By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"It's as good a place as any" is what poet and artist William S. Burroughs told the two when they mounted a show of his artwork a few years ago and asked him what he thought about a gallery in Waxahachie, Texas. "What's important is the art of seeing, rather than being seen in a certain place."
"If we have the best work, we can work from anywhere," says Bruce.
Waxahachie's reaction to the Webbs is predictable. Visitors off the street are often bewildered. Did you make this stuff? Are you subsidized? Do you do all this work yourselves? And the Webbs look like they belong to just the kind of scene people move to Waxahachie to get away from.
Fourteen years ago, Bruce and Julie were a couple of punk-rock kids who hung out at Dallas' Twilight Room and Liberty Hall, slam-dancing venues where the music was loud and attitude was everything. Now they look for the same thing in outsider art that they loved in that music, a quality Julie describes as "the edge, the pure expression." You can still see traces of the punk rockers in the art dealers--Julie in her vintage clothes, Bruce with his buzz cut.
But they're both children of the suburbs-- Julie grew up in Garland, Bruce in Richardson, the son in a family of Assembly of God preachers. His mother lived in southern India with her missionary parents until she was 13 years old, and his grandmother taught at the Southern Assemblies of God College in Waxahachie. (One of her students was Jerry Lee Lewis.) Intensity runs in the family. Bruce tends to tuck his chin down a little when he talks and looks up and out at you from beneath his wide forehead, intentionally mitigating his naturally piercing look. Julie, the practical one who supported the couple for several years by running an insurance office in Dallas, calls him on his fervor occasionally by saying, "Bruce, you're in that preaching mode again."
Bruce and Julie were living in Richardson in 1986; Julie was working as the vice president of that insurance agency, a job she'd lucked into but excelled at with the same grounded, common sense that makes her art business work. Bruce had a patchwork of employment--a job selling guns, a short stint drilling holes in bowling balls, a longer one working in greenhouses for the city of Richardson while he "sort of went to art school at Richland Junior College." In January 1987, his grandparents died, and Bruce inherited a house in Waxahachie. They moved the next year.
"Julie came back on fire."
The art world is formed by collectors. And at first the Webbs merely collected, widely and slightly bizarrely--memory jugs, tramp art, fraternal lodge art, and circus banners. Filled with a love for things but with no money, they traveled all over the country collecting, trekking to Brimfield, Massachusetts for the famously huge flea market, exploring the South and Midwest in their peculiar quest.
In Texas, Murray Smither and Salli Griffiths are the foremost folk art collectors, and it was Salli who introduced Bruce and Julie to folk art. "In a way, they're all my fault," says Salli jokingly. "They called themselves junk dealers, but they had fabulous stuff. They got me hooked on lodge art--the papier mache masks and banners and stuff used by Masons and Order of Oddfellows--and I showed them my folk art collection." Griffiths, one of the first to visit Reverend John L. Hunter, introduced the Webbs to the woodcarving preacher in 1989, and she and Julie went on a tour of the South to visit other folk artists in their homes. Their long trek led them through Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, meeting artists like the folk carver George Williams; Jimmy Lee Sudduth, the mud painter; the naive painter Artist Chuckie; and even Prophet Royal Robertson, the misogynist artist, "in his first home, before it blew away in the hurricane."
"That's the way it goes with folk art--everyone shares. We went to Kentuck, the art event outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and there we saw Mose Tolliver. Then Julie came back on fire," recalls Salli. "My point was never to be a collector, my point was to be a connector."
It wasn't a big jump from antique to contemporary folk art, from tramp art made of bottlecaps and matchsticks to outsider art painted with mud and house paint. The Webbs have naturally eccentric tastes. As Salli says, "They are outsiders." Bruce has the eccentricity of an only child, and he developed an eye for oddities early: He was fascinated with the Indian elephant carvings his grandparents had brought home to Waxahachie from India and even more interested in the carved "idols" his grandmother kept wrapped in flour sacks in a drawer, presumably so they wouldn't pollute her young grandson's beliefs. Typically, the Webbs' fascination with lodge paraphernalia led to extreme involvement: Bruce joined the Masons when he and Julie moved to Waxahachie--at one time, he was the youngest Mason in Texas. And Bruce himself is a self-taught artist, creating works which look similar to the art he represents. (House of Blues, the restaurant chain owned by Hard Rock Cafe founder Isaac Tigrett, has most of his work.)