By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The sign on the chain link fence says "Portable and repair welding." The big, flat lot behind Cars R Us in Red Oak is fenced in as though to keep the yard full of old auto parts, farm machinery, and anonymous rusted metal from wandering away. It's all raw material for Strickland, who works in the tradition of roadside "muffler men," seeing the idea for a sculpture in a piece of junk and then welding on additional parts to fit the vision. For years, he's worked in the open field next to the house where he lives with his wife, Nancy, and their children, and the three-sided metal shed is a new luxury for working and part of the reason for today's visit.
It's a messy day, and we pick our way across the mud via a walkway of metal street signs laid down like patio stones, shooing away the ram and goats that roam among the rusting metal hulks. In the next field, there's a potbellied pig, very pregnant. On the walls of the shed hangs a rusted typewriter that's been given a wire face; a fish made from part of a rusted barrel with a glass eye; and a mask, rusted red, with a pair of pliers forming the mouth. David points out that he's built up the floor and says of his new "studio," "With the stove going, it's pretty decent." Bruce claims the typewriter and the fish for the gallery and takes a look at David's work in progress, which is, in fact, a muffler man. He has long, jazzy legs, a leaning stance, a face of wire, and long, loose arms. David points out the pieces he plans to make a banjo from and talks about the arms being perhaps too long. "I might have to cut 'em off," he muses. Then we all walk over to look at the pig.
Before he started making art, Strickland worked for the phone company. Because of a DWI charge, he was required to take a state-sponsored trade course, and he likes to tell people that it's only because the heating and air-conditioning repair class was already filled that he took the welding class. He didn't stick with welding, anyway, taking odd jobs as a carpenter, plumber, and general laborer. And he still does odd jobs. Art is just one of them. For weeks, he'll get completely involved in hauling and scrapping metal, then he'll drop that and make art nonstop for awhile.
"He works best with the gallery representing him," says Julie. Like many artists, he needs a deadline, an impetus. The Webbs help him out in lots of ways, encouraging him, keeping track of his work, and pricing it with him (it sells now for anywhere from $200 to $2,500) so they're not working against each other. He can sell anything to anyone who drops by, and, like many folk artists, he likes the visitors and is happy to see people.
"One day," grins Julie, "David called us and really wanted us to come over. It turns out he wanted us to help him load a pig into his truck."
"What I make, ain't nobody seen it before."
We're really late for Reverend Hunter's now, and he mentions it as soon as we enter the modest house in South Dallas with the red Cadillac parked on the side. The back yard is Hunter's work space, lightly littered with shavings around a pile of found wood and sawn logs. Inside, Hunter, a surprisingly young-looking 92-year-old, and his wife, Ruby, pretty and white-haired with impeccably manicured hands demurely folded in her lap, are waiting. "We visit quite a few reverends, but Reverend and Mrs. Hunter are the most elegant people I've ever met," Julie had told me on the drive over. "They're royalty."
"I knew you'd get after us," says Julie, when Hunter mentions our tardiness. "I believe in being on time," declares Hunter. "I have breakfast at 6:30 a.m. on the dot. At 12, I have dinner, on the dot. I get up at 5 a.m. On The Dot." He's the family alarm clock for the grandchildren, he tells us, calling on the phone to wake them in the morning. Hunter is a natural speaker--he expects the spotlight and speaks to a group of three or four as if we were the whole congregation. He's been pastor of the True Light Baptist Church since the Sixties; he pastored in Texarkana for 13 years before that and for eight years in Sherman before that. He's a man with strong convictions and a lot to say.
Dressed in work clothes--paint-splattered pants and shoes, a plaid flannel shirt, and a cap--Hunter leaves Julie to visit with Ruby in the TV-dominated den and leads us into the living room, where he sits on an exercycle while he talks. Privacy is not the only reason he wanted to take us into this room--several of the new pieces standing on the floor catch Bruce's eye.
A gracefully long-legged walking man and a short stump man with a jaunty hat, his face on the round top of a sawn log, are both good examples of Hunter's sculptures, which he started making as a hobby, to give to his parishioners and family. The best have a sophisticated whimsy, a physical humor, and they are all painted in Hunter's bright, unmixed crayon-box palette. He likes to use the shape of the wood as he finds it, which accounts for those long literal limbs, and he attaches the arms or feet with a mixture of wood shavings and glue, burning in details with a hot ice pick. He's only sort of interested in talking about his art, though. He's very interested in talking about himself. After all, folk art is narrative, the work is really an illustration to the tales, and Hunter, like so many Southern preachers, is a natural raconteur--a storyteller.