Welcome to the Funky Artsy Underbelly of Houston
I spent 2001-2012 in Houston. It’s not a pretty city, the whole no zoning thing and all. There is a particular corner where a gas station sits, flanked by The Galleria (the city’s #1 tourist attraction), an adult novelty store and a residential loft building. The view from that corner is indelibly imprinted on my mind. That’s Houston – a wildcatter city if there ever was one, unconcerned with your or my desire for the neat and predictable. Most people don’t expect to learn much about finding their life’s passion from a visit to Houston.
However, there is a wacky art installation that stands as the ultimate example of finding and living your life’s passion. It’s called The Orange Show and it is my favorite Houston tourist attraction by far.
The Orange Show is tucked away in a suburban neighborhood not too far from the Houston Hobby Airport. The Orange Show is the epitome of folk art, a 3,000 square foot installation that includes an oasis, a wishing well, a pond, a stage, a museum, a gift shop and plenty of seating for the many shows that never took place there. It is made of concrete, brick, steel and lots of found objects, including gears, mannequins, tiles, tractor seats and statuettes.
Each piece of The Orange Show was hand-placed and hand-painted by Jefferson Davis McKissack, a Houston postal worker. He lovingly and passionately labored for close to 24 years, assembling the monument from 1956 to 1979. The Orange Show was his life’s work.
Mr. McKissack wanted The Orange Show to communicate his belief in hard work and eating oranges. Seriously. This man was passionate about oranges. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good orange. But, it never occurred to me to amass 10,000 tons of industrial clutter to prove I care.
The Beauty of Absurd Art as Life’s Passion Project
The whole thing is absurd. Just nuts. 24 years! That’s a quarter of a century! It turned out to be just under 1/3 of Mr. McKissack’s life. Somewhere I read that he worked on The Orange Show, at least in some small way, every single day for over a decade. Most of that time he spent alone, not because he was a recluse. In fact, he built the monument to attract crowds and to share his theories and life’s passion. Talk about dedication to your life’s work!
Toiling away in solitude in a quiet neighborhood in South Houston for a quarter century, slowly adding roadside refuse to a maze-like monstrosity borderlines on bonkers. But, here’s the thing. The fact that Jefferson Davis McKissack spent 24 years building a flea market/art installation dedicated to a fruit is much less absurd than not finding and living any particular life passion at all.
The reality is most people don’t tell their story, find their purpose, embrace their life’s passion. I am not suggesting their lives are without value, but they are often without intention and purpose. There simply is no life’s work, no life’s passion. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Many people die with their music still in them. Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live. Before they know it, time runs out.”
A Sad Ending for Mr. McKissack
Mr. McKissack’s time here ran out. It will for all of us. He died in 1980, seven months after completing The Orange Show. Apparently he died disappointed. He expected throngs of people to come see his masterpiece and learn about his theories of hard work and longevity and, of course, the orange. Did I mention that he really loved oranges? Dejected, he withdrew and died shortly thereafter.
Finding and Following Your Passion is Half the Battle
Mr. McKissack got things half right. He found his passion. Where he made a mistake, where many of us often do, is thinking that anyone else’s approval ultimately matters. I recently read The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin – a fabulous book about the importance of making art, not in the traditional sense of the word, but in terms of finding work that has personal significance for you. Godin writes, “There’s a huge difference between the shallow pleasure of instant applause and the long-lasting impact of true connection.”
We get so caught up in external validation, especially in business. While the pursuit of fame and profit are not morally reprehensible goals (the latter is, after all, still a widely accepted measuring stick of success in business), if we make them THE goal(s), we miss the opportunity to be amazing. Those outcomes are byproducts of work well done. This is why finding something about which you are passionate is key.
I am reminded of something Steve Jobs once said — “My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation. [Ex-Apple CEO John] Sculley flipped these priorities to where the goal was to make money. It’s a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything: the people you hire, who gets promoted, what you discuss in meetings.”
Here’s to Embracing Your Life’s Passion and Making Art
Jefferson Davis McKissack found his purpose, embraced his passion, and made one of the wackiest pieces of art you will ever see. And, in doing so, he connected with me. I am inspired by this man who knew what was important to him.
It may seem ridiculous to you, a colossal waste of time, for a person to spend 1/3 of their life building anything like The Orange Show. But, that wasn’t your choice to make. It was Mr. McKissack’s choice. And, he made it. He made a choice and he followed through on what he determined was his life’s passion. He discovered his passion in life and he made a monument to it. Absurd, yes, but wacky and wonderful, too.
The Orange Show represents everything great about individuality, freedom, art, purpose and passion. It also happens to be a cautionary tale with a happy ending. Mr. McKissack may not know it, but the crowds eventually came. Not only that, but The Orange Show Foundation, the organization formed shortly after his death to preserve his work, spawned the Houston Art Car Parade and the Houston International Festival. He sang his song and ultimately many of us listened.
Jefferson McKissack continues to inspire me today to stay focused on my life’s passion and to do work I am passionate about, to make art. Indeed, great work can be great art.
I hope you visit The Orange Show if you are ever in Houston. More importantly, I hope you share the music inside you, and that we all remind each other to do so for the right reasons. Here’s to finding your passion in life and living it on your own terms!