'What is that, a muffler?'

Texas is home to an eccentric group of outsider artists celebrated as far away as New York. But if you want to see their work here, you'll have to travel to a renegade art gallery in Waxahachie.

At first, Bruce and Julie had a shop they called Beyond Time on the mezzanine of the health food store in Waxahachie where Bruce was a part-time chef, cooking Indian curries he'd learned from his grandmother. Beyond Time was full of the things they loved and collected, and it wasn't long before they moved it around the corner, at the same time renting another space to store their favorite things. "But we hardly ever opened the shop," says Julie, remembering Beyond Time. "If we liked someone or they seemed particularly interested in the stuff, we'd take them to see our 'museum.' That's what we called it, and it was filled with all the lodge stuff we didn't really want to sell."

In 1994, the Webbs bought the old paint store just off the square, one of the last untouched buildings in town, to use as gallery space. The previous residents of the building were pack rats like the Webbs, and the place was filled with funeral-home paraphernalia from Midlothian and old magic tricks--the owner was an amateur magician.

"It was absolutely dirty, packed cram full, with low ceilings. Now it's this big, beautiful gallery," says Griffiths, who considers it the best folk art gallery in the country.

The Webbs live right next door. From the sidewalk, you enter their home through metal gates made by David Strickland, a foreshadowing of what's to come. Upstairs, in a former phone company space, are vestiges of the past life that led Bruce and Julie to their present occupation: Painted sets used in initiation rites stand at one end of the loft, and a giant circus poster by Snap Wyatt advertising a freak show runs the length of one wall. Across from the room Bruce uses as a studio is a storage space containing the remains of their weird collection: a Woodmen of the World lung tester, an exploding paddle, a stuffed goat on wheels, objects used in the secret initiation rites of various brotherhoods. Bruce and Julie developed a reputation among their own fraternity of junk dealers, flea marketers, and stuff sellers: If you ever get anything weird, call the Webbs. That's how they came by the embalming table and the wicker casket over in one corner. Gradually their collection, by the "anything weird" definition, came to include folk art.

Like the Zulu-type warrior figures fashioned from animal bones made by Ollie Smith, who grew up in Moshure Valley, a black settlement near Arlington, before moving to Virginia. "To me, that's reincarnation," he'd say about visualizing the shape of a man's head in a chicken bone. Of course, the Webbs were interested. "It's all connected" is a phrase that turns up like a conversational refrain whenever you reach the intersection Bruce and Julie perceive between punk rock, skateboarding, Japanese manga, Hopi kachina, and the self-taught artist Reverend Hunter, for instance. They're humanity's archetypes.

The idea for a gallery was planted in 1989, when the collector Webbs were asked to mount an exhibit at Mountain View College. The show included, among other artists, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, whose preferred medium is different colors of mud mixed with sugar or Coca-Cola; Reverend Hunter, a Dallas preacher who carves figures from found wood; Artist Chuckie, who still lives with his mother in Shreveport; and Carl Nash, the Lubbock native whose giant backyard "Robot Band" earned him zoning violation fines from Fort Worth city officials when he lived there. The show convinced the Webbs that they needed to indulge their own passion more publicly, and, says Julie, "It convinced us that the artists need us."

"Collecting doesn't end with the object. We're interested in the person behind the things," says Bruce.

Soon Bruce and Julie were collecting books and catalogs, doing a lot of detective work to find the people behind the things. And they were on the road again, visiting folk artists where they lived. "This kind of art, you go to it; it doesn't come to you," explains Bruce. "You take a wrong turn, and find a decorated yard. We're willing to drive anywhere at the drop of a hat."

"A good deal on a yard dog."
When I arrive in Waxahachie on a chilly, rainy day to "go visiting" with the Webbs, David Strickland and Julie are looking over some Charley Kinney paintings that have just arrived for the Webbs' upcoming Text Tour show. The Webbs sell art by artists all over the country. Disabled and barely literate, Kinney farmed and lived in Toller Hollow in Kentucky and besides his paintings, was known for the puppets he made, operating them with his foot while he played the fiddle. David, an odd-job welder, came into town to pay his gas bill and, generally interested in the work of other artists, just dropped by the gallery. He and Julie study a painting of a cow lost in some bullrushes--"It be like hell on arth for me" is written across the painting in straggling letters.

David Strickland, introduced to me as "one of the most important artists working in Texas today," is a wiry, slender, forty-something guy in a gimme cap, lumberjacket, and jeans, his functional fashion contrasting with Julie's hyper-cool orange pants, purple sweater, and Steve Madden shoes and Bruce's new, pointy buzz cut. He's only been making art for seven years or so, but Strickland's work was included in the landmark Passionate Visions show, and he was one of six artists selected by Coca-Cola, with the help of the American Museum of Folk Art, to create Coke bottles for their Olympic promotion. Strickland's bottle was eight feet tall, entirely constructed from found metal pieces.

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