Deep in the Sandia Mountains of Albuquerque, New Mexico, lies the Tinkertown Museum, but this is not your traditional art museum. Upon first glance, you’ll find yourself surrounded by glass bottles on the exterior with a car covered in art outside. Wooden carvings, collectibles, and animated miniature sets adorn the interior. Everything you see is the artwork of Ross J. Ward. He was known for his drawings, etching prints, acrylic paintings, and miniature sets. Ross’s work focused on themes of the circus and the Old West. His years of painting for a circus and his time spent in South Dakota and New Mexico influenced him. Ross Ward was a lifelong prolific artist known for his theme of “recycled folk art environment.”
In August 2023, I had the pleasure of visiting Tinkertown for the first time and seeing Ross’s work for myself. Tinkertown is a seasonal museum that is open from April through October. They’re closed during the winter. So, recently, the museum closed on October 31st, 2023, and will reopen on April 1st, 2024. Upon first glance, I was drawn to the glass bottles on the walls that shaped the museum. Once inside the museum, I was immediately captivated by Ross’s animated miniature sets. But nothing was more captivating and extraordinary than meeting Carla Ward, Ross’s wife. I met her by a whimsical chance in the gift shop while purchasing her book, The Tinker of Tinkertown: The Life and Art of Ross Ward. I was starstruck, and she didn’t hesitate to share her husband’s legacy and artwork with me.
Carla wrote at the beginning of her book, “For Ross Ward, creating was like breathing—a natural and necessary expression of who he was. Using his remarkable stamina and natural abilities, every drawing, painting, carving, and sculpture reflects his creative energy captured in the moment – a snapshot of an electric, forward-flowing, artistic genius.”
Ross was born in 1940 in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and began drawing when he was two, all thanks to his mother, who gave him a pencil and paper. His early creative and artistic inspirations came from the tales of the Wild West. In her book, Carla recalled how when Ross was eight, his cousins challenged him to specifically “draw a bucking bronco, starting with the horse’s back hoof.” Ross accepted the challenge and drew as he was told. Then, as a teenager, he made money painting Christmas windows and banner paint for merchants. It wasn’t long afterward when Ross made the miraculous choice of joining a circus. Ross’s early days of painting Christmas windows and working in the circus were just the beginning of what later inspired him to create the Tinkertown Museum. Therefore, Carla has described her husband as a prolific fine artist because he made anything he could get his hands on into a piece of artwork.
Every artist has their inspiration, and for Ross, his was Korczak Ziolkowski, the sculptor of the Crazy Horse Memorial, whom he got to meet in 1959. Shortly after Ross moved to the Black Hills of South Dakota for work, he and Ziolkoski met in a bar in Custer, South Dakota. Ironically, Ross had seen Ziolkoswki on television beforehand. So, like any starstruck fan, Ross introduced himself to Ziolkowski as an artist.
In Carla’s book, she clarified that Ziolkoswki had said, “Artist? Artist! If you were any kind of artist, you wouldn’t be watching T.V.” Subsequently, Carla shared how those words stuck with Ross for the rest of his life. So much so that his motto for his artwork was, “I did all this while you were watching T.V.” Carla acknowledged, “It was his ‘trademark,’ and it is proudly displayed in several signs in the Tinkertown Museum today.” Although Ziolkowski and Ross were acquaintances who spoke to one another a few times, Carla confirmed, “Ross lived and worked in the Black Hills of South Dakota for several years. He visited Crazy Horse many times and spoke with Korczak on occasion.”
The Tinkertown Museum started as a hobby before it was established as a museum. The museum was the home of Ross and Carla and is made up of 50,000 bottles. The couple collected bottles off the streets in the '70s and '80s, later becoming the wall fixtures. The bottles are one of many recycled items the couple collected for the museum. Carla emphasized how “Ross collected anything that looked interesting to him…you can see all the collections in the museum like the Wedding Cake couple collection (we have over 280 couples on display). He was fond of saying two is a couple, but three is a collection...” The museum is filled with an assortment of antiques, dolls, license plates, newspaper clippings, and wooden statues Ross collected, along with his artwork.
Ross himself selected the name “Tinkertown” for the museum.
Carla claimed, “Ross loved to tinker and create something out of nothing and recycled materials…the name Tinkertown evolved from that concept. Tinkers in the olden days in England were travelers in wagons who repaired household utensils.”
The museum opened to the public in 1983. During the opening, Carla recalled in her book, "Tinkertown welcomed its first visitors in July of 1983, closing the season with a total of 836 people." Since then, Tinkertown's number of visitors has skyrocketed to 30,000 guests as of 2019.
Although the Tinkertown Museum was Ross's primary place for his artwork, he did travel outside of New Mexico. Carla mentioned, "Ross worked in Texas, Arizona, California, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas (he painted many but not every single one for Chance Manufacturing at their factory in Wichita, Kansas for 25 years) as well as many State Fairs around the country. His favorite place was always one where the weather was dry, and the wind didn't blow!" Ross traveled to gain inspiration, and during his travels, he was known for working on multiple art projects at a time.
Two of Ross’s most well-known featured attractions at the Tinkertown Museum are his miniature animations, the Miniature Western Town 1962, and the three-ring circuses. Firstly, the Miniature Western Town 1962 is unique because it’s tiny. Ross had initially completed the Miniature Western Town inside a trailer, which he transported around. He made the town so detailed from the people and the buildings. The animated western town features 300 miniature people; 26 are hand-carved out of wood by Ross, and the other 274 are collectibles. He had placed easter eggs of Disney characters, such as Pocahontas, Snow White, and Mary Poppins, within his western town.
Next, the three-ring circus is another animated miniature set with a circus theme. Ross hand-carved this miniature set into three different circus sections featuring a wagon with horses, tents, circus animals, and trapezes. There’s animation and movement among his trapeze performers and animals. This set took Ross for 20 years to complete. He was building from a miniature circus set from when he was twelve.
Lastly, outside of the Tinkertown Museum lies another significant piece of art, Ross's car, known as the Tinkertown Art Car. The car is covered with different stickers license plates, and filled with figurines inside. Ross created the car after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Due to his illness, he could no longer drive, so Carla encouraged him to "start a new project using the car," which was completed between 1997 and 1999. Carla shared, "Ross used to say, 'I'm trying to turn this Jeep into a Lincoln. Can you guess why?'" Tragically, he died in 2002 due to his illness, but this did not stop him from creating art up until the very end.
Since his death, Carla Ward has been running Tinkertown for the past 21 years. Ross's legacy continues to live on through his unique artwork. He has an impressive ability to turn mundane objects into art. Meeting Carla Ward, Ross's wife, made my visit to Tinkertown memorable and unique. It was an honor to speak and meet her. She had nothing but praise and love for her husband.
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