'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.

"It's a terrible feeling."
"Visiting" is a fundamental part of the folk art scene. Collectors and dealers spend a lot of time driving from town to town visiting artists. The artists expect these visits and enjoy them; it's part of work's reward, but as folk art gets more and more popular, problems arise. First and foremost, these artists make art for themselves, but when the public discovers the artist, things change. And some of the original spirit is lost when artists start making art on demand. Bruce and Julie have mixed feelings about this. Their artists require a certain amount of encouragement and even support (they provide supplies for a number of artists), but they disapprove when a big collector like Dallas businessman Claude Albritton wants Reverend Hunter to make pillars for his private suite at Lone Star racetrack. Is this merely a commissioned work? After all, the Pope put in an order for the Sistine Chapel. Or does it compromise or alter the direction of the artist's vision?

The question comes up with Onis Woodard, a deacon in Hunter's True Light Church. Woodard lives in Pleasant Grove with his wife, Lula, a large woman in a knitted cap and planted in front of the TV when we arrive. He's a man to match his wife, in bib overalls with a thick East Texas accent and a cat on the arm of his chair. The Webbs were the first to buy Woodard's work and represent him exclusively. Hunter doesn't manipulate his materials too much, tending to use wood as he finds it, but Onis is a true carver, and in true folk-art tradition, he learned it from whittling with his granddad when he was a kid. His favorite tools are a hatchet and a Sears Craftsman pocket knife. He's only been seriously making art for a few years--wild cats and dogs from books in children's science texts and photos the Webbs have brought him--and they are gently encouraging him to make bigger pieces and work from his imagination.

This time he has two bullfrogs completed, a big one and a little one, their thin legs curled beneath their bright green bodies, their red bead eyes sparkling, the eyes of an animal at night. While he carved them, he says, he was listening to Frog Quartet, a CD he found at WalMart, and he plays us a little, just a recording of swamp frogs croaking, on his jambox. "I been there," he says, embarking on what you'd suppose is a bucolic memory of childhood. "In the country. Way in the country. At night. All by yourself. It's a terrible feeling." He grins, gap-toothed. Onis prefers his living room.

The intersection of the artist and the gallery, of the image and the public, is what's intriguing. The obvious question is, When does outside become inside? And does it matter? A few weeks later, in Phyllis Kind's Soho gallery on Greene Street, I saw Reverend Hunter's and Onis Woodard's works on display in the airless, light, and stark white walls of a fine art gallery, the kind of vacuum that can make anything seem valuable. In this perfect visual setting, devoid of human texture or reference, the hand carvings recall the intensely personal places they were created. I heard frogs.

"New York is my kind of town!"
Driving into Cleburne, through the hamlet of Keene, with Bruce the tour guide at the wheel (did you know that Keene is largely populated by Seventh Day Adventists?), the Webbs are going to visit Mark Cole Greene, who lives in a sheltered home for the retarded. We're getting close to the original source of interest in folk, or outsider, art, which began to be considered seriously in the early Twentieth century when European psychiatrists became more interested in their patients' artwork, and contemporary artists were looking for inspiration outside the academic art tradition. Jean Dubuffet was one of the first people intrigued with this art, and his definition of outsider art still stands: "Work produced by people immune to artistic culture in which there is little or no trace of mimicry; so that such creators owe everything--their subject matter, their choice of materials, their modes of transportation, their rhythms and styles of drawing and so on--to their own resources rather than to the stereotypes of artistic traction or fashion." Dubuffet also coined the term art brut, or raw art. So outside artists are defined by their relationship to the conventional art world. Outsider artists listen to themselves.

Greene is not at all insane, but he is an outsider. He suffered a birth injury, and when his parents had him tested as a child, "They told us he would never be able to read or distinguish colors or ride a bicycle," remembers his father, Texas writer A.C. Greene, who speaks of his son with evident pride. "Well, he's worn out three bicycles, he's probably read more than my other children, and, as you can see, he seems to have no problem with colors." It's true. On first meeting Mark, his mental retardation is mainly evident from his halting speech and gait--you notice more his wit, gallantry, and imagination.

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