Hard enough to lose your father. What if in the raw 30 days following his passing, you have to dig up, pull down, and sell off his life’s work?
The backyard bird fantasia that Sam Mirelez spent more than 15 years building from tile, grout, plastic fish ponds, and miles of aluminum gutters and siding is an endangered cultural site that may already be gone by the time you read this. As of Saturday, most of the smaller fish ponds, nestled under the aisles of birdhouses, were already emptied, and the cockatiels in the cage were spoken for. Occasional visitors, including this writer, paid whatever the artist’s daughter or widow asked to save a little aviary masterpiece: a multi-story pagoda, a cathedral, or a small vine-covered tower.
Mirelez, who passed away September 17 at the age of 79, was acclaimed by folk-art collectors and dealers for his purple-martin houses fashioned after well-known buildings near (San Antonio Missions) and far (Taj Mahal). His work has been featured in numerous magazines and more recently in the Detour Art book documenting so-called “outsider” or self-taught artists, but his emerging status as a creative visionary won’t keep the house for his wife, Lupe, or the Gotham wonderland that spreads around it like any naturally evolving (and unzoned) metropolis.
Mirelez’s daughter, Yvonne, said her dad worked in his small detached garage every day, beginning in the wee hours of the morning and stopping when it became too hot in the un-air-conditioned room. He replaced his miniature creations even more quickly than enthusiasts could snap them up, copying famous buildings from books and small souvenir replicas.
Even more fascinating than his evocative copies is the way his architectural vocabulary — elaborate spires, onion domes, crenellated parapets, tudor roofs — seemed to constantly expand. The birdhouses are grand yet rustic, with unfinished edges, and the pencil marks for incisions left unerased. Perhaps the former Kelly Air Force Base technician, who won an Instrument and Controls Quality Zero Defects Award in 1970 (and was the son of a watchmaker) relished an outlet that rewarded imagination over precision.
“He took very seriously what he did,” said Yvonne. Although her father enjoyed company and was fond of telling jokes, “When he worked he didn’t want to be disturbed.”
Yvonne’s husband has been reasonably good-natured about the growing collection in their garage, destined for their own backyard — a dozen additions since Mirelez passed away. Her favorites include a 6-foot replica of the Tower of the Americas, and a miniature version of the Japanese Tea Garden pagoda where Yvonne and husband
Javier were married, manufactured in green and gold, with tiny plants blooming along the edges.
Inside the small home off of West Avenue, a picture of Mirelez at work sits to the side of his proudest memento: an autographed photo of President George W. Bush standing next to a White House for the birds, which Mirelez built for the former Texas Governor during his first national campaign, when Mirelez was invited along with other Texas artisans to decorate the Governor’s Mansion.
“`Mirelez` kind of prophesied on him,” said Yvonne. He left a small note by the birdhouse that predicted Bush’s next home would be 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
There is something magical about Mirelez’s yard, as R.C. Gallery’s Rhonda Kuhlman observed with a wide smile as she wandered underneath the manmade, bird-exalting canopy. A collector and friend of the artist, Kuhlman is trying to orchestrate a last-minute rescue operation, piecemeal or wholesale. And Yvonne is hoping for some magic, “some rich person, who could just buy the whole thing,” and keep it as it is.