'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.

A friend mentioned Greene to Julie and Bruce, then A.C. and his wife, Judy, brought an armload of Mark's work to the gallery; the first show of his rhythmic, colorful pictures was mounted in 1994. The Webbs sold 16 out of 20 pieces. Now Mark is on their list of regular visits. Mark is clearly delighted to see them when he enters the living room of the old frame house in Cleburne. They want to see his new work, which is at the studio over in Keene, and soon Mark is seated in the back of the van with Julie, the two dogs, Reverend Hunter's two wooden guys, and Onis' frogs.

"I just got back from 10 days in New York," he announces. "I went to visit Geoffrey, and now I'm planning my own Broadway hit. It's a sequel to Braveheart, set in Cornwall. New York is my kind of town!" He's planning a novel, too, to be titled "A Sea Captain and His Lady Lover," a romance novel set in the Eighteenth century, he says, and he's thinking of the illustrations. It doesn't take long to see that Mark is quick and charming and, like his father and most of his fellow artists, a natural storyteller with a love of words. Sometimes, his fictions are taken for fact, which makes his family nervous. But some of his tales, like the one about seeing the aliens on LBJ's ranch, are inspired, like his early pictures.

"For a long time, one of the problems with MHMR was that they didn't recognize Mark's art as art," says A.C. That's not such a problem now. The residents of Mark's home do contract work; right now they're assembling office lights, for instance, but he gets two days a week off to work on his art instead.

Mark leads us back to the gray, shingled studio on the outskirts of Keene, where he works at a drafting table with tubs of hundreds of felt-tipped markers within reach. His brother, Geoffrey, a professional artist in New York, encourages Mark to use other media that are more permanent. Mark tries to work with acrylics, but the technicalities of the media are more difficult.

Outsider art is often distinguished by a kind of personal language or system of signs and repeated motifs. Mark's favorite subjects are what he calls "nature scenes," landscapes with stylized trees; "cosmos," dizzying whirls of brightly colored planets wheeling through blue, starlit space; and "lighthouses" with waving yellow beams. There's a strong sense of the human hand at work--the rhythmic manipulation of the marker, the intense pressure of the felt tip evident in the deep saturation of his colors, the up-and-down, back-and-forth motion of the pen gripped between his fingers that shows clearly on the paper in the jagged intersections of color strokes.

He has several versions of each of his favorites today, as well as some "monkey pictures," another favorite subject, and his "Phantom" series, based on The Phantom of the Opera, which he's seen twice while visiting his brother. The Webbs encourage him to explore other subjects. They feel Mark's work has lost some of the intensity it had earlier, but they also feel he's happier and busier now. Smither told them of one artist who did wonderful work while he was in prison, but never painted again after he was released, and Bruce quotes Dubuffet, who said, "Art runs from the word art." Often, Bruce says, the artwork itself is therapy. For example, Prophet Royal Robertson deals with his frustration and outrage at his wife's infidelity through his fantastic, colorful paintings, scrawled over with messages about his wife, Adell, who left him after 19 years of marriage. That's the reasoning behind the Very Special Arts Gallery in Washington, D.C. and The National Institute of Art and Disabilities in California

Mark has always drawn and painted, according to A.C. "I knew the art was good, but I also knew that you had to find someone who was into that kind of art, who understood that kind of self-generated art. I began to realize that, while Mark didn't really differentiate between $200 and $1,300, I wasn't going to be here forever, that this would mean Mark would always have a place for himself," A.C. says. "The Webbs are a little wacky, but they love Mark's work, and I love them for it."

"They all died because of the cold."
Mercedes, Cadillacs, and BMWs line the curb on Franklin Street in downtown Waxahachie when the Webbs open a show. It's the mid-February opening of the Text Tour show, and Strickland's Banjo Man is finished and standing on display in the window. The artist is drinking a beer. "Had the pigs been born when you were here?" he asks. "She had 10 little baby pigs, but they all died because of the cold. I had a bag full of 10 dead baby pigs." Banjo Man's face is a mass of tangled wire, like the tortured working face of a picker concentrating on his fingers. "What is that, a muffler?" asks one collector. "A converter, a catalytic converter, from a Toyota, I think," answers Strickland. Reverend Hunter's guys are on a table in the middle. There are Onis' frogs on a shelf. The rarefied light of Webb Gallery is the same as the light in Phyllis Kind's gallery in Soho, and the objects are transformed from a "passionate vision" into art.

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