Millionaire prankster and artist Stanley Marsh 3 is back at it.
The 71-year-old's newest creation is unlike most of his others, though. This one — not far from where Marsh began his playful ways 35 years ago by burying 10 vintage Cadillacs nose down in a wheat field — will be peaceful and verdant.
And less noticeable, which is how he likes it.
This time, the art lover, philanthrope and, some say, eccentric is building a replica of Claude Monet's water lilies pond — a very big one — to grace the backyard of Toad Hall, the 300-acre spread in this Panhandle city he and his wife call home.
"Art should be hidden and I believe people should see it by surprise," said Marsh, adding that a masterpiece above a supermarket produce section evokes a more authentic response than a well-publicized museum exhibit. "The best and most significant art, you should never tell people where it is."
That was his intent in 1974 when he commissioned Cadillac Ranch. The cars — ranging from a 1948 club coupe to a 1963 sedan were gathered from junkyards, private collectors and used car lots — have since become a pop art landmark.
Visitors through the years have splattered them with graffiti and, in 2005, they were coated in pink to honor breast cancer victims, survivors and their families. Marsh has also painted them black and yellow to honor the passing of longtime friends.
In 1997, he moved the Caddies a couple of miles west along Interstate 40 to distance them from Amarillo's encroaching sprawl. They needed space.
"It's flat here, and just on the horizon, just as you see it, the tail fins begin to rise, and you don't know what it is," the animated Marsh said of the Cadillacs' skyward-pointing rear ends. "Even after you see it you don't know why it's there.
"In my mind it's made for people who have never seen it or a picture of it."
No desk, occasional water balloons
Marsh (he uses the numeral 3 instead of III because he believes the latter is pretentious) grew up in Amarillo the son of a millionaire oil tycoon. He returned to the Panhandle in the late 1960s after getting his master's degree in American civilization at the University of Pennsylvania.
At first, he wanted to teach but instead bought a share of a downtown bookstore. He could have worked for his father but liked working on his own, he said. "And then things happened."
Marsh served as a bank board director and then married. He and Wendy Marsh, an attorney who once worked for U.S. Sen. John Tower, R-Texas, have remained strong proponents and philanthropes of education and art in the Amarillo area. Amarillo has its own brand of charm, said Marsh, who has owned two television stations, one in this city of about 175,000.
Marsh spends his days at an office occupying the entire 12th floor of a downtown high-rise. (He used to be on the top floor, occasionally dropping water balloons on unsuspecting pedestrians.) A pantry of condiments and other spices nearly fills a picnic table at which he eats lunch most days. He has no desk.
"I'm a low budget guy," Marsh said. "I'm not rich. I'm certainly very comfortable but I don't have a private jet."
Marsh has had his battles along the way. In 1994, he was accused of locking a young man in a chicken coop for about 15 minutes for stealing one of his hundreds of diamond-shaped street signs with slogans and prose such as "Big Deal," "Steal This Sign" and "My Grandmother Can Whip Your Grandmother."
Four years later, prosecutors agreed to dismiss five felony charges against him in exchange for a no-contest plea to two misdemeanors. Civil suits related to the incident were eventually settled.
He survived a life-threatening bout with pneumonia about 10 years ago that kept him hospitalized for three weeks and he has battled alcohol. He's been sober for years, said Wyatt McSpadden, a professional photographer and longtime friend.
"He's more the same now as then. He hasn't changed a bit, except that he's not drunk," McSpadden said. "There's no one else like him."
Besides the pond project, which he began about a year ago, Marsh and some of his band of artists and merrymakers are also working on another soft pool table. Soon after planting the Cadillacs, Marsh sculpted a football field-sized pool table into the Panhandle terrain, replete with gigantic pool balls and a cue. It was visible only from above.
"We're going to rehide it soon," Marsh said, eyes twinkling as he sits back on his office sofa where he reads voraciously and tracks his investments. "It's always hidden. We never tell where it was."
Cadillac Ranch almost didn't survive. The cars were planted on land owned by his wife's family and Marsh promised her he'd remove them at the end of the first summer.
"It was wonderful and I didn't have to take it out," Marsh said. "I'm glad the Cadillac Ranch looked good. When you make anything it's a speculation on whether or not it's going to be any good or not."
Then there were the hundreds of pithy road signs — many of which remain today — that dotted yards in neighborhoods throughout the city.
"We don't know how many (signs) are left anyway," Marsh said. "People steal them. People paint them. There's a lot of forgeries, too."
Marsh's creative bend began as a child. He carved swords, built tree houses, painted with watercolors. Someone once told him that made him an artist.
"It's a lot better to be an artist than to be just somebody who makes things, so I said, 'Of course I'm an artist.' I'll take that any day. Artists are great people, and if you're just a guy with a hobby making things, (it's) more fun to be an artist."
His presence adds to pizazz and panache to the city, said Becky Zenor, an Amarillo Chamber of Commerce vice president. She doesn't consider Marsh eccentric.
"Everyone likes Stanley and Wendy," she said. "They're just nice people."
For his part, Marsh bristles at the notion that he's eccentric and his pursuits are childish.
"I personally think I'm a mature and responsible adult and leader of men who is doing what I want to do and more people should be like me," he said. "I think I'm being normal and right and correct and the rest of the people are wrongheaded in one way or the other."
Like his other creations, the Monet pond will be big — about two acres including surrounding grounds.
Marsh is making the replica as a gift to his wife. He began by allowing a small, silt-laden lake behind his home dry up. Because water lilies won't grow in flowing water, he'll soon have crews dig out a small fiord.
He's studied Monet's water lilies paintings to see what other plants the artist included, purchased a wooden bridge and consulted with a local nursery on the proper specifications for the pond. He and his wife will also include a small beach, a place where their seven grandchildren can swim.