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Welcome to The Orange Show with All its Zestful Wonders

Step inside the mind of the late Jeff McKissack and enjoy the experience of one man’s off-the-wall homage to the orange.

 Welcome to The Orange Show with All its Zestful Wonders

by Nathan Kimbrough

23 de sept de 2023

The expanse of Houston’s suburban sprawl can sometimes lull you into a stupor of bland strip malls and unimaginative housing. Yet in the southeast corner of the city, nestled amongst an endless ocean of monotonous neighborhoods, sits something so brazenly unique that you’ll find yourself almost rear-ending the car in front of you as you slow down to gawk at the unadulterated imagination before you. You have found one of Houston’s idiosyncratic gems; the Orange Show.

An ode to oranges: the history of the Orange Show

The story of the Orange Show is almost as odd as the objects you’ll find inside its grounds. In the 1950s, postal worker Davis McKissack had a passion; not for football, nor horses, nor politics; no, McKissack had a deep love for oranges. Yes, oranges. He believed wholeheartedly that oranges were the key to health and he wanted each and every person to understand the orange’s value in maintaining a long and fruitful life. So he did what any not-so-normal person would do; he took the two lots next to his house, bought a cement mixer, and began to make a monument. Thus, the Orange Show was born.

Over the next 23 years, when he wasn’t running his mail job, McKissack was out and about gathering objects, mixing cement, and adding to his ever-evolving monument. Over time other common themes began to crop up; repeated motifs of steam power, wagon wheels, tractor seats, and a myriad of other items McKissack discovered, hand-painted, and integrated into the rapidly expanding project. By the time he finished it in 1979, the Orange Show had sprawled into a 3000-foot, multi-story jungle of blindingly bright colors and bizarrely crafted objects.

large colorful toys and elements that look circus-like

Photo by Jennie Kimbrough

After McKissack’s death in 1980, the Orange Show might have taken the route of so many other untended outdoor folk art pieces; a slow decomposition due to neglect until the entire shrine was considered a hazard and bulldozed. Fortunately, local arts patron Marilyn Oshman, along with a few generous donors, began a movement to keep the Orange Show a vibrant and vital part of the art community. Together, they founded the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art. In the 40 years since, the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art has not only kept the Orange Show open but has led in conservation efforts to allow each person to see McKissack’s vision the way he intended it. Not only that, but they have also added other Houston cultural oddities into the fold such as the Beer Can House, Smither Park, the Smokesax, various art installations, and they also host Houston’s annual Art Car Parade.

Orange you glad you came: visiting the Orange Show

Upon paying your $5 entry fee (kids under 12 are free), you’ll be delighted to find that McKissack made the most of his space. The labyrinth-like design takes you through a multitude of twists and turns. Around each corner, and on every level, you’ll find a new assortment of unusual contraptions that will boggle your brain. The seemingly hodgepodge journey guides you past enough flags, clowns, and orange and white pinstriped umbrellas to make it feel like you’ve entered a kaleidoscopic circus. From a Santa or two lounging around to metal birds dangling overhead to mannequins promoting virtues to a brick wishing well, you truly never know what to expect next. The best part is, unlike most “finer” art, at the Orange Show you can touch, turn, toggle, and all around tinker with many of the objects McKissack created. In the evenings, there’s even a stage that hosts everything from performance art to puppet shows, a perfect embodiment of the peculiar place in which they perform.

A sign saying: I love oranges and a quote on a wall outdoors

Photo by Jennie Kimbrough

Perhaps the most captivatingly confusing aspect of the monument is a number of bizarre quotes dreamed up by McKissack himself; for example: The clown said, “I am alert. I take care of myself every hour, every minute of the day. You can too if you will. CLOWNS NEVER LIE.” The entire project balances on the line between brilliance and insanity. Once you’ve read a couple of these abstract adages, you’ll find yourself unable to resist searching for more, hoping to see what the next will say.

As your time at the Orange Show passes, you’ll find yourself both awestruck at McKassick’s unwavering commitment to his monolithic concrete monument and baffled by the unadulterated audacity of it all. You’ll hear others around you gasping in wonder one moment and giggling at the absurdity of it all another. It is that same tightrope that so many artists have found themselves tightrope walking throughout history.

Whichever side you eventually land on, you’ll find the manic magic of the entire endeavor invites you to ponder each portion, absorb each non-sequitur, and relish each dazzlingly-colored creation before moving on to the next. It is an increasingly bizarre and infinitely photo-worthy adventure, but more so it is an enduring testament to a man who loved his oranges.

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