Ask John Preble what he does for a living, and he’ll say he’s an artist—or he may call himself the “founder of Louisiana’s most eccentric museum.” His voice will italicize the word museum—just as his brochure puts it in quotes—because the UCM Museum is most unlike a typical repository for valuable items.
Begin with the name. Pronounce it to catch the play on words: “You-see-’em Mu-see-um.” The letters stand for “Unusual Collections and Minitown.”
“This museum is a magic thing,” says the 55-year-old Preble. “It provides folks with opportunities to find something they remember with fondness.”
The magic begins as soon as you enter the museum by way of a 1950s gas station. The ceiling is covered with “stuff”—old-time radio parts, discarded computer chips, Coke-can airplanes. Pass through the gift shop filled with quirky art, and you’ll encounter one of Preble’s favorite creations, a 22-foot bassigator (combination fish and alligator) he constructed from plywood, chicken wire, and fabric. Off to the side is a flying saucer that’s crashed into an Airstream trailer. Then you get to the House of Shards, an old stucco building with walls covered with a mosaic of more than 15,000 pieces of broken glass, tile, mirrors, and ceramic. Inside: collections of memorabilia from the ’50s and ’60s, including vintage bicycles.
But the heart of UCM is its exhibit hall. Here, Preble has created a series of Minitowns that capture the spirit—if not the reality—of the rural South.
These aren’t just any dioramas; they are miniatures made with objects ranging from plastic forks to bottle caps, rocks, wires, and wads of paper. The mechanized objects move, blow smoke, and make noise. They also make people scratch their heads and laugh out loud.
There’s a Mardi Gras parade, a rhythm-and-blues dance hall, a jazz funeral, a haunted plantation, a small-town general store, and an outhouse dubbed “Cajun library.” There’s even a scene of a tiny shack sitting on fluffy white clouds. This, says the sign, is “BBQ Heaven, Where Pork Skins Are A Vegetable.”
Preble’s biggest fans are children—not only those who visit (all of the dioramas are at a child’s eye level) but especially those who live near the museum in Abita Springs, La. (pop. 1,957). After all, not all children can display work in a museum, and Preble encourages their contributions. A 13-year-old made some of the figures out of clay, another child worked on the backgrounds, and countless others offered ideas.
“John makes people, and especially kids, feel comfortable about being who they are. He shows them it’s okay to have their own thoughts, it’s fine to be unconventional,” says local resident Donna O’Daniels.
Preble deliberately chooses to work outside the mainstream. He can hold his own in the more traditional art world, where his paintings—especially of Creole women—are valued by collectors and shown in such respected galleries as the New Orleans Museum of Art.
But he put “normal art” on the back burner after a 1995 family trip to New Mexico. In Sandia Park near Albuquerque, he, his wife, and sons—then aged 8 and 3—happened upon Tinkertown, a roadside attraction that housed a miniature Western town. On the return drive back to Louisiana, it was all any of them could talk about.
“I knew that this was what I was meant to do,” Preble says. “It was like I’d been born again.”
He’d always been a scavenger, having grown up fiddling with pieces and parts of broken items. Now, he was going to assemble them into a place that celebrated the region he loves. It took nearly four years of hard work until, Aug. 7, 2000, he opened the UCM Museum. He refused to apply for grants or nonprofit status. “It’s a family enterprise,” he says, “actualized by hard work, independence, persistence, and dreams.”
The museum isn’t yet turning a profit. Preble has to paint “traditional” works to support his family, which, he says, isn’t nearly as much fun as creating a wonderfully wacky museum.