'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.

For months, as the Webbs made their frequent drives to Dallas, Julie had noticed two space aliens and a couple of birds, made of scrap metal parts welded together, out in front of a car lot on the highway on the outskirts of Waxahachie. Finally, recalls Julie, "Salli Griffiths and I went to look at it, and the owner told us, 'Oh yeah, that's David Strickland's. He just lives around the corner.' So then we went over there, and there was a yard full of metal sculpture. Salli bought all he had. I didn't have any money, so David gave me a good deal on a yard dog." And the Webbs started selling Strickland's work in their gallery.

Now Strickland, like all the artists whose work the Webbs sell, is a friend, and sometimes that friendship outweighs their business relationship. For instance, says Julie, "Right now, David needs money for a bad tax situation, so we send him all the money we make from his work."

Over coffee, we discuss plumbing, dreams, and art. Strickland recounts a dream he had about going deep-sea fishing with a one-legged boat captain; the sea got real choppy, and he was terrified of drowning. "Sounds like a piece of art in the making," Bruce says. Could be. Most folk art is founded in the personal experience of the artist, unlike academic contemporary art, which so often is art about art. Folk art is the antithesis of conceptual art--it's not about the idea. It's about the artist.

"When you take a breath, you have to let it out."
Julie's getting a little nervous. Strickland's visit has put us behind schedule, and we're supposed to visit his place before going to see Reverend Hunter. "Reverend Hunter's notorious for his punctuality," she frets. She calls from her cel phone, and they get ready to "go visiting"--that's how the Webbs refer to a business trip. Preparations include taking Piro (that's Czech for "beer"), the Boston terrier, and Willie, whom they rescued from under Waxahachie artist Ernestene Polk's porch, out for a walk, because the dogs go visiting, too. Julie sits in a folding chair in the back of the '89 Ford van, coaxes the dogs into the back, and the Webbs are ready to go folk-arting.

"Folk art" is just one of the tags this art has earned. It's also called "visionary," "self-taught," "outsider," "naive," and "primitive," but none of these labels really provides a big enough umbrella. Some artists, like Prophet Royal Robertson, are visionaries. Some artists are simply unschooled. In Europe, it's called "art brut," or raw art, but the term originally implied insanity, and though some artists, like Hector Benavides and Ike Morgan, suffer from obsessive/compulsive disorder or schizophrenia, most don't. On the other hand, "folk art" implies a passed-down tradition of creating, like quilt-making or decoy-carving. What tradition is there of making signs from broken glass, as Baltimore Glass Man does, or drawing precisely with red and blue ledger pencils, the preferred medium of prison artist Frank Jones?

Murray Smither, a pioneer collector of this undefinable art, asks "Who's outside anymore, anyway?" Smither made the point years ago with the exhibit Outside In: Outsider and Contemporary Art in Texas, presented by the Texas Fine Arts Association in 1994 at Laguna Gloria, which he curated. Outside In presented contemporary Texas artists like Pamela Nelson, Bill Haveron, James Surls, and David Bates alongside the work of outsider artists. "Many modern Texas artists," says Smither, "make no bones about their admiration of folk art, but their art comes from a different place." Smither feels that's true of outsider artists, too. Some--Reverend Hunter, Isaac Smith, Onis Woodard, for instance--create out of a need to be seen. They enjoy the visitors their art brings. Others, Hector Benavides or his friend Frank Jones, for instance, Smither refers to as "confined" artists. "Outside In" was trying to say, though, that all of these are just artists," Smither says.

Even the Webbs, sitting at the bright orange table in their mezzanine office a few weeks before, had a disagreement about terms. Julie favors "self-taught" because, she says, the circumstance of being self-taught is the biggest separation between the artists represented at the Webb Gallery and artists elsewhere. "'Outsider' really means outside the conventional art canon, but it also carries a negative connotation of being outside society altogether," she points out. There's also the difficulty that once an artist is represented by a gallery, technically, he's an insider. But, argues Bruce, who's favoring the "outsider" term, at least at present, some artists are not strictly self-taught; some, like paper sculptor Patrick Davis learned their technique from another artist. "Outsider" does define an artist as coming from a unique perspective, but then, as Julie points out, all artists do.

"This is art that's like, when you take a breath, you have to let it out," says Bruce. "These people are going to make art, no matter what. The passion most of these folk artists have for their art, it's more important than eating or drinking. Art should just be called art."

"He wanted us to help him load a pig into his truck."
There's really no difference between an artist like Strickland and a contemporary artist. Except, perhaps, their studio space.

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