A man of mettle

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Floyd Johnson’s unique hobby has drawn visitors from across the U.S. and abroad to his rural Dolores “Allmosa Ranch.”

A community of big and small people, even aliens, on foot and riding in everything from a wagon to a wheelchair, together with all kinds of animals, populates a small, rock-rimmed canyon in front of and below his house on County Road P.

Humorous scenarios are depicted – from both the old West and Johnson’s childhood on a Minnesota farm. A hanging bridge crosses a hand-dug pond; Johnson has also crafted a miniature stone chapel and a sod house in the setting. The amount of time required for the average person to accomplish such feats boggles the mind.

The roadside community has lured visitors who have filled two books with their names. Some merely take in as much of it as they can while driving by slowly. Most walk through, with Johnson leading the tour.

Figures are crafted of white-painted mufflers and tail pipe. Earlier in his craftsmanship, Johnson used oil-field pipe, but he found it cumbersome and limiting.

The easier crafting of his muffler/tailpipe figures has enabled Johnson to expand his roadside art community. He never really planned for it to flourish to the extent that it has.

Johnson also uses catalytic converters when he can get them – but they’re difficult to come by because they’re usually recycled.

He makes faces for his aliens from bicycle seats.

Johnson is so humble that he doesn’t really want you to consider his hobby “art.” He calls it junk sculpture. His tools are a welding rod and white paint. He says he doesn’t have more than $300 in the entire project.

Johnson pauses to express his appreciation for his neighbors, who tolerate the slow-driving tourists, for local salvage- yard owners, and for Ron Reeb and the other owners of Four States Muffler, who have provided mufflers and tail pipes for his hobby.

Johnson has poured his considerable physical stamina and creativity into this hobby because he finds it relaxing, easy and cheap. He creates for his own enjoyment and has been surprised to discover that others find his project fascinating.

Several sheep — real ones, not pipe art — also populate the created community. Johnson has added them to the setting, with its hand-dug grassy lowland area, to keep the vegetation in check. Dragonflies grace the pond and lizards scramble under rocks. An apricot tree protected by the canyon wall produces fruit every year.

Johnson’s wife, Joyce, has often been pressed into service to help move large pieces into place. While they’re partners, her patience has been sorely tested on more than one occasion. As we pass a tree-house scene and a created tree that features a dead tree trunk as its trunk, Johnson says these two pieces had to be “slid down the sides of the canyon” into place, and the grueling process caused Joyce to say “Never again!”

Johnson said his tree project gave him a whole new appreciation for the Joyce Kilmer poem that says “Only God can make a tree.”

His understated personal humor enhances the walking tour as much as the bolder written humor enhances his zany art.

A procession of figures that represent rodeo casualties is placed near a graveyard that plays gently with the deaths of imaginary citizens of the old West and a couple of Democrats of today. The rodeo casualties ride in a wheelbarrow and a wheelchair and walk on crutches. Johnson said a Navajo woman who visited recently inquired if they are “heading for the cemetery.”

Johnson’s ideas sometimes keep him awake at night. He gets up to jot them down so they won’t be forgotten. He knows the meaning of pipe dreams. In the “community,” a lifeguard jumps into the water to save a drowning person. A cow’s udder offers the choice of a “1%” or “2%” nipple.

A couple of figures peek into an outhouse with a Chinese-sounding name: the “Poo Ping House.”

But Johnson’s ability to make material that is considered worthless into something amazing doesn’t end with his white-painted community.

He built his house and a neighboring house from the ground up with “scrounged” material. He built the first (next-door) homestead for under $5,000, figuring out the process as he went. He said the land the two homes are on was inexpensive because of all the rocks that he would later find varied uses for in his roadside art.

He has also built a guest house and a tree house for his six grandchildren with scrounged, free materials.

What has brought this soft-spoken, humble man to his unusual expression of creative genius?

A history that was anything but gentle.

Johnson grew up in the rugged farm country of northern Minnesota, the only son in a family with four children.

He wouldn’t want anything negative to be written about his father, who was a Norwegian farmer. When he was a small child he didn’t talk to his father “for years,” because he “was afraid of him.” But Johnson said he loved his father and is glad he told him so before he died.

As the only son, from the time he could hold a farm tool, Johnson was pressed into service on the farm. He had extensive chores, while his father’s work load correspondingly decreased. Like so many people who have to grow up more or less in spite of their parents, Johnson heard often how worthless he was while carrying most of the responsibility for the farm.

When Johnson was 16, his father evicted him from the home. Having survived an environment of emotional abuse, heavy burdens and occasional cruelty, Johnson now had to work odd jobs to seek a roof wherever he could find one in order to finish high school.

He took a teacher-training course that was targeted to providing men to teach children who lived in rural settings. He then enlisted in the Army. Shortly before he left the Army, Johnson had a Christian “conversion experience.”

As his days to finish his tour of duty approached, he prayed for guidance about what his calling should be, asking specifically that he receive this guidance by the day he was to get out. Two days before he was to leave, he received a letter asking him to teach Navajo children in the Four Corners area.

He traveled to the Navajo Reservation with $50 in his pocket. He had $3 left when he got there. At one point his car got stuck in the sand on the reservation. In what was to be typical of his experiences with the Navajo people, several of them worked to pull him out. He tried to give them his remaining $3. They refused to take it.

The Navajo children spent two years in a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. Johnson took them after that, for grades three through six. He taught at Rock Point, in the middle of the reservation. The setting was so isolated that out of 27 children in the three grades, only two of them had ever seen a town.

He took a group of them to a small community so they could have some concept of what a town was. It got very quiet in the car as they got close to the town. “Floyd, are we going to heaven?” a little girl inquired. It took him 15 minutes to explain asphalt roads. He had forgotten to discuss traffic lights, so he had to provide some quick instructions on the streets.

He found the children to be quiet, intelligent and respectful. They had difficulty learning English because of its many exceptions and idioms, such as “The house burned down/the furniture burned up” and “Let’s hit the road.” He found that when he taught them the way English is actually spoken – “I’m gonna go to town” rather than the stiffer “I am going into town,” they could comprehend more readily.

Under protest from educators who considered his teaching to amount to “slang,” Johnson taught the language as it is spoken, and the children comprehended it much more easily. He found them to be quicker learners than the children he had worked with in Minnesota.

After teaching for a couple of years he returned to college to complete a degree. He took art in order to bring his grades up. His art teacher talked with him about the importance of visualizing every aspect of what he wanted to create before beginning the process. This insight made a difference in Johnson’s performance in art class and would later inform his unique hobby.

After returning to the reservation, he taught English as a Second Language at the BIA school across from Rock Point Mission.

Johnson was offered a principal’s position, but declined. He preferred teaching.

Floyd and Joyce were at Rock Point for 17 years. During this time they had two sons and adopted a Navajo girl when she was 10 months old.

“In many cases it was a miracle that the Navajo children were in school at all,” Joyce said. She said some of the children had to ride a horse 12 miles or more to school.

Johnson said the Navajos have a wonderful way of observing the best techniques for weaving, making pottery and doing silversmith work in Spanish, Anglo and other Indian cultures, and then incorporating these techniques into their own culture.

While devoting their time to Navajo children, the Johnsons were now “farming our children out” to Cortez to attend high school. At some point they realized that this wasn’t working out and resolved to make their three children their first priority.

Johnson set out to build the first house for his immediate family in Cortez. While he worked on it, he taught adult education part-time for Navajo oil-field workers at Aneth. After completing the house he worked in the oil field for nine years.

Later he managed the Cortez Cemetery for seven years. He had been offered a high-paying job with benefits and retirement at the same time he was offered the management of the cemetery. He said he always chose the job that offered a challenge.

Today the Johnsons volunteer for Wycliffe Bible Translators. They spend a couple of months each winter working alongside other volunteers at the Wycliffe missionary compound north of Tucson. Joyce is still on the Rock Point Mission board. Floyd said Navajos come to their home to visit, and he and Joyce go to the mission to visit them.

The phone rings. Christian Ministries is calling. Joyce quietly leaves to respond. Floyd and Joyce also work with Good Samaritan Center, Salvation Army and other local charities, but they’re not folks who want to talk about their good works.

Johnson speaks of the miracle of provision in their lives, in spite of the fact that they practically ran from any opportunity to make real money. The lightness and humor expressed through his hobby speak of the inner freedom he has acquired through sheer stamina and, later, his faith.

His life, which began in hardship, has matured to one characterized by inner peace. His yoke is easy and his burden is light.

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From Arts & Entertainment, August 2005.