An Accidential Art Environment Full of Inventions
Melvin (Mel) Gould (b. 1929)
Art Type or Medium: Environment/Installation
Status: completed or nearly complete
Secular or Religious: Secular with Religious aspects
Pulsing flashes of sunlight from the westbound service road of I-80 approaching Cheyenne, Wyoming signal that Mel Gould’s exit (#370) is coming up. He purposely left the spinning silver duct pipe mounted atop his quonset hut workshop unpainted: on clear days a driver’s peripheral vision is likely to be caught by the stroboscopic sunbursts. A sign at the entrance welcomes visitors to the Gould’s property, and typically upon arrival Mel will invite you to sit right down for an extensive golf cart tour. Curving around an alien-piloted satellite-dish-flying-saucer, a rotating spring-legged elephant, and a swiveling claw-snapping scorpion, he stops at a garage housing an eight-wheeled off-road vehicle named “The Purple People Eater” after the 1958 Sheb Wooley song playing in the background. As a young boy, Melvin had already made a model for an eight-wheeled vehicle, and his metallic-purple well-preserved “PPE” provided the cover story for Mechanix Illustrated in 1961.
At age 10 he pieced together a drivable car from a Model T frame, and had built a dune buggy by high school. He points out that “Moon Beam,” a sleek red rocket-ship of a three-wheeled automobile on display in another garage pre-dates the nick-name of a certain California Governor. Gould has seamlessly welded body sections and junker parts into several other pedal and gas-powered composite vehicles parked throughout the property. He assembled a fully battery-powered fork lift from an assortment of salvaged materials and is pleased by all the gas money he’s saved. Although his property is also populated by metal bears, horses, zeppelins, and a purse-carrying barrel-skirted lady (to list a few), Mel says he never intended to build an art environment and the self-described “tinkerer and pack-rat” doesn’t think of himself as an artist. But he likes to stay busy, “get something done every day,” and when he sees radiator fans and shock absorbers among the junkyard scraps around his workshop, he can’t help but think: “spring flowers….”
Born in San Luis Obispo, California, Melvin Gould was raised on a small farm in the country, he graduated from high school in 1949 and joined the Air Force in 1950. He had applied to be a heavy equipment operator, but found himself stationed in Greenland as an Air Force cook during the Korean War. After being transferred back to Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, Gould was discharged as a Staff Sargent in 1954. He and his wife Opal settled into their current property east of Cheyenne, and despite not having an engineering diploma, Gould went to work for 20 years in the R&D department of Denver-based Foresight Industries. His design contributions included anchors and mechanisms for Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s ‘Umbrella’ and ‘Surrounded Islands” projects. As Gould tells it, he has “no regrets” that he “made other people rich” by supplying the company’s (official) engineers with product ideas from his own practical experience and inventive mind during his tenure at Foresight.
With sparsely populated horizons in all directions, the Wyoming winds animate Gould’s outdoor sculptures to the constant drone of trucks and cars on I-80. A motorcycle gas tank-headed giraffe with fork eyelashes bobs, propellers on small military planes whirl, a cowboy bounces in place on his slinky-legged horse, and large wind-catching contraptions grind, rattle, and spin. Next to Gould’s homemade solar paneled house, “Wind Thing,” a two and a half story green tower structure topped by spinning barrels looks like an over-sized whirligig sculpture– and it also powers Mel Gould’s mega man-cave “Buryville.” In 1983 Gould dug out enough ground next to his house to bury and interconnect an emptied-out bus frame, grain silo, camper, and 55,000 gallon concrete fuel tank.
Accessed from the basement, Buryville opens up into a music room, display area, and additional workshops filled with numerous tools, machines, and devices. Gould converted a person-sized metal locker into a smooth electric elevator ride between the kitchen and basement– Opal laughs that its her favorite of his inventions. Mel sings and plays the guitar, harmonica, and foot percussion in Buryville’s carpet-walled sound studio and behind glass in the walkway outside, his mechanical guitar-playing inventions are on display. A life-sized animated ‘washer-woman’ can be switched to life, and Gould, a religious man, created a Jacob’s Ladder for the electrical age: attached to a generator, a pair of meter-long diodes carry an endless progression of sizzling arcs upwards. Mel Gould is a soft-spoken, calm man with a close-knit family who shows no outward signs of being the hyper-active inventor and environment builder he is. He often mentions that Opal cheerfully kept up all her household chores after he retired and allowed him “time to play” (and build elevators).
First visiting in 2011, I arrived as a stranger, but after the guided golf cart tour, the Gould’s sat me down for dinner with the family, and after dessert, a few minutes in Mel’s custom built massage chair. For much of the next day, their high school age grandson sat in as a lighting model for Mel while I prepared portrait shots and we talked about his really having the coolest grandfather ever! Before I departed the following day, Gould gave me an amber jewelry pendant to bring back for my wife. It resembles translucent polished stone and is made from made from extremely compressed tumble-weed and cereal. To date I’ve returned for three more visits, and am delighted that the Gould’s have the lightening picture from my first visit on display in their dining room.
Sadly, the lovely and gracious Opal Gould died in 2019.
- Art Environments - West | Photos by Fred Scruton
- Art Environments - Overview | Photos by Fred Scruton