Turning rust into gold
The Cathedral of Junk is still the beating heart of South Austin, 15 years after I called it home.
Creativity is the best problem solver, ever.
My friend, Vince, wanted to find a way to make T-shirts for his long-running business, the Cathedral of Junk.
You know the Cathedral. It’s the backyard art installation in South Austin that Vince Hannemann has been working on since the late 1980s. It’s his life’s passion project, and thousands of people a year come to visit his cathedral-sized sculpture off St. Elmo Street.
So, what’s the problem?
Vince is always looking for new ways to monetize his internationally renowned project. Visitor donations cover his cost of living, but in COVID times, you can never be certain about what the next month’s income will bring.
So, earlier this summer, Vince started making shirts.
He didn’t hire a graphic designer to make shirts with his logo on his. Heck, he doesn’t even have a logo.
But he does have his creativity.
He saw a video on YouTube about rust-dyeing fabric and thought, “Well, I have some rusted stuff.”
He bought some white T-shirts and started soaking them in rusted nuts, bolts, tools and anything else made of steel.
The iron particles inside these objects oxides, leaving behind a potent pigment that turns the T-shirts a brownish red in the shape of whatever is sitting on them as the water evaporates.
It’s his latest and greatest idea to give the people what they want.
And he can’t make them fast enough.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine was moving from Austin back home to New Hampshire, and before he left, I wanted to take him by the Cathedral.
It’s a rite of passage for any Austinite, but it might surprise some folks to know that the Cathedral of Junk is still very much open and that people are still visiting in droves.
Longtime Austinites remember the kerfuffle with the city a decade ago that threatened to close the Cathedral for good.
I’m here to tell you that the Cathedral is still very much open, and the creativity that fuels its creator is very much alive.
For almost a decade now, Vince has continued to host visitors — tourists, as he calls them, even though some of them aren’t tourists — on a per diem basis. People call him up on the number listed on the Roadside America page, and he either tells them that he’s open and they can come by or that he’s closed and they should try again another time.
It’s a persnickety way to run a business, but it works for him.
Even former roommates have to call ahead.
I’m breezing by a whole lot of story here, so let me catch you up.
Back in 2005/2006, when I had graduated from Mizzou in mid-December and moved to Austin just before the New Year, I found a listing on Craigslist for a cheap room.
“But you should come by to have a look at the place before you sign up to live here.”
When I stopped by his house to check out the room I’d be renting, I was in awe of what I found in the backyard. Of course I wanted to live there. For six months, I rented a room in his little yellow house and gave tours to visitors who stopped by.
This was a few years before the run-ins with the city.
He was hosting fairly large events with other artists in town. Bands would perform from the various levels of the Cathedral. He lit up the entire structure with Christmas lights and speakers. It was electric.
And also too large.
His neighbors started to have a problem with his events, which led to the 2010 debacle when he had to prove to the city that his interactive art piece was structurally sound and that he wouldn’t host any big events that would upset the neighbors.
I was so sad to think about the Cathedral of Junk going away, so all these years later, I fill with pride when I watch Vince find new ways to make the Cathedral work.
That means being open only a few days a week.
That means asking visitors to park a few blocks away to be respectful of the neighbors.
That means charging big companies that want to use the space as a production studio for a commercial.
Vince is an artist first and a business man second, but he knows the value of good merchandise.
Which leads us to the rust-dyed T-shirts.
I've watched the Cathedral shift over the years. Entire towers and rooms are gone, their pieces slowly incorporated into other parts of the three-story structure. Grocery carts, canoes, skis, wire, webbing, concrete. Toys and technology. A refrigerator.
The Cathedral is never really done. Vince toils away on it, some years more than others. It's closer to "done" than it's ever been, but I know Vince too well. It's still changing.
But he's still using his hands in other ways, which is why I was so delighted to find these T-shirts he’s been making with the rusted iron tools that have been sitting around his property for years.
None of the Cathedral of Junk is permanently welded together. Everything is always changing, including how he makes his living from it.
Only the creator knows what's next for this lifelong project.
You can visit the Cathedral of Junk at 4422 Lareina Drive, but don’t even think about stopping by without calling ahead. Vince is at 512-299-7413 when he wants to be.
Thanks for your support on Substack!
It’s been a busy month in the podcast world. After launching the show last week, I’ve released three episodes of “Class Reunion: The Podcast,” which you can listen to on Spotify or on YouTube. Our actual high school reunion is coming up at the end of September, but it’s “go” time on this project for the next six weeks.
I’ll still be sending out Substack newsletters each week, some about what’s going on as I unpack my high school experience and others about what’s going on in Austin.
If you want to support “Class Reunion,” head over to patreon.com/classreunionpodcast to chip in $3 a month. I’m also looking for a few more sponsors who want to advertise on the show. Do you have a business you’d like to promote on the podcast? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And speaking of promoting businesses, don’t forget that I also run Don’t Fear the Death Card, a tarot card reading and teaching service. I teach Tarot 101 classes, give 1:1 readings and host team-building workshops. It’s yet another way to use my own creativity and community-building skills, and if you’re interested to learn more, let me know! I love working with people who are totally new to the practice.
Sending lots of love,
So glad to read this--I have lived in Austin 33 years, read about it bunches, never visited. Now I have the deets and no excuses, can't wait to call and find him "at home and receiving visitors"
I'm happy to hear Vince is still plugging away at this unique piece of art! I can't wait to get back to see it someday soon. My most prized possession on my own cathedral of junk (an old rock barbeque "shrine") is a wheel filled with toys and other stuff that he donated when he began tearing it down under the city's pressure.