"I did all this while you were watching TV."
So reads a legend beside one of the elaborate dioramas of Tinkertown, a mind-boggling roadside attraction on the outskirts of Albuquerque.
The years-long vision of the late Ross Ward, Tinkertown is a homemade exhibit combining miniature towns and circuses, curios, beer-bottle masonry and pastoral wisdom. It's strange, inventive, childlike and utterly inspiring.
Captivated throughout his life by miniatures, Ward carved circus figures as a hobby while earning his bread as a carnival "show painter." His 30 years of grandiloquent brushstrokes for tented spectaculars clearly spurred the showmanship of his own creation – a sense of wonder and play informs every square centimeter.
The exhibit debuted in 1983 and has seen its share of media attention over the years. In the two decades since it began, its reputation has spread far and wide – some 20,000 pilgrims wandered, agog, through its confines in 2004 alone. Ward himself passed away in 2002, after a nearly five-year bout with Alzheimer's. His widow, Carla, is the director of the museum.
The "town" itself is a raucous frontier burg populated by a diverse throng of hand-carved and store-bought figurines, some of which perform rudimentary movements – in a low-tech salute to Disney-style animatronics – at the push of a button. Blacksmiths pound
It's strange, inventive, childlike and utterly inspiring.their forges; politicians scuttle out of bordellos; drinkers carouse in saloons. The sounds of a Willie Nelson recording waft through like a breeze as visitors tour the city limits (which lie behind glass cases in a long corridor).
A couple of dazzlingly detailed circus dioramas, the spooky "Boot Hill" and other tableaux vivants grace the property, which is also home to – among other attractions – a fully outfitted sailing ship, exhibits of frontier life, antique fortune-telling machines and a feeding station for a voracious (and fearless) crew of hummingbirds. Carla says these last go through two gallons of sugar water a day.
Ross Ward's wisdom – usually reminding spectators that "U Can Do It 2" – is painted in Barnum-esque curlicues on nearly every available surface. Over and over again, it reminds us that imagination is sacred, that doubters are to be spurned and that pursuing one's own vision is its own reward. It's a uniquely warming experience to read these words of honest encouragement. Given how easy it is nowadays to feel like a hapless consumer or overburdened drone, Tinkertown's hand-carved pride is tonic indeed.