’ I said, ‘I guess I am. I’m the only one here.’”

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter

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Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village

  • Where: 4595 Cochran St., Simi Valley
  • How to visit: By appointment only. Call (805) 231-2497
  • More information: www.facebook.com/BottleVillage
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