by Greg Bottoms
Great art meets faulty wiring.
Kingston, New York, 1973. An old man is rotting away in an adjustable hospital bed in a state-subsidized nursing home. He tells the nurses he is from Ohayo Mountain, in the Catskills, ten miles north. He is a mountain man, a maker of monuments. He is the artist of the world and the world’s first true pop artist.
But the medical staff have their jobs to do—medications, bedpans, pillow adjustments, vitals—and people at the end of their lives are often touched by something, something magic and a little crazy. Anyone who has stood near death long enough will tell you this.
The nurses don’t have time to hang around in this man’s small, musty-smelling room and listen to him, though it’s clear he has a lot he’d like to say. For instance, what he once told the photographer Gregg Blasdel and the art historian William Lipke: “I’m a cross between Rip Van Winkle, Paul Bunyan, and there’s a lot of Robin Hood in me. I became some greater part of [Ohayo] mountain…Why, when I walked along the road, the trees bent down on my behalf.”
What these nurses know from his chart is that he has a weak heart, poor circulation, and diabetes. He has possibly been living with untreated diabetes for decades; his blood sugar readings like a stock market ticker.
The state sent him here when he’d completed a stint of “mental observation” at another facility, and after it was discerned, by the proper authorities, that he was not a danger to himself or others. Earlier, he had been homeless, sleeping in doorways and under the eaves of gas stations in what some of the nursing staff think of as the “hippie town” of Woodstock.
He’s heavy, with a round belly—even after living on the streets, time in a mental institution, and nursing-home food. He has a big, gray beard and a mane of white hair. His eyes are wide and glassy: Santa on LSD.
This guy, this old man in a hospital bed in a dim room in 1973, has quite a story to tell, if someone would listen. His name is Clarence Schmidt. He is—just ask the nurses—possibly the greatest American artist of all time.
Schmidt was born in the Astoria section of Queens, New York, in 1897. He attended public school there, and was a decent student. He dropped out of Bryan High School in his teens to learn how to be a plasterer and stonemason. It was a trade a man could make a living doing, and it would become a foundational element in his later art.
School, back then, held little practical promise for the working classes; retention rates were low. He was bright outside the classroom, though, and a quick study, good with his hands. Years later, if anyone ever asked him about his schooling, he would say the best thing about it was that one of his fellow students was the crooner Ethel Merman. He heard her sing before she was known. They had almost been friends.
He worked as a tradesman in New York City through his 20s and 30s and had, it seems, a stable life. He was married to a woman named Grace, a cousin. He made a good living by the standards of the time and place, and saved his money. But he dreamed of the outdoors—the mountains.
He had five acres of family land on Ohayo Mountain, overlooking the Ashokan Reservoir, which was reportedly left to him by a male cousin. He began to go there with his wife for the summers in the early 1930s, and he made acquaintances in the town of Woodstock. Soon he began to work as a general laborer and town handyman. He was adept with various kinds of materials, including wood, stone, concrete, and plaster. He painted like a professional. He wasn’t a plumber, but he knew how to run pipes. He wasn’t an electrician, but he understood the basics of the trade.
He moved full-time to his land on Ohayo in 1940. It was a place so full of life—but not people—and so densely green and flowered compared to the hard surfaces and grays of New York City, some mornings he would just walk around breathing and listening, breathing and listening.
Around this time, in the early ’40s, his life, his mind, his whole system of values… shifted. Shortly after his move to Ohayo, his wife is no longer in the picture, or in any of the stories about him. What happened? Where did she go? Why did his life, his mind, change so drastically? Some of the mythology about Schmidt—to me, the most believable—suggests the relationship was simply unconventional and that she went elsewhere, though still in the Catskills, to live with a bevy of cats. The truth, I’m afraid, is lost. In 2009, Grace died a very old recluse in Glenford, New York, and Clarence’s ashes were found to have been in her possession for thirty-five years. What is known, and what I can say with certainty, is that in the early ’40s Schmidt was living on the mountain permanently, happy and focused, deep in nature, about a thousand feet closer to the sky than he was in Queens. His old life—who he used to be—was gone. A new life began.
The sky. Nature. Light as it shifts through the hours of the day, the seasons of the year. These were important elements to him when he built his first house, which he called Journey’s End.
The house began as a simple cabin made of railroad ties. He then covered it in a mixture of paint, varnish, and tar—which produced a black, marbled look that barely resembled what it once was. He did this for aesthetic reasons as well as to seal the wood from the elements. Into the wet tar, he threw small pieces of different-colored broken glass from bottles and mirrors. His new home sparkled in the bright summer light and the verdant green of the Catskills. In winter, it reflected the many shades of gray of an Upstate New York sky.
Some locals, even early on, thought he had gone insane. “They think old Clarence has gone crazy up there,” he once told a visitor. “He starts throwing cracked glass [at the house] and sings ‘My Old Kentucky Home.’” He laughed when he told this kind of story, a story about how strange people thought he was. He didn’t care. He saw himself as a new kind of artist for a new kind of world.
He eventually sold Journey’s End for the land it was on. As a skilled stonemason trained by his father, he then started a massive undertaking, years in the making, to build blue-stone, terraced walls down the side of a steep slope. He did this partly to stop the hill from washing down the ravine during the snow melt and the rains of spring. At the top of this slope was a country road. He moved every large and small stone by himself. He planted the terraces with the most beautiful local flowers he could find. He was already thinking of the hill as a canvas for his imagination.
He began a second house in the midst of the terraces, a one-room log cabin against a large tree, which he used for support. It isn’t clear when exactly he got the idea to turn this cabin into a seven-story mansion of random angles and labyrinthine rooms that seemed to serve no function beyond its aesthetic potential.
He covered his cabin in tar and bark, as if to camouflage it. From there he erected one room at a time, upwards and outwards. He used existing walls as foundations for new rooms, the composition intuitive rather than planned. Some of his work, occasionally, collapsed and needed to be redone. By 1953, the house was already five stories high, and he continued to live in the original cabin, now a room invisible from the outside and hard to find if you didn’t know the way. He called this his “inner sanctum.”
His idea was to bring the outdoors in, have plants in the house, as well as branches and grass. He wanted to raise mushrooms in some of the rooms, which were completely dark most of the time. He gave up on the idea of making his own small lake in the house when he realized it was too hard to figure out how to do that without flooding the whole place.
From afar, in black and white photos, the house, once it reached its full seven stories, looks like a contemporary on a hill, the home of a rich person who bought the view and lives luxuriously on it. You see beautiful houses like that on the hillsides and mountainsides of Vermont and Upstate New York. It is only when you close in, and take a longer look at Schmidt’s place in the photograph, that you see the house is cobbled together from logs and cut boards found or donated or bought cheaply. On one side of the structure, you can count more than fifty windows—each one, like the wood, from some unique origin. It is hard to find two windows that match. You have to marvel at the ingenuity, the engineering problem-solving, the scale. He was regularly in danger while building. He referred to the mansion as My Mirrored Hope or the Mirror House because of all the windows and his use of foil and glass for the purposes of light and reflection. “All for one and one for all” reads a sign at the entrance to the property.
Entering the house in the early ’60s, you could see how his focus had changed now that the outer structure was in place. The rooms—dozens and dozens and dozens of rooms—had become small or large environments in which to experiment with the use of nature and assemblage and found-object sculptures.
He used sticks and branches wrapped in foil, scrap boards, and mirror and glass pieces of different sizes. He filled the rooms with fake and real flowers. He then ran Christmas lights through the house, often with the wires covered in more foil—a slow process of decoration. In some of the rooms, including the “inner sanctum,” almost every surface was covered in glass or foil or wood painted metallic silver. He filled his sanctum with dead TVs as a way of having more reflective surfaces.
Though Schmidt, unlike most self-taught artists, very much considered himself a serious professional, he did not believe in any art world of galleries, museums, collectors, and buyers—that was not what art was about—and he refused to sell anything. (He was once offered $40,000 for a piece of his house, but what was money to him? Just paper!) His hoarding, his obsessive collecting of almost anything potentially usable, resulted, finally, in acres of material stacked upon material. Around his property there was scrap metal, wood, glass, car parts, whole cars, wagon wheels, bed frames, fake flowers, wiring, dead appliances, blankets, bulbs of every size and kind, holiday yard decorations, doll parts, mannequin parts, various kinds of furniture, and so on. From the air, it would have resembled a wrecking yard. He was the artist and the collector of the great artist’s work. His Mirrored Hope was a museum filled with and surrounded by small galleries he visited, as an astonished spectator, every day.
I am looking at a photograph of Schmidt standing in a cleared path of his Roof Garden, a section of land at the edge and top of his property. It was a space above the house, adjacent to the two-lane country access road, along which several neighbors lived, most whom were understanding—or at least tolerant—of Schmidt and his colossal undertaking. He poses among dense piles of debris, which include tires, mirrors, stone pedestals, scrap wood, dolls, more mannequin parts, branches wrapped in foil, car rims, and more wood. He wears a conductor’s hat, overalls, and a jean jacket. His white beard has gone years without a trim. He is the proud maker of all this. What a smile!
Eventually, as the garden grew and spread and finally moved over property lines, the county was called in to put a stop to it. Schmidt didn’t want trouble. By all accounts he was a jovial and well-liked hermit, tolerated by the locals in live-and-let-live Woodstock, even adored by some. It is quite possible that he didn’t realize, in his building and collecting mania, that he had moved off of his own property until the county pointed it out. He stopped work on the roof garden—it was close to complete anyway—and decided to go to work at the bottom of the slope, below and alongside the house, where no one could see to complain.
He began to construct shrines. What else to call them? He was able to get rubber body parts from the Army, which they had once used to study wounds made in flesh by different types of weapons at a nearby facility and were now discarding. Schmidt made many sinister-looking assemblages of wood crosses with sawn-off hands and heads attached, most of them covered in tar or painted silver or wrapped in foil. He also began to make grottoes devoted to President Kennedy. In these, he framed a cut-out picture of Kennedy, and covered it, except for the face, in tar and varnish, then painted around it, building up an elaborate construction of wood and more rubber body parts.
Some of his final artworks were self-portraits. For these, he framed a picture of himself, usually taken by a visitor and given to him as a gift, varnished over it, and made it the center piece of a kind of multi-media alter. He commemorated himself as a person of profound vision and talent, placed here on earth to spread the word of peace and love for all mankind. A secular saint. “Look at all I done,” he liked to say, standing among his works. Who else could have done this?
On January 6th, 1968, Schmidt’s seven-story mansion, large parts of which he had covered in his highly flammable tar mixture, burned to the ground after a windstorm blew a large maple branch onto his amateur wiring. “Everything shot up in flames,” he later said. “It created an aurora borealis that you could see for miles and miles.” Because of the tar, the varnish, and the self-taught wiring scheme, the property burned for days. It melted into ashes and rubble.
Schmidt moved for a short time into a Woodstock hotel, presumably on charity. He moved back to Ohayo that spring, living in a broken-down station wagon. Quickly, however, he began to use the car, a Studebaker, and another large tree as the beginning of a second house, which he called Mark II. He built rooms around and above the car with wood and scrap already around the edges of his property, and he began to live there. He covered the outside of his new home with silver-painted and foil-wrapped branches, beads, doll heads, and aluminum foil. It resembled a giant, silver sea urchin. The Studebaker became invisible from the outside, and he called it his new office, a place to think, dream, design.
Around the Mark II, he constructed what he named Silver Forest. It was a set of crushed, blue-stone pathways through the grass and woods. Along the paths, he covered trees and branches with more foil and silver paint in what he once said was an homage to the astronauts and NASA. He impaled doll heads and rubber hands and body parts on the branches. His stated mission was to take the edge off of all the suffering of the world. He would leave all of his work for “posterity” and people could come to Ohayo to see it, see that there was more to life than war and suffering and violence and pain. There were astronauts who came closer than anyone in history to God. There were things to believe in.
After a second and final fire, probably also related to his wiring, one which destroyed the Mark II and most of the Silver Forest, Schmidt had no choice but to go to Woodstock and try to get food and shelter from handouts. His health was clearly failing by then, exacerbated by the stress of losing everything, his undiagnosed diabetes, and his homelessness. His behavior, beatific on a mountain top, played less well in the suburbs, making some locals concerned about his mental state. Eventually, he was picked up by police and sent to a psychiatric hospital.
On the streets and in the hospital, he wrote about his mission:
In the nursing home, he was quite a character, oddly smart, eloquent, and entertaining. He was always telling the nurses stories about his mansion and his art, his power to change the world for the better. I imagine the staff liked Schmidt, regarded him as a kind of super-hippie, a hermit from up on Ohayo Mountain, a guy who dropped out of society and made his own world, his own rules for living. I doubt they believed most of his stories. How could they? A seven-story mansion? An altar for the astronauts? The Army giving him a truckload of body parts?
Even when it was clear he would not leave his hospital bed until he was a corpse, clear that nature would reclaim his land as nature always will, he continued to tell the nurses he planned to return to Ohayo one day. “I’ve got to live to be 185 to complete what I want to do,” he once said. “I’ll startle the world with what I’m going to say and do… Believe me: I’m working all night now. I’m doing it in my mind. I’d lay down my life for art.”
Here are some photos that David Johnson took when he lived with Clarence 1970-71'.