Grandma Prisbrey & The Delicate Uncovering of a Bottle Village


Simi Valley – a town of all things day and night. In this ever-polarized land lies Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey’s Bottle Village, easily one of the most overlooked properties in a place where black and white constantly wrestle with one another.  A historical site which few of the city patrons know about – where even neighbors drive past — is hidden in plain sight.

Once you arrive and begin to venture around, the enormity of the site overwhelms you; there are simply too many bottles for any single person to take in – so you think.

grandmaprisbreybottlesPhoto CC: @mojmehrassa

Tressa’s endeavor began in 1956, with an initiative to house and store her extensive 70,000 pencil collection that she valued so dearly.  Few could have imagined what came next.

The Simi landfill hosted the assemblage of materials that came to constitute Grandma’s Bottle Village.  One wagonload at a time, Tressa made daily pilgrimages to the landfill where she would scour, collect, and finally haul home the found items, ready-mades, and uniform recyclables (such as glass bottles, dolls, and springs), that she would transform into her esoteric village.  Thirteen buildings, twenty sculptures, and countless mosaic walkways, fountains, and shrines later, Grandma Tressa had herself a Bottle Village.

As if using an almost intuitive technic, Tressa, in rogue fashion, formulated all the designs herself. Embellishing her collectables from the landfill with concrete cement and sand mix, each piece Illuminates a part of her personality. Trying to decode her vision of folk art beauty isn’t easy, and prying locals are left unable to pinpoint insanity or genius within this unapologetically eccentric grandmother figure.

bottledetailsinbuildings                  Photo CC: @mojmehrassa

She has lavish names for each of the different buildings: there’s the ‘Cleopatra Room,’ the ‘Meditation Room,’ the ‘Las Vegas Card Suits’ and ‘Leaning Tower of Bottle Village.’ Encompassing a menagerie of motifs repetitiously, she gives character, personality, and a bit of culture to each building and sculpture (check out the National Park Service Featured Properties for more).

Sometimes, Tressa would come into contact with people that saw value in her project; they ended up donating items like expensive French Rococo furniture and vintage dolls to help furnish some of her buildings.  More times than not however, the people who came on her tours would steal the items that she herself collected, thereby taking away from the fullness of her Bottle Village and adding to the fragrance of decay.

blueheartbottlesPhoto CC: @mojmehrassa

Backpedaling briefly to delve into her family’s landscape and the reoccurring dissatisfaction of losing those she loved, Grandma Prisbey was originally from North Dakota and her voyage westward was bittersweet and rife with transience.  Before finally settling down in Simi Valley, she traveled in a trailer with her seven children who all died of cancer well before she herself passed in her early 90s. It has been rumored that her children were exposed to toxic waste found in the soil from a nuclear dump facility near their home in North Dakota. Evidently, she was a widow twice over and an even stranger series of fateful events left two other male suitors dead. It is reasonable to suspect that the Bottle Village was a therapeutic vessel for Tressa to channel and release all the hardship that she faced throughout her lifetime – but you have to decide that for yourself once you take the tour.

babydollheads

Photo CC: @mojmehrassa

There is an air of mystery to this brave woman of art folklore who had a history of singing in bars as well as an undisclosed stint in politics; though brazenly misunderstood, much can be interpreted through her “Knotts-Berry Farm” inspired Bottle Village. Tressa’s celebrity and imaginative practicality infused an idea that was well beyond its years in postmodern consumerism critique. In retrospect, it has been quite en vogue for artists ranging from Vik Muniz, Noah Purifoy, to Simon Rodia to use readymade objects to bring their folk art designs and viewpoints on socio-economic displacement and politics together.

Tressa gave up guided tours once she sold the Bottle Village’s property in 1972 to tend to the health of her son, Hubert Grinolds. Later the site was preserved, and finally in October 1996 it was accepted by the state’s Department of Parks and Recreation as California Registered Historical Landmark NO. 939, a complete forty years after Tressa’s vision first took shape. Marked by a plaque, the site is managed and preserved by Preserve Bottle Village, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that works in conjunction with the Watts Towers and the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.

cleopatraroomPhoto CC: @mojmehrassa

When it comes to vision, Tressa left a legacy of controversy and stubbornness; she represents the model individual who will mercilessly fight for his or her own happiness. She dealt with enormous adversity and overcame the societal pressures of being misjudged for her up-cycling (taking things from the trash) when no one else would. She saw others steal from her and experienced the loss of too many loved ones passing far too soon.

The collective conscious of Simi Valley is the binary of love and hate – which is exactly what she faced on the continuum. Nevertheless, her life maintained balance as humanity worked in her favor. She had support from those in the community that could see her vision; people at the landfill looked out for what she might use and left her stash piles to go through.

Her success did not come overnight and did not come easy, though every step no matter how big or how small, made a difference each and every day. Regardless of your starting point, Grandma Prisbrey is a testament to both life and art; her story is one that can be borrowed and leaned upon, as she showed that creativity has no limits even when adversaries are unrelenting. For a comprehensive timeline, dates for tours, volunteering, general information, and purchasing tickets, one can check out the Bottle Village Website. There you can also sign the PDF waiver that is required before visiting.

While Grandma Prisbey’s life seemed plagued on the outside, in actuality her glass was far from opaque.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s