The Greatest Show On Earth

The History and Conservation of Jefferson Davis McKissack’s Orange Show

This lecture was part of the Divine Disorder Conference on the Conservation of Outsider Folk art that was organized and hosted by NCPTT. The conference was held February 15–16, 2012 on the campus of Northwestern University in Natchitoches, Louisiana.

The Orange Show is a folk-art environment located in Houston’s East End and built single-handedly by Jefferson Davis McKissack, a Houston postal worker, between 1956 and 1979. Envisioned as a 3,000 sq. ft. educational environment advocating the benefits of oranges and steam power, the Orange Show includes an oasis, a wishing well, a pond, a stage, a museum, a gift shop, and several upper decks fit together to create a maze of paths and spaces. McKissack built the Orange Show of concrete, brick, steel and found objects including: gears, tiles, wagon wheels, mannequins, tractor seats, and statuettes.

The owner, The Orange Show Center for Visionary Art (OSCVA), engaged SWCA Environmental Consultants, Inc. with funds from a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant to assess the current conditions and produce a comprehensive report documenting the history, past conservation and preservation efforts, on-going maintenance and conservation practices, and structural stability of the folk art piece. SWCA assembled a team including Conservation Solutions, Inc. as the art conservator and Sparks Engineering, Inc. as the structural engineer to consult on this endeavor.

The history, artist’s intent, treatment goals, and repair strategies developed by the team will be explained, followed by a discussion of the challenges of undertaking a lengthy and complex treatment using predominantly unskilled and semi-skilled labor.