By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It takes him a day or so to make a sculpture, he says offhandedly. "I just like making things and making them right. If I'm making something and I split the foot, I don't make a new foot, I mend that foot." He works when someone orders something. Ideas come to him out of the blue, and people come to him because like Christ, he is a magnet. He explains, "Christ had a magnetic personality. A magnet will pick up things that is akin to it. It won't pick up straw, but it'll pick up nails. It's an invisible power. Jesus talks to the invisible power in you." And Reverend Hunter is like that, drawing people to him.
Business takes place in the course of conversation. Bruce asks, "Is this little man available?" And Hunter answers, "Yes--he's $40, because he has a hat." "What I make, ain't nobody seen it before, and it's my imagination, so nobody else would see it like that either. Asked what inspired the little green-suited guy, Hunter answers simply, "Nothin' else could be done with that except something like that. I saw the bend in that wood and said, 'Now what can I make outta that?'"
Back in the little paneled den, with the space heater and the standard doorway framed in Hunter's red carving, we're discussing the new sculptures. "I like his hat," says Julie. "He looks like he's on his way somewhere important." "I wanted it to be an old hat, just something he grabbed and put on," Hunter tells her, and asks his creation, "Where you goin', fella?" "She," he says, nodding at his wife, "made his newspaper outta a piece of cardboard."
"No one's going to make any money off Carl."
This social call, besides being a meeting of two genuine friends, was the folk-art equivalent of "taking a meeting." The Webbs do sell Hunter's art; though they don't have an exclusive arrangement with him, they visit him often enough so they frequently have the best pieces. Self-taught artists are difficult to have a traditional business relationship with; it requires enormous creativity and a lot of energy. Many gallery owners feel it's not worth the time it takes, and that's not taking into consideration that self-taught and visionary artists are obviously prone to exploitation. For instance, years ago, an orderly was caught trading Ike Morgan (a schizophrenic who's been institutionalized for 20 years) packs of cigarettes for a piece of art.
Painter and sculptor Pamela Nelson is artist in residence at the Stewpot, a Dallas soup kitchen. "I bring materials every week, and they make crafts, pictures, beading, drawing, or paint. These are true outsiders," she says. "And some of the work is good. The first thing I thought is, this is wonderful, I'm going to get them some representation. Then I realized that I couldn't push it. I'll say to someone, 'Did you see I put your picture up on the wall?' [But] it doesn't really matter to them as much as the process of making the picture."
Even Smither, who represented a lot of Texas artists at his own gallery, but who collected folk art and was a friend to many Texas folk artists, refuses to represent folk artists. He'll tell you about George W. White, Jr., who lived in the Dallas black community that was eradicated by the CityPlace development. White absolutely refused to sell his art, a rule he wouldn't break even when approached by Mack Doty of New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. "You couldn't budge him," remembers Smither. "And you can't represent someone like that."
"I don't understand the contract, they don't understand the contract, so why have them?" asks Julie, the most pragmatic of idealists. Instead, the Webbs make a verbal agreement with their artists (but Julie does make a list of what each artist will do for the Webbs and what they can expect the Webbs to do for them).
The Webbs' passion for the personal side of the art pays off sometimes. "We deal with Artist Chuckie almost exclusively, just because of the difficulty of dealing with the artist and his mother," says Julie. "He's 38 and lives in Shreveport with his mother--he could be easily exploited, and his mother is very protective." Because the Webbs have been visiting Chuckie for the longest time, Chuckie's mother has come to trust them, but the relationship requires a lot of nurturing.
The Webbs' relationships with their artists occasionally approach, in 12-step terminology, co-dependency. Take Carl Nash, for instance, the flamboyant Texas sculptor. Technically, he is a Webb Gallery artist, but "No one's going to make any money off Carl, including Carl," Julie says flatly. Still, the Webbs like stories, too, and they can spin a lot of yarns about shepherding Nash through the legal system.
"Disorderly conduct was the last charge we heard about," Julie says. He always calls in the middle of the night and needs a loan, a ride, some help, the bail. "At one point," says Bruce, shaking his head, "he'd broken up all his furniture and made art out of it. Another time, he arrived at night with everything he owned strapped all over his car. Carl, his wife, Wanda, the two babies, and an old man we didn't know, all crammed inside with no luggage." The Webbs have one of his totems in their gallery--it stands 15 1/2 feet tall, its body made out of air-conditioning duct, and its wings from scrap metal.