By Jim Schutze
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"Now you can take a course at Columbia University called Folk Art Studies; it's basically how to look at folk art," says Bruce, amused. The Webbs don't participate in the outsider art fairs in New York or Atlanta because they end up more like souvenir markets now. The grandchildren of Reverend Howard Finster, probably the most famous folk artist in the country, cut out plywood shapes for the visionary Georgian to sign. "We chose to focus on our own place, to focus on the spirit of art, how it was created. And on the people who make it."
On that point, the Webbs are at odds with folklorists who, Bruce says disgustedly, just want to go out there, document everything, and then leave the artists alone. Many artists wouldn't even preserve their own work without encouragement, and, most importantly to Julie and Bruce, they would never see the benefit themselves. "They [folklorists] treat the dealers like lepers," says Bruce. "But really, we're the ones who are more concerned about the artist. They want to wait to sell the artist's work until he's dead. But that makes the artist himself an object."
Bruce argues, too, with folklorists who only know the art from the books. "A wealthy collector can build a great collection just sitting on the phone," he says. But the impetus of most self-taught artists is the narrative, the storytelling, whether it's Charley Kinney with his foot puppets, Glass Man with his signs, or Mark Greene with his Phantom. The purpose, the story, is lost if the artist is left alone.
Also, as the Webbs have found, most artists, self-taught or not, love the contact with people who love their work. "We want to preserve the art and the spirit behind it," says Julie, who can get into preaching mode herself sometimes. "But people have the right to make art for themselves, and there's no reason they shouldn't profit from it, too. Some of the artists we've visited live in houses with no heat, no air conditioning, no running water, even, sometimes. At least, by selling their art, they can live better. I mean, they're human beings, they need to buy food. Why should they have to die before they're recognized?"
Passionate Visions organizer Alice Rae Yelen emphasizes the importance of artists' environments--artists make art from what they know. "There's more to this art than what's on the surface. A lot of this art is directed by a force the artist doesn't understand and we don't understand," as Bruce explains it. "We admire the artists who say, 'Do your work every day,'" says Bruce the fundamentalist. "We eat and sleep with art."
One of the hottest questions being debated in the art world today is, At what point do you separate the art from the artist?
The Webbs don't.
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