I’m standing on a sidewalk between the Food Giant and the Sunrise Inn, just off of downtown Brownsville, TN, and all I can think about is the Centre Pompidou. The “exposed” or “structural expressionist” of Inside-out architecture, where instead of concealing the structural elements within the building’s walls, the architects (Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, and Gianfranco Franchini) deliberately expose these components, making them visible from the outside. This all felt pertinent, well starring at the high steel structures of Billy Tripp’s Minefield. Tripp initially considered locating his work out of town on some farmlands inherited from his father but ultimately chose the visibility of the downtown property. The half-acre site certainly came with limitations due to its elongated and narrow nature; the only potential for expansion was soaring upward.
Born William Blevin Tripp in 1955 and hailing from nearby Jackson, Tennessee, he was the middle son of a Methodist minister and a prosperous entrepreneur with a country ham-curing business. Rather than following in his father’s footsteps, Tripp found his passion for metalworking from an early age. He enrolled at Jackson Trade School but left shortly after that. Despite the brief duration, the six-week welding program gave him the fundamental skills that continue to serve as a foundation for his work. Now and then, he enlists the help of experts, but for the most part, his knowledge of construction and art is predominately self-taught.
He began his Mindfield project as a stream-of-consciousness 725-page semi-autobiographical novel in honor of his beloved mother, Mabel, who passed away in 1977. Commencing in 1989, Tripp transformed his internal dialogues, life experiences, and various phases of his journey into steel sculptures—a sort of metallic diary. These towering structures reach up to 127 feet, composed of salvaged iron and steel meticulously painted in Tripp’s preferred monotone battleship gray. Within the amalgamation of salvaged bridge trusses, building girders, screw conveyors, railroad track rails, and artifacts from demolished and decommissioned buildings and utility corporations, the artist has incorporated enigmatic messages in metal letters, such as “My Life for it Lived Knowingly For Death” and “Paid With Cost Profit” or concrete poetry-like messages, “doG Bless What e?ver”. Occasionally, within the untamed, invasive metal vegetation, your eyes rest on recognizable items like a basketball hoop, an old iron bathtub, or a metal canoe. The Mindfield primarily remains cryptic and elusive.
Recalling Italo Calvino’s imaginary city of Armilla, is the portrayal of this fictional city: “The fact remains that it has no walls, no ceilings, no floors: it has nothing that makes it seem a city except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be.” An unknown city, a tale of a foundation. Mindfield is at once a bold expression of metallic reminiscence, thought-provoking commentary, architectural fixation, and unrestrained creativity. The Mindfield stands as a monumental representation of Tripp’s life. Not a monument so much as a sanctuary, an ever-unfolding event. It is a garden of delights meticulously crafted by hand, the artist working independently, ascending the sculpture without safety measures, continuously creating one of the world’s most distinct instances of self-taught art and possibly the most extensive endeavor in autobiographical art ever pursued.