Visionary artist Cleveland Turner, known affectionately as The Flower Man, died in a hospice on Sunday morning, surrounded by friends.
Turner was born in 1943 in a small farming community outside Jackson, Mississippi and, as a teenager, decided to make his way to California but never made it past Texas. After a 17-year battle with alcoholism, he was found near death in 1983 and taken to a hospital. Toward the end of his five-week stay, he had a dream that profoundly changed his life. “This big, pretty thing going around and around like a whirlwind, all colors, like in outer space, with people watching, all came to me in a vision,” he recounted in an essay by Alvia Wardlaw. He made a deal that, if God could help keep him sober, he would make a place where he could recreate that vision. Turner’s special talent for seeing the potential beauty and joy in others’ discarded junk was certainly an apt metaphor for his own transformation.
Turner rode around on his flower-filled bicycle, salvaging items to recycle and adorn his house—first on Sauer Street, then on Sampson Street. When fire and vandals destroyed his house in 2003, the community helped to relocate him to its current location on Francis Street, near Project Row Houses in Houston’s Third Ward. Although he got his name from being seen on his “Flower-cycle” and indeed grew flowers, his house was decked out with anything and everything—old toys, street signs, bones, car parts, doll heads—and it was always shifting and evolving.
Turner loved greeting visitors (“just like heaven to me”), whose numbers increased over the years and came from everywhere, especially after being included as a featured stop in Roadside America. In 2009, he took his infectious smile and brightly colored art to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston where he created a Flower Man House “outlet” on the front lawn of the museum in conjunction with the exhibition No Zoning: Artists Engage Houston.
Longtime friend and champion Susanne Theis, programming director of Discovery Green and former executive director at the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, says she is “grateful for what he taught me about strength, beauty and purpose.” To get a sense of that purpose, watch the video below from an episode of American Dreamers in which Turner happily declares, “My vision’s come true. Yes sir, it come true. So I believe in those dreams and visions.”