Built entirely by Billy Tripp, the Mindfield Cemetery has been under construction since 1989. It incorporates various narratives in Billy's life, and has been constructed mostly from salvaged industrial materials.
Billy Tripp (b. 1955)
The Mindfield Cemetery
Art Type or Medium: Environment/Installation
Secular or Religious: Secular
A lifetime construction project of monumental proportions, Billy Tripp’s Mindfield Cemetery is a personal diary writ large in steel. Its pages are open to the world and are regularly reshaped by sculptural entries that transcribe his inner journey; the Mindfield displays captured thoughts and recollections in a sheer metal fabric that expands and grows denser by the year: “the metal byproduct of my life as a conversation with myself.” Reaching 38 meters high from a narrow plot bordered by a shopping plaza on the west, the Sunrise Motel motel on the east, a small lawn and barbershop set the Mindfield slightly back from Main Street in downtown Brownsville, Tennessee. Forward to the sidewalk, surrounded by flowers and colorful left-behinds from Tripp’s nearby car wash, a painted hood [slide 1] from an old crane names the massively curious structure behind: “The Mindfield Cemetery.” Not intended to last, this low tract (from 2006) brings ephemeral color [slide 2] to the steely gray permanence of the Mindfield and includes dolls, strollers, hanging signs [slide 3] and brightly-painted message-bearing tree stumps cleared from the main site: “In honor of: human Imperfection (I’m o.k. with mine)… .”
Visible from blocks away [slide 4], the Mindfield rises over surrounding buildings like a secular cathedral. While daily life carries on around Brownsville, Tripp, who works alone and climbs the Mindfield’s full height untethered, can be seen welding, operating a crane or forklift – carrying out any of the heavy construction work needed to slowly erect his repurposed materials.
Tripp’s engineering and construction skills are mostly self- and mentor-taught; in the 1970s he began a vocational training course in welding, but dropped out to take painting classes at a community college [slide 5]. He has permission from the city for his remains to be interred at the site, and by rough estimate, the present structure appears to fill out about half its potential footprint. A “standard bearer” [slide 6] assembly, with arched arms “like butterfly wings,” sits atop the 24-metre front face of the Mindfield. Embellished with insect antennae, a pair of hanging signs announcing “MIND” and “FIELD,” it supports perforated metal streamers and an abstract rebar self-portrait labeled “BILLY TRIPP.” Bracketing the composition are opposing skull-and-crossbones and heart-shaped cutouts. Basic themes of life (symbolized by the “valentine heart shape”) and death recur throughout the Mindfield, but typically of Tripp, there are small hearts below the crossbones (“there is a bit of life in death”) and holes pierce the heart “like bullet holes or voids, there is a bit of death in life.”
Themes of Life and Death
At the base, same-sized vertical rectangles form geometric male and female “stick figures” facing Main Street and standing symbolically on guard – one with arms raised [slide 7], at either corner. Teeming with characters and stories, the public is invited to peer into Billy’s open-air aquarium of an architectural artwork, but are signaled to respect its boundaries. To see the full 60-metre depth of the Mindfield up close, visitors may walk a pathway (on plaza property) along the western border. Resembling giant barbers sharpening straps, a series of seventeen “banners,” each topped by a single letter, begins high up on opposite front side corners with “O” and “H” [slide 8]. Sequentially spelling out the sentence, “OH TO US, AM IS, I BE DONE,” the banners wrap around the forward section of the Mindfield and complete inside, above a possible internment site for Billy’s ashes. “OH TO US” evokes the wonderment of birth and childhood, “AM IS” the present tense of living, and “I BE DONE” anticipates death. A large truss along the Mindfield’s western side is “dressed up” with themes of “sunset, the end of the day,” while its opposite eastern side member celebrates “waking up to one’s day, one’s work.” Billy has placed a pair of ground-level steel plates [slide 9] with welding bead lettering that read: “MINDFIELD 1989–20__” and “BILLY 1955–20__” along the western border.
High on the eastern side, a small abstract figure attached to the word “SPARK” looks out over the motel, and “tempts the sun to spark over the horizon.” [slide 10] A similar adjacent figure labelled “FRISKY”(also) has two small flags jutting from its backside (“butt flags”) showing cutouts of welding tools, as well as the letters “S” and “R” [slide 11] in “honor of Simon Rodia who built Watts Towers.” Billy recalls studying Watts Towers in a high school art class, and “likes the idea of having all your work together, rather than spread out.”
A Life’s Work
In the mid 1990s Tripp saw enough promise in his expanding Mindfield to conclude that investing a life’s work might be “richly rewarding.” To the present day, he works without sketches or plans, simply visualizing the placement of new components in real space. Thinking of the Mindfield as a work of architecture that contains pieces of artwork “more than anything else,” he takes great care to maintain visual and thematic cohesion. As it unfolded, the Mindfield’s structure took on the unplanned shape of a ship. Presently confined to a linear north/south axis, the highest vertical column is set back from the Main Street “bow” approximately where the tallest mast of a sailing ship might be. Multiple curved and straight beams suggest rigging, and the vessel allegory – the journey of life, has emerged as an encompassing narrative for the Mindfield Cemetery. For Billy, nighttime [slide 12] especially brings out “Alley,” his name for the Mindfield’s nautical persona – lit with internal floodlights, it rises like a ghost ship of white metal bones into the black sky.
Although he laughs at their phony “cosmetics industry” look, a pair of naked green yard-sale Barbie dolls stand with the birds near the Mindfield’s apex [slide 13], and “Sylvia,” Tripp’s decked-out motorcycle [slide 14], carries a cadre of provocative biker Barbies. Meant to celebrate sex and the human body, the Barbies passenger with his father’s wedding ring, Billy’s teething ring, photographs of his parents “at a peak time,” his father hospitalized, and Tolstoy. Sylvia dates from 2003, the year after his father’s death, and from a period of mourning – defined by the time Billy needed to single-handedly disassemble the Mindfield’s empty water tower at a Kentucky factory, haul it back, and reassemble it “IN HONOR OF: MOM AND DAD.” In recent years, Tripp has added signs high up that swing like gates, spell out aphorisms such as “WHAT I HAVE TO SHARE, BE IT THROUGH MY WORK,” and one lists Billy’s pantheon of favorite authors [slide 15]: “SHAKESPEARE, TOLSTOY, HEAT-MOON, THOMPSON.”
The Sculpted Word
Billy has written a fictional free-flowing stream-of-consciousness story, “The Sycamore Trees,” the first of an intended four-volume The Mindfield Years. Free copies are sometimes available in a box near the front, and several of its scenes and characters populate the Mindfield. It occurred to Billy that his grandfather could have taken it upon himself to travel to Russia and “shake Tolstoy’s hand,” and he determined to meet his “living Tolstoy,” travel writer William Least Heat-Moon. He left a note for the author in an oft-referenced tavern, received a return letter, met Mr. Heat-Moon, and eventually was given the metal canoe Heat- Moon used to navigate through parts of his 1997 book River-Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America [slide 16]. Hoisted up high near the center, that original canoe makes material another life journey from Billy’s mind. The canoe points to “…Begin” (the first and last words in “The Sycamore Trees”) and a low circle within the circle directly above – symbolically the sun rises (or sets) as one paddles into the next life.
High up with the signs, Billy and his wife Beth appear as “silhouette” cutouts, with one foot attached to her frame and the other unsupported, Beth’s is labelled “MF INTERPRETER:” “She lives in and straddles both worlds,” and helps bring Billy’s work to the public – one foot secure in the everyday order, the other stepping precariously into the Mindfield [slide 16].
During my 2013 visit, Tripp was pouring concrete footings that will locate eight A-frames from a defunct drive-in movie theater, and form the Mindfield’s first east/west extension. While taking on supplies for its next departure, “Alley” will be metaphorically docked to this new structure. Billy cannot recall that any other artworks or media sources have given him ideas for the Mindfield, but often new additions present themselves in his travels: standing next to a cotton gin was a cotton seed house [slide 17] that Tripp recently bought, disassembled and transported back. Its “churchy” shape, like a reliquary with Gothic-arched roof supports, looked to him like something that belonged in the Mindfield [slide 18]. To be linked with the Mindfield “mother ship” through the A-frames, it will enrich the docking narrative: a storehouse carrying seed to be transplanted from present life into a new life – a pro-creative rebirth of one’s self along the journey. Billy recounts that funerary boats carried Egyptian pharaohs to their burial sites, and vessels for journeying into the afterlife were among the burial goods. Visible from the outside, and surrounded by sky-reaching industrial augers “like spires,” the Mindfield’s internal front-centre, “the nave,” is flanked by a massive pair of twisted trusses [slide 19] “like alter flames or flowers” from a burned and collapsed gymnasium. A “sanctuary type of building,” the Mindfield’s transparent curtain wall hides none of Billy Tripp’s deepest recesses.