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Now You See 'Em 

John Preble used to just have an attic filled with stuff. Now he's the curator of Louisiana's most unique museum.

They are called "Artistic Environments," peculiar roadside attractions where society's outsiders carefully craft their own worlds. There's Bottle Village in California's Simi Valley -- a group of 13 buildings, shrines and chapels made entirely of discarded bottles, television tubes and other makeshift building materials. Then there's Banner Blevin's Garden of Prehistory in McCall's Gap, Va., a bizarre assortment of life-sized concrete statues depicting cavemen and characters from Appalachian folklore. These are the kinds of places where pesky kids force their parents to pull over on their way to Disney World, or where disaffected young adults stop by for a healthy dose of irony.

But when John Preble encountered one such environment -- Tinkertown, near Albuquerque, N.M. -- it was nothing short of an epiphany. Inside, he found an assortment of fortune-telling machines, miniature circus scenes and a 35-foot antique wooden sailboat that braved a ten-year voyage around the world. Preble -- who, since he was a kid, has been collecting objects such as paint-by-numbers panoramas and postcards depicting things like giant vegetables -- was blown away.

"It was like a born-again experience for me," Preble recalls. "I had always collected stuff. I had always put stuff on my walls, but this guy was charging admission and people were getting off on it. He was making money from the way I had always lived. I didn't do drugs. I didn't drink and I didn't go out much at night. I just bought a lot of crap."

Preble had spent much of his life working as an artist, inventor and real-estate developer. But when he returned from Albuquerque to his home in Abita Springs, he decided to take the so-called junk from his attic and create his own Artistic Environment. After acquiring a vintage gas station, he opened UCM (You See 'Em) Museum, Abita Spring's newest answer to the question of what makes this town unique.

Before opening UCM, Preble contacted Tinkertown's creator, Ross Ward, to ask him how economically feasible it would be to open a similar attraction in Abita Springs. With a wife and two kids to think about, Preble knew he couldn't afford to make any hasty decisions. Ward told him that even though he took four months off per year, Tinkertown still brought in around $40,000 annually. Preble was sold. "Everyone thought I was nuts," he admits.

Nuts or not, the UCM is now home to galleries filled with more than 50,000 found and recycled objects, including Elvis shrines, old postcards, Pong machines and Britney Spears memorabilia (Preble somehow secured parts of her set for this year's MTV Mardi Gras special). There's also a freak show of faded paint-by-numbers, some chilling in their surrealistic scope; a mosaic house dubbed the House of Shards; a decimated space ship; and an exhibition hall of old bicycles.

Aside from such found objects, UCM is distinguished by a dozen or so hand-crafted electronic depictions of Louisiana life, which Preble created from Sculpey, along with packaging materials and other recyclables. One scene depicts a haunted River Road mansion, where a phantom tree swing moves back and forth. Being on River Road, the mansion is, of course, placed smack-dab next to a petrochemical plant. In Preble's depiction of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, a mechanized float weaves through the parade route while music fuels the jumping crowds below. And when you press the button beneath a depiction of a New Orleans jazz funeral, a Sculpey angel and a devil begin dancing above the cemetery.

Along with various water pump rockets, magnets, posters, whirly birds and coffee-table books, UCM's gift shop (one of the best gift shops to be found anywhere in Louisiana) also sells the jewelry of Preble's wife, Ann O'Brien, whose home-based studio is just three blocks away from the museum. And, if you venture into Preble's studio on the museum grounds, you can check out some of his well-known "Creole Girl" paintings, as well as other works.

Meanwhile, UCM has become something of an Abita Springs town square: on any given day you'll find neighborhood kids working the cash register, sweeping the floors or constructing whirly-bird airplanes out of aluminum cans, which are sold in the gift shop. If you're lucky, you may even find Preble conducting an small symphony of adolescent accordion players belting out "Old Susannah."

While UCM has yet to bring in the money foretold by Ross Ward back in Albuquerque, word of the museum is spreading. A nearby bike trail attracts some visitors, although Preble admits a lot of the bikers seem confused by his vision. He says that one of the best things about UCM is that it attracts New Orleans gutter punks and other kinds of people he likes to hangs out with.

His wife agrees. "It's like a big back yard," O'Brien says. "Our kids always know where we are. They're just terrified we are going to leave it to them."

click to enlarge Housed in a former gas station, John Preble's UCM Museum is the newest answer to the question of what makes Abita Springs unique. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Housed in a former gas station, John Preble's UCM Museum is the newest answer to the question of what makes Abita Springs unique.
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