Tucked just along the eastern foothills of Sandia Peak lies a complete, immersive art experience to rival any fine art museum in the world.
What began as a traveling roadside exhibit featuring miniature figurines carved in his spare time became the late Ross Ward’s legacy. For those who know, Tinkertown is a New Mexico treasure. For those who have yet to learn, a glorious surprise awaits. And don’t forget to bring quarters.
From the outside, Tinkertown looks like a recycling artist’s hobby, but upon entering the museum, it becomes clear that the art within will evade any succinct descriptors.
Twenty-two rooms full of miniature dioramas and scenes imbued with artistry, imagination, and humor greet visitors to the museum. Ward, with support from his wife Carla, created Tinkertown over the span of 40 years, and it’s everything a true lover of art could want in an experience.
Upon entering the museum, guests are first received by a miniature Rusty Wyre and the Turquoise Trail Riders, who for the low, low price of 25¢ will strum and pluck for you. The detail with which Rusty himself is carved brings him to life as a blond, bespectacled hippy picking at a guitar on a bedraggled porch, giving the beguiling impression that he’s actually lived a life.
The single longest stretch is Ward’s Old West Town. The impressively detailed mercantile store within is topped by a sign reading “Ward’s General Merchandise Store–1st in the Town–Started in ‘62 and Still Ain’t Done!”
The town features moonshiners whittling, a blacksmith banging away in front of a furnace, painted ladies entertaining gentlemen at a saloon, a Navajo silversmith hammering on a table, a chef chasing a chicken with a cleaver, and countless other fantastic characters—virtually every kind of personality one imagines when one imagines the Old West.
All pieces within the museum contain meticulous detail and a great abundance of humor.
Parked on the steps in front of the Honey Pot Saloon, for instance, is a woman loaded with jewels and fur, leaning in front of a bucket of “iced beer” and a American flag, next to a sign that reads “Touch Not the Cup!”
More humor can be found in the large Boot Hill Cemetery exhibit. There are myriad headstones with witty quips inscribed on them: “Here lies an atheist—all dressed up with nowhere to go”; “Curly Bill, died of lead poisoning”; and “Here lies Johnny Nolan, hanged by mistake 1889.”
There’s no shortage of awe-inspiring dioramas in Tinkertown, but one of the most impressive displays is the big top circus, which could easily fill 80 square feet of case space. According to the book “The Tinker of Tinkertown” by Carla Ward, Ross Ward first began carving wooden circus characters when he was just twelve years old.
Composed of several scenes in multiple cases, and accompanied by traditional big top music, the circus includes an unfathomable number of characters. There are acrobats and spinning trapeze artists; caged tigers, grizzlies, and a rhino; clowns juggling and performing dog tricks; elegant elephant riders; a knife thrower; and a complete animal menagerie.
A freak show scene features favorites like a sword swallower, a snake lady, and an illustrated woman, all depicted with such reverence one could almost smell the carnival popcorn.
Several old-timey gaming machines are interspersed throughout, like Esmeralda the fortune teller, Otto the One-Man Band, and Uncle Sam, who will tell you the strength of your character after you shake his buzzing hand.
And don’t worry, there’s a change machine midway through the museum if the quarters get left in the car.
In addition to myriad miniature scenes, the museum also contains impressive collections of geological specimens, wedding cake toppers, old farm tools, and one 35-foot wooden boat called the Theodora.
The boat was owned by Carla Ward’s brother Fritz Damler, and it’s been sailed all over the world.
Ross Ward’s innumerable paintings, etchings, drawings, and carvings are of such varied styles and vibrant subjects, it’s hard to imagine one man being able to create so much art within the short 62 years that he was alive.
Born in Aberdeen, South Dakota, in 1940, Ward grew up in California. A born artist, he was drawn to the tales of the Old West and to the circus. He was so fond of circus life that he joined one when he was just 17 years old.
After a stint in the army, Ward made his living as a painter for carnivals and circuses. He relocated to New Mexico with his first wife Sandra, and the couple welcomed children Tanya and Jason.
In 1972, Carla and her brother Fritz bought the cabin next door to the Wards. The siblings were both ski instructors on Sandia at the time. Carla and Ross Ward got married in 1981.
The newlyweds initially started building the famous bottle walls as a way to both recycle and to create permanent housing for Ward’s carvings, which he’d been doing for years. Two years later, what was once a rolling wagon of miniatures displayed as roadside attractions had been upgraded to a full-on museum, and Tinkertown opened to the public in 1983.
According to Carla Ward, a potter and sculptor herself, the museum hosted 836 visitors in its first season. In 2019, Tinkertown had more than 35,000 visitors.
Once the pandemic forced the closure of the museum last year, Carla said she took time to do some much-needed repairs on the displays, and also to do some reflection. “We don’t need that many people here,” she said. “It’s just too much.”
She decided that, upon reopening, she’d change the way folks purchased admission, she’d reduce the number of days the museum would be open, and she’d limit the amount of people in the museum at a given time.
Carla said she’s found that guests are “more receptive, more careful, and more intentional about being [at the museum]” with the new policies in play.
After just 14 years of basking in the glow of Tinkertown, Ross Ward was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 57. Ward continued to create art throughout his illness.
One of his most incredible pieces, a series of 26 illustrations of the letters of the alphabet created by women’s bodies called “Abecedarium,” was begun before his diagnosis, and completed after.
Carla said he was determined to finish the piece before he lost his ability to draw, and that letters L through Z are “a little wacky” as a result of Ward’s deteriorating mind. The finished piece is nothing short of exquisite.
As Ward realized he’d no longer be able to drive his car, Carla suggested that he turn it into art as well. Located on the Tinkertown grounds is Ward’s Art Car, covered in stickers, figurines, shells, and pennies. Lots and lots of pennies. According to the accompanying sign, Ward had remarked about the car that he was “trying to turn this Jeep into a Lincoln.” Clearly his humor never left him. Ward succumbed to his illness at age 62.
Perhaps one of the most affecting pieces of art Ward left behind wasn’t a miniature at all. A year after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Ward created a painting of himself, naked and sorrowful, armed with a walking stick and a canteen emblazoned with the initials “C & R” and a heart. In the painting, he’s walking in front of a mine, surrounded by MRI brain scans. The mine is called the No Longer Mine.
Tinkertown has a gift shop well stocked with miniatures, stickers, prints, postcards, T-shirts, and countless other interesting baubles. The book “The Tinker of Tinkertown” is available for purchase, and it is well worth the $19.95 sticker price. Much of Ward’s art that is not on public display is featured within.
Also available is the book “Leaving Tinkertown,” written by Ward’s daughter Tanya. It’s a poignant account of leaving Los Angeles to return to New Mexico to care for her ailing father.
Tinkertown is open Friday through Monday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets must be purchased in advance either by calling the museum at 505-281-5233 or through tinkertown.com.
While on the website, don’t forget to click on the Fun Stuff! tab to print off a scavenger hunt list. Once the hunt is completed, scavengers will have the clues to figure out Tinkertown’s motto. Ross Ward had several mottos himself. One of his favorites to tell was to anyone who’d inquire about how one man could do so very much: “We did all this while you were watching T.V.”