As a young artist, Valton Tyler would leave his work on the streets of Dallas. Today, his creations are hanging in the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.
“Probably, my best paintings, I put them in an alley or threw them over the fence,” the self-taught artist says.
As volunteer guide Patty Garsek leads us through the Invented Worlds of Valton Tyler, some paintings seem to blast and wail while others appear to smile or perhaps sing.
“They breathe,” Garsek says. “He feels like the shapes are communicating with one another.”
Tyler, who lives in Garland, turns 73 on March 30. He shares a birthday with Vincent van Gogh, whom he studied at the Dallas Public Library as a teenager.
“I didn’t have much education,” he says. “I’d go there in the mornings till they closed, and I did that for a long time. I got into technique. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know how to paint. But I was interested in it.”
As a child, Tyler lived along the Gulf Coast in Texas City, which was the site of a terrifying industrial explosion in 1947. Garsek believes the speckles and particles that appear to float throughout some of Tyler’s work reflect the artist’s memories of the disaster.
Sitting in his living room with its hardwood floor painted electric blue, the artist — wearing a plaid, flannel shirt, black rimmed glasses and a brown fedora — talks about his love for the ships that ported along the Gulf Coast near his home.
Their grayness appears in pieces such as "Give Us Sound," which somewhat resembles a colorful, broken vessel that has fallen to the bottom of an ocean. Other works are spiritual, such as one depicting a crucifixion with numerous figures climbing in strained positions.
“That’s people reaching for the truth,” he says. “And they can’t make it and can’t get it.”
According to the Amon Carter's website, Donald Vogel, founder of Dallas’ Valley House Gallery, recognized Tyler’s ability in 1970 and secured an opportunity for the artist to create etchings and prints at Southern Methodist University. There, “he created an original series of more than 50 etchings, most of which are on view in this exhibition.”
Tyler says the SMU experience was a turning point in his life, one where he actually felt like an artist. But he didn’t want to be an engraver. He followed his heart and sometimes traded his work for a place to live, but he says he was happy doing it.
“I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and start on what I had started,” he says. “I mean, this is all I care about.”
Tyler married an SMU student from St. Louis and had a daughter, and he says he received help and encouragement from others in the art world as well.
While Tyler is a self-taught artist, Garsek emphasizes that his work is far from primitive. His techniques are actually quite advanced. Today, some compare Tyler's work to that of van Gogh himself as well as Hieronymus Bosch. Yet Tyler’s interwoven, colorful, sometimes tortured shapes defy categorization.
“Shapes are a part of life,” he says. "I feel emotions — anger, and love, and all that — through the shapes.”
Tyler bases his work partly in imagination and partly in reality, but he doesn’t consider this life reality.
”Reality is in another dimension,” he says.
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His work all but takes you there.
“There’s beauty everywhere,” he says. “I can see a face on anybody, and it’s like a landscape ... I call it the breath of God that is in me. Everybody’s got it. We all have talents and abilities.”
Amon Carter Museum director Andrew Walker says that an earlier American folk art exhibit made the museum more open to curating the work of unconventional artists like Tyler, whose work hangs in contrast to neighboring western masterpieces by Frederic Remington.
The Invented Worlds of Valton Tyler, through April 30, Amon Carter Museum, 3501 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth, free, cartermuseum.org.