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By Eric Nicholson
"Texas' Most Historic Town." That's how the billboard tempts drivers on Interstate 35 to exit 401B for Waxahachie. You wind your way back under the highway, past the ramshackle burger drive-in (the specialty is lasagna--go figure), down the avenue of spruced-up old houses, and into downtown. Day-trippers come to this potpourri community to admire the gingerbread houses, to browse the antique shops for hat racks and hand-crocheted antimacassars, to lunch lightly on sweetened iced tea and chicken salad in one of the quaint faux-finished tearooms. The old-fashioned square around the turreted courthouse is lined with charming antique malls. But turn down Franklin Street, a block away, and there's a storefront painted garish red and yellow. In the window are some television sets daubed wildly with bright paint and a whole flock of signposts splotched with messages like "frogs have it easy they eat what bugs them cost of living going up change of living going down," and "what a friend in Jesus mind your business." Another window displays a giant man made from scrap metal, his long pipe arms holding a banjo shape strung with rusted wire, and a giant one-eyed fish, evidently made from a piece of metal drum.
If you get the impression this place does not fit in, you are correct.
If you've never seen anything like these signs and TV sets, it's not surprising. This is the Webb Folk Art Gallery, the largest outsider art gallery in Texas. More people know about it in New York than in Dallas, and you should hear those New Yorkers try to say Waxahachie. But they're twisting their tongues around the word because in the last few years, Texas folk art--self-taught art, outsider art, whatever you choose to call it--has become a hot commodity in New York, both in the galleries and at the annual Outsider Art Fair held each winter there. Some of those signs in the Webbs' window are by R.C. Gunnie, an artist from Houston. "Banjo Man" is by David Strickland, one of the most famous self-taught sculptors in Texas.
Spirited Journey: Self-Taught Texas Artists of the Twentieth Century will open next August at the Huntington Art Gallery at the University of Texas, showcasing approximately 35 Texas self-taught artists, most of whose work Bruce and Julie Webb sell at their gallery. In Waxahachie. According to Lynn Adele, who is curating this major exhibit, "A lot is happening right now in terms of Texas outsider art, especially in the last year. Texas artists have come to the forefront nationally for the first time. I think it's because outsider art is the last artistic frontier, and Texas is the outermost edge of that boundary." She adds, "We are lucky to have the Webbs here in Texas."
The Webbs are outside even that edge Adele is talking about. Working beyond the bounds of the art community, the pair of ex-punks have amassed the largest and best collection of outsider art work for sale in the state. At age 29, Bruce is considered the authority on Reverend Johnnie Swearingen, perhaps the preeminent Texas folk artist. Just as minimalist artist Donald Judd moved to Marfa because the landscape of West Texas, nature's own minimalist masterpiece, matched his spare sensibility, Bruce and Julie Webb have matched their habitat with their calling: They are selling outsider art from the outside.
It's not really surprising that Texas is fertile ground for self-taught artists. As long ago as the early 1980s, collector and curator of the 1993-'94 landmark exhibit Passionate Visions: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present Alice Rae Yelen wrote, "We have witnessed the passing of an era--the different, more insular world that nurtured the pre-World War II generation of rural Southern artists has virtually disappeared." But Texas has always been a place unto itself, fiercely maintaining a separateness, a pride in its own ornery, independent spirit. It's a place where the insular quality necessary to produce this kind of art still lingers.
"As good a place as any."
The Webbs are art dealers now, but they were collectors first. Passionate lovers of the images and the artists who make them, they will dog a painting to its source, driving miles of dirt roads until they link a person with a picture. The gallery game they play strictly by their own rules. Webb Gallery is only open half days on weekends, so the Webbs can hit the road whenever opportunity beckons. During the week, they are open by appointment. Period. You can go knocking if you happen to be in town, but the Webbs have a bird's-eye view of the door from their mezzanine office, and "If we don't want to run down there and open the door, we just don't," says Julie. It's not a get-rich-quick scheme, but at least one savvy friend admires the way the Webbs do business. Murray Smither, one of Texas' foremost art dealers and collectors, points out that they've never wavered in following their passion--the appointment-only hours allow them time to (literally) pursue their art.
The Webbs' attitude toward Waxahachie fits in with the rest of their wild business plan (a business run by two rules: "If it's not fun, we don't do it" and "We don't sell it if we don't like it.") "When you decide to have a public place, you have to make up your mind to educate the public," says Bruce, in one of his preacher-like aphorisms.
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