Caught in the Webb

Outsider artist Ida Kingsbury didn't have any friends. So she made 500 of them with her hands.

Not too surprising--outsider artists aren't exactly known for their mental stability. Perhaps it was Kinsbury's mental condition that allowed her to produce the full-blown environment for which she became known. Few self-taught women artists employ the kind of physical labor involved in creating such space-swallowing visions; that Kingsbury allowed her "friends" to take up all of her home and yard (by the end of her life she was sleeping out in her car) says plenty about whatever interior devil or angel drove her to such extremes. Her house was choked with her makeshift characters, her garden was overflowing with more of the same, plus countless hand-painted welcome and warning signs: "You Keep out of Yard," "Bunny Boulevard," "Home Sweet Home." In one photograph of the place, snapped just after her death, it looks as though every breathing inch is flooded with her objects-turned-artworks. She threw nothing away; common trash (a dented ice tray, a paint-bucket lid) was her glorified canvas. Such text, religious iconography, and use of should-be discarded objects plant Kingsbury firmly in naive-art terrain--it's the uniform grins and rosy nostalgia of Kingsbury's scenes that set her apart from kindred spirits. Relentless cheer from such a doomed persona--collectively, her work forms a bigger picture of a lonely, industrious, guileless woman.

Granted, half the appeal of outsider art is the story of the artists that make it, and Kingsbury's tale packs all the drama of a Gothic romance a la Brontë. The Webbs tell it best: As a young woman from a German immigrant family in Schulenburg, Texas, Kingsbury left her parents' farm to work first as a waitress in La Grange. Then, sometime in the 1940s, she worked as a live-in nurse for the affluent Kingsburys in Pasadena, Texas. The Kingsbury wife, Ida's ward, passed away after a time, and the head of the household, Robert, scandalized the community by marrying the thick-accented Ida. (In the wake of WWII, Germans weren't exactly embraced by patriotic Americans.) The two daughters shunned her, the neighborhood thought her odd, and once Robert died in 1971, Ida was left to her own defense and waning faculties, and began the overtly eccentric practice of saving all her trash and transforming her Pasadena home into a theme-park dreamworld populated by her own make-believe buddies and pets.

The Webb Gallery show reaches for the honesty and strangeness of Kingsbury's thought processes: Evoking the old cigarette ad, one of her paintings depicts a cat hanging by its claws from a limb with the caption "Oh, shit" scrawled near the edge. Kingsbury created this same image no less than a half-dozen times and proudly displayed every one. She paints farmers with cotton crop tools, plaques depicting rural dances, smirking policemen (again, to keep people at bay), toothy couples and sign-wielding clowns, tin-cut birds and huge, ragged-edged homages to her two dogs. She sawed, she hammered, she painted with house paint and aerosol, and she wouldn't even toss out a broken, splintery crutch (which makes, by the way, an excellent signpost). To Kingsbury, nothing and everything was sacred.

She's quite a find, even against the showier, critically acclaimed Fort Worth retrospective. But then what would you expect from a Texas outsider and the Webbs?

Friends of Ida Kingsbury is at the Webb Gallery, 209 W. Franklin, Waxahachie; open Saturday and Sunday, 1-5 p.m., or by appointment. Call (972) 938-8085.

« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest