In March 2017, I inherited a small storefront museum located in Fort Bragg, California, that was created by Larry Spring who was a self-taught experimenter, artist and ‘outlier’ curator. This inheritance was not entirely surprising because for close to a decade, the museum had been my ‘labour of love’. I have an affinity for oddball collections and small museums. Spring’s assemblage contains all of the elements – self-taught art, vernacular science and esotericism — that I find fascinating. We had never met in person but we had developed an intimate connection. Spring’s objects bore the mark of his lively intellect, so it was hard not to feel like we were somehow in conversation. It was a fantastic curatorial puzzle to frame the work of a man so intensely curious, productive, and confident in his alternative theories. Yet, in spite of all of this good stuff, the museum was a complicated gift. The building, its contents and Larry Spring himself, was an integral part of Fort Bragg’s idiosyncratic cultural fabric, and the responsibility of maintaining this legacy became my personal challenge.
Who was Larry Spring?
A self-taught, freethinker, Lorenz 'Larry' Spring (1915-2009) challenged mainstream ways of acquiring knowledge through his tenacious, personalized learning and teaching style. He was a life-long resident of the Mendocino coast, who was uniquely inspired by the area's biophysical environment, and he expressed himself in painting, woodworking and assemblage. Spring identified first and foremost as an ‘experimenter’ who surveyed the world through what he understood to be his keen powers of observation. Experiments in applied physics were his specialty, and he aspired to make visible the complex phenomena described by mathematics through his production of hand-hewn demonstration models. Spring idealized knowledge through making. He dismissed the theoretical musings of Einstein as the 'stuff of dreamers'. Spring was a Vernacular Renaissance Man.
Common Sense Physics
“Common sense physics” is the term Spring used to described his amateur work, investigations, and homespun notions of physical phenomena. Throughout his life, Spring maintained a stubborn resistance to mainstream physics and in many ways this resistance enlivened his output. His anti-professional stance was evident in the handmade aspects of his works and displays. Spring’s approach to making objects was about reconfiguring the existing and the recognizable. Found objects and repurposed artifacts were important materials and all in line with his common sense, waste not want not ethos. Fragments of things became things in their own right – a tuna-can became a motor, a collection of rocks became a dinner party, beach and forest detritus became woodland creatures, carton lids became storage systems. Each object took on a different meaning and function according to his use of it, and as always, became part of his kinetic method of inquiry.
According to Spring, his most significant project was the Magnesphere, a three dimensional model that he developed using table tennis balls and chicken wire for describing and measuring the shape of energy. He also built a ‘new, more flexible’ model of the atom called the Spring Atom, out of magnets that he contained in a redwood frame. Spring self-identified as an ‘Explorer of Radiant Energy’ and enjoyed communicating his observations, craft explorations, and new discoveries. His work was shared on local cable television, at the Redwood Coast Senior’s Center, in self-published books and at regional amateur science conferences across the United States.
In 1985, Spring established the Larry Spring School of Common Sense Physics in his Fort Bragg storefront. He held 3 hour long classes that could not be interrupted or he would start all over again. Spring attracted a largely male group of students who ranged from fishermen, to beatniks to other like-minded amateur enthusiasts. He likely filled an educational void: Spring was a distinctly regional figure who operated within an economy of generosity. People could drop into his storefront at any time and he would serve coffee and demonstrate his theories without charge. Many former students still view their experience with Spring as positive. Although none could plainly describe what they had learned, they clearly felt that something had been transmitted.
Larry Spring’s Afterlife
At the end of his life, Spring expressed the wish that the Larry Spring School of Common Sense Physics would remain a school so that his voice remained authorial and its agency protected. Yet, despite Spring’s self-assigned identity as an ‘experimenter’, he took everyday objects out of context and repositioned them in his language of art. Spring’s unorthodox curatorial eye, combined mediums, materials and object types that suggest that the collection be received as a total artwork — where art, science and unexplained phenomena ‘in between’ coalesce. So with that in mind, I’ve currently positioned Spring’s storefront as a living museum, a kind of vernacular cabinet of curiosities. While it is curated to a degree, I’ve attempted to break the paradigm of ‘museum as mediator’ through minimal labeling and explication. This conveys to visitors that they are meant to experience the overall effect of the space, and engage with the objects on their own terms without the divide of interpretation.
Larry Spring’s storefront allowed him the material and conceptual space in which to pursue his physics investigations, craft explorations and to further an exchange between individualized learning and the community. My instincts tell me that it is within Spring’s everyday practice of curiosity that my inheritance can be sustained. This fall, I am initiating a residency program that will call for artists with an interest in collections and the particulars of the museum’s holdings. Work produced will be site-specific and responsive to Spring’s ideas, the collection, place and community. A residency program is an opportunity to enliven what already exists — without compromising Spring’s voice and place in the community.
I am currently working out the details of the residency program and there are still some unknowns. What I do know, however, is that I have inherited something that is difficult, wondrous and worthy of sustaining.
For more information about the Larry Spring Museum of Common Sense Physics and/or residency opportunities please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Anne Maureen McKeating is the Project Manager for the Hamilton Arts Council’s Building Cultural Legacies project. She is also director and curator of the Larry Spring Museum of Common Sense Physics.