'What is that, a muffler?'
"Texas' Most Historic Town." That's how the billboard tempts drivers on Interstate 35 to exit 401B for Waxahachie. You wind your way back under the highway, past the ramshackle burger drive-in (the specialty is lasagna--go figure), down the avenue of spruced-up old houses, and into downtown. Day-trippers come to this potpourri community to admire the gingerbread houses, to browse the antique shops for hat racks and hand-crocheted antimacassars, to lunch lightly on sweetened iced tea and chicken salad in one of the quaint faux-finished tearooms. The old-fashioned square around the turreted courthouse is lined with charming antique malls. But turn down Franklin Street, a block away, and there's a storefront painted garish red and yellow. In the window are some television sets daubed wildly with bright paint and a whole flock of signposts splotched with messages like "frogs have it easy they eat what bugs them cost of living going up change of living going down," and "what a friend in Jesus mind your business." Another window displays a giant man made from scrap metal, his long pipe arms holding a banjo shape strung with rusted wire, and a giant one-eyed fish, evidently made from a piece of metal drum.
If you get the impression this place does not fit in, you are correct.
If you've never seen anything like these signs and TV sets, it's not surprising. This is the Webb Folk Art Gallery, the largest outsider art gallery in Texas. More people know about it in New York than in Dallas, and you should hear those New Yorkers try to say Waxahachie. But they're twisting their tongues around the word because in the last few years, Texas folk art--self-taught art, outsider art, whatever you choose to call it--has become a hot commodity in New York, both in the galleries and at the annual Outsider Art Fair held each winter there. Some of those signs in the Webbs' window are by R.C. Gunnie, an artist from Houston. "Banjo Man" is by David Strickland, one of the most famous self-taught sculptors in Texas.
Spirited Journey: Self-Taught Texas Artists of the Twentieth Century will open next August at the Huntington Art Gallery at the University of Texas, showcasing approximately 35 Texas self-taught artists, most of whose work Bruce and Julie Webb sell at their gallery. In Waxahachie. According to Lynn Adele, who is curating this major exhibit, "A lot is happening right now in terms of Texas outsider art, especially in the last year. Texas artists have come to the forefront nationally for the first time. I think it's because outsider art is the last artistic frontier, and Texas is the outermost edge of that boundary." She adds, "We are lucky to have the Webbs here in Texas."
The Webbs are outside even that edge Adele is talking about. Working beyond the bounds of the art community, the pair of ex-punks have amassed the largest and best collection of outsider art work for sale in the state. At age 29, Bruce is considered the authority on Reverend Johnnie Swearingen, perhaps the preeminent Texas folk artist. Just as minimalist artist Donald Judd moved to Marfa because the landscape of West Texas, nature's own minimalist masterpiece, matched his spare sensibility, Bruce and Julie Webb have matched their habitat with their calling: They are selling outsider art from the outside.
It's not really surprising that Texas is fertile ground for self-taught artists. As long ago as the early 1980s, collector and curator of the 1993-'94 landmark exhibit Passionate Visions: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present Alice Rae Yelen wrote, "We have witnessed the passing of an era--the different, more insular world that nurtured the pre-World War II generation of rural Southern artists has virtually disappeared." But Texas has always been a place unto itself, fiercely maintaining a separateness, a pride in its own ornery, independent spirit. It's a place where the insular quality necessary to produce this kind of art still lingers.
"As good a place as any."
The Webbs are art dealers now, but they were collectors first. Passionate lovers of the images and the artists who make them, they will dog a painting to its source, driving miles of dirt roads until they link a person with a picture. The gallery game they play strictly by their own rules. Webb Gallery is only open half days on weekends, so the Webbs can hit the road whenever opportunity beckons. During the week, they are open by appointment. Period. You can go knocking if you happen to be in town, but the Webbs have a bird's-eye view of the door from their mezzanine office, and "If we don't want to run down there and open the door, we just don't," says Julie. It's not a get-rich-quick scheme, but at least one savvy friend admires the way the Webbs do business. Murray Smither, one of Texas' foremost art dealers and collectors, points out that they've never wavered in following their passion--the appointment-only hours allow them time to (literally) pursue their art.
The Webbs' attitude toward Waxahachie fits in with the rest of their wild business plan (a business run by two rules: "If it's not fun, we don't do it" and "We don't sell it if we don't like it.") "When you decide to have a public place, you have to make up your mind to educate the public," says Bruce, in one of his preacher-like aphorisms.
"It's as good a place as any" is what poet and artist William S. Burroughs told the two when they mounted a show of his artwork a few years ago and asked him what he thought about a gallery in Waxahachie, Texas. "What's important is the art of seeing, rather than being seen in a certain place."
"If we have the best work, we can work from anywhere," says Bruce.
Waxahachie's reaction to the Webbs is predictable. Visitors off the street are often bewildered. Did you make this stuff? Are you subsidized? Do you do all this work yourselves? And the Webbs look like they belong to just the kind of scene people move to Waxahachie to get away from.
Fourteen years ago, Bruce and Julie were a couple of punk-rock kids who hung out at Dallas' Twilight Room and Liberty Hall, slam-dancing venues where the music was loud and attitude was everything. Now they look for the same thing in outsider art that they loved in that music, a quality Julie describes as "the edge, the pure expression." You can still see traces of the punk rockers in the art dealers--Julie in her vintage clothes, Bruce with his buzz cut.
But they're both children of the suburbs-- Julie grew up in Garland, Bruce in Richardson, the son in a family of Assembly of God preachers. His mother lived in southern India with her missionary parents until she was 13 years old, and his grandmother taught at the Southern Assemblies of God College in Waxahachie. (One of her students was Jerry Lee Lewis.) Intensity runs in the family. Bruce tends to tuck his chin down a little when he talks and looks up and out at you from beneath his wide forehead, intentionally mitigating his naturally piercing look. Julie, the practical one who supported the couple for several years by running an insurance office in Dallas, calls him on his fervor occasionally by saying, "Bruce, you're in that preaching mode again."
Bruce and Julie were living in Richardson in 1986; Julie was working as the vice president of that insurance agency, a job she'd lucked into but excelled at with the same grounded, common sense that makes her art business work. Bruce had a patchwork of employment--a job selling guns, a short stint drilling holes in bowling balls, a longer one working in greenhouses for the city of Richardson while he "sort of went to art school at Richland Junior College." In January 1987, his grandparents died, and Bruce inherited a house in Waxahachie. They moved the next year.
"Julie came back on fire."
The art world is formed by collectors. And at first the Webbs merely collected, widely and slightly bizarrely--memory jugs, tramp art, fraternal lodge art, and circus banners. Filled with a love for things but with no money, they traveled all over the country collecting, trekking to Brimfield, Massachusetts for the famously huge flea market, exploring the South and Midwest in their peculiar quest.
In Texas, Murray Smither and Salli Griffiths are the foremost folk art collectors, and it was Salli who introduced Bruce and Julie to folk art. "In a way, they're all my fault," says Salli jokingly. "They called themselves junk dealers, but they had fabulous stuff. They got me hooked on lodge art--the papier mache masks and banners and stuff used by Masons and Order of Oddfellows--and I showed them my folk art collection." Griffiths, one of the first to visit Reverend John L. Hunter, introduced the Webbs to the woodcarving preacher in 1989, and she and Julie went on a tour of the South to visit other folk artists in their homes. Their long trek led them through Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, meeting artists like the folk carver George Williams; Jimmy Lee Sudduth, the mud painter; the naive painter Artist Chuckie; and even Prophet Royal Robertson, the misogynist artist, "in his first home, before it blew away in the hurricane."
"That's the way it goes with folk art--everyone shares. We went to Kentuck, the art event outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and there we saw Mose Tolliver. Then Julie came back on fire," recalls Salli. "My point was never to be a collector, my point was to be a connector."
It wasn't a big jump from antique to contemporary folk art, from tramp art made of bottlecaps and matchsticks to outsider art painted with mud and house paint. The Webbs have naturally eccentric tastes. As Salli says, "They are outsiders." Bruce has the eccentricity of an only child, and he developed an eye for oddities early: He was fascinated with the Indian elephant carvings his grandparents had brought home to Waxahachie from India and even more interested in the carved "idols" his grandmother kept wrapped in flour sacks in a drawer, presumably so they wouldn't pollute her young grandson's beliefs. Typically, the Webbs' fascination with lodge paraphernalia led to extreme involvement: Bruce joined the Masons when he and Julie moved to Waxahachie--at one time, he was the youngest Mason in Texas. And Bruce himself is a self-taught artist, creating works which look similar to the art he represents. (House of Blues, the restaurant chain owned by Hard Rock Cafe founder Isaac Tigrett, has most of his work.)
At first, Bruce and Julie had a shop they called Beyond Time on the mezzanine of the health food store in Waxahachie where Bruce was a part-time chef, cooking Indian curries he'd learned from his grandmother. Beyond Time was full of the things they loved and collected, and it wasn't long before they moved it around the corner, at the same time renting another space to store their favorite things. "But we hardly ever opened the shop," says Julie, remembering Beyond Time. "If we liked someone or they seemed particularly interested in the stuff, we'd take them to see our 'museum.' That's what we called it, and it was filled with all the lodge stuff we didn't really want to sell."
In 1994, the Webbs bought the old paint store just off the square, one of the last untouched buildings in town, to use as gallery space. The previous residents of the building were pack rats like the Webbs, and the place was filled with funeral-home paraphernalia from Midlothian and old magic tricks--the owner was an amateur magician.
"It was absolutely dirty, packed cram full, with low ceilings. Now it's this big, beautiful gallery," says Griffiths, who considers it the best folk art gallery in the country.
The Webbs live right next door. From the sidewalk, you enter their home through metal gates made by David Strickland, a foreshadowing of what's to come. Upstairs, in a former phone company space, are vestiges of the past life that led Bruce and Julie to their present occupation: Painted sets used in initiation rites stand at one end of the loft, and a giant circus poster by Snap Wyatt advertising a freak show runs the length of one wall. Across from the room Bruce uses as a studio is a storage space containing the remains of their weird collection: a Woodmen of the World lung tester, an exploding paddle, a stuffed goat on wheels, objects used in the secret initiation rites of various brotherhoods. Bruce and Julie developed a reputation among their own fraternity of junk dealers, flea marketers, and stuff sellers: If you ever get anything weird, call the Webbs. That's how they came by the embalming table and the wicker casket over in one corner. Gradually their collection, by the "anything weird" definition, came to include folk art.
Like the Zulu-type warrior figures fashioned from animal bones made by Ollie Smith, who grew up in Moshure Valley, a black settlement near Arlington, before moving to Virginia. "To me, that's reincarnation," he'd say about visualizing the shape of a man's head in a chicken bone. Of course, the Webbs were interested. "It's all connected" is a phrase that turns up like a conversational refrain whenever you reach the intersection Bruce and Julie perceive between punk rock, skateboarding, Japanese manga, Hopi kachina, and the self-taught artist Reverend Hunter, for instance. They're humanity's archetypes.
The idea for a gallery was planted in 1989, when the collector Webbs were asked to mount an exhibit at Mountain View College. The show included, among other artists, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, whose preferred medium is different colors of mud mixed with sugar or Coca-Cola; Reverend Hunter, a Dallas preacher who carves figures from found wood; Artist Chuckie, who still lives with his mother in Shreveport; and Carl Nash, the Lubbock native whose giant backyard "Robot Band" earned him zoning violation fines from Fort Worth city officials when he lived there. The show convinced the Webbs that they needed to indulge their own passion more publicly, and, says Julie, "It convinced us that the artists need us."
"Collecting doesn't end with the object. We're interested in the person behind the things," says Bruce.
Soon Bruce and Julie were collecting books and catalogs, doing a lot of detective work to find the people behind the things. And they were on the road again, visiting folk artists where they lived. "This kind of art, you go to it; it doesn't come to you," explains Bruce. "You take a wrong turn, and find a decorated yard. We're willing to drive anywhere at the drop of a hat."
"A good deal on a yard dog."
When I arrive in Waxahachie on a chilly, rainy day to "go visiting" with the Webbs, David Strickland and Julie are looking over some Charley Kinney paintings that have just arrived for the Webbs' upcoming Text Tour show. The Webbs sell art by artists all over the country. Disabled and barely literate, Kinney farmed and lived in Toller Hollow in Kentucky and besides his paintings, was known for the puppets he made, operating them with his foot while he played the fiddle. David, an odd-job welder, came into town to pay his gas bill and, generally interested in the work of other artists, just dropped by the gallery. He and Julie study a painting of a cow lost in some bullrushes--"It be like hell on arth for me" is written across the painting in straggling letters.
David Strickland, introduced to me as "one of the most important artists working in Texas today," is a wiry, slender, forty-something guy in a gimme cap, lumberjacket, and jeans, his functional fashion contrasting with Julie's hyper-cool orange pants, purple sweater, and Steve Madden shoes and Bruce's new, pointy buzz cut. He's only been making art for seven years or so, but Strickland's work was included in the landmark Passionate Visions show, and he was one of six artists selected by Coca-Cola, with the help of the American Museum of Folk Art, to create Coke bottles for their Olympic promotion. Strickland's bottle was eight feet tall, entirely constructed from found metal pieces.
For months, as the Webbs made their frequent drives to Dallas, Julie had noticed two space aliens and a couple of birds, made of scrap metal parts welded together, out in front of a car lot on the highway on the outskirts of Waxahachie. Finally, recalls Julie, "Salli Griffiths and I went to look at it, and the owner told us, 'Oh yeah, that's David Strickland's. He just lives around the corner.' So then we went over there, and there was a yard full of metal sculpture. Salli bought all he had. I didn't have any money, so David gave me a good deal on a yard dog." And the Webbs started selling Strickland's work in their gallery.
Now Strickland, like all the artists whose work the Webbs sell, is a friend, and sometimes that friendship outweighs their business relationship. For instance, says Julie, "Right now, David needs money for a bad tax situation, so we send him all the money we make from his work."
Over coffee, we discuss plumbing, dreams, and art. Strickland recounts a dream he had about going deep-sea fishing with a one-legged boat captain; the sea got real choppy, and he was terrified of drowning. "Sounds like a piece of art in the making," Bruce says. Could be. Most folk art is founded in the personal experience of the artist, unlike academic contemporary art, which so often is art about art. Folk art is the antithesis of conceptual art--it's not about the idea. It's about the artist.
"When you take a breath, you have to let it out."
Julie's getting a little nervous. Strickland's visit has put us behind schedule, and we're supposed to visit his place before going to see Reverend Hunter. "Reverend Hunter's notorious for his punctuality," she frets. She calls from her cel phone, and they get ready to "go visiting"--that's how the Webbs refer to a business trip. Preparations include taking Piro (that's Czech for "beer"), the Boston terrier, and Willie, whom they rescued from under Waxahachie artist Ernestene Polk's porch, out for a walk, because the dogs go visiting, too. Julie sits in a folding chair in the back of the '89 Ford van, coaxes the dogs into the back, and the Webbs are ready to go folk-arting.
"Folk art" is just one of the tags this art has earned. It's also called "visionary," "self-taught," "outsider," "naive," and "primitive," but none of these labels really provides a big enough umbrella. Some artists, like Prophet Royal Robertson, are visionaries. Some artists are simply unschooled. In Europe, it's called "art brut," or raw art, but the term originally implied insanity, and though some artists, like Hector Benavides and Ike Morgan, suffer from obsessive/compulsive disorder or schizophrenia, most don't. On the other hand, "folk art" implies a passed-down tradition of creating, like quilt-making or decoy-carving. What tradition is there of making signs from broken glass, as Baltimore Glass Man does, or drawing precisely with red and blue ledger pencils, the preferred medium of prison artist Frank Jones?
Murray Smither, a pioneer collector of this undefinable art, asks "Who's outside anymore, anyway?" Smither made the point years ago with the exhibit Outside In: Outsider and Contemporary Art in Texas, presented by the Texas Fine Arts Association in 1994 at Laguna Gloria, which he curated. Outside In presented contemporary Texas artists like Pamela Nelson, Bill Haveron, James Surls, and David Bates alongside the work of outsider artists. "Many modern Texas artists," says Smither, "make no bones about their admiration of folk art, but their art comes from a different place." Smither feels that's true of outsider artists, too. Some--Reverend Hunter, Isaac Smith, Onis Woodard, for instance--create out of a need to be seen. They enjoy the visitors their art brings. Others, Hector Benavides or his friend Frank Jones, for instance, Smither refers to as "confined" artists. "Outside In" was trying to say, though, that all of these are just artists," Smither says.
Even the Webbs, sitting at the bright orange table in their mezzanine office a few weeks before, had a disagreement about terms. Julie favors "self-taught" because, she says, the circumstance of being self-taught is the biggest separation between the artists represented at the Webb Gallery and artists elsewhere. "'Outsider' really means outside the conventional art canon, but it also carries a negative connotation of being outside society altogether," she points out. There's also the difficulty that once an artist is represented by a gallery, technically, he's an insider. But, argues Bruce, who's favoring the "outsider" term, at least at present, some artists are not strictly self-taught; some, like paper sculptor Patrick Davis learned their technique from another artist. "Outsider" does define an artist as coming from a unique perspective, but then, as Julie points out, all artists do.
"This is art that's like, when you take a breath, you have to let it out," says Bruce. "These people are going to make art, no matter what. The passion most of these folk artists have for their art, it's more important than eating or drinking. Art should just be called art."
"He wanted us to help him load a pig into his truck."
There's really no difference between an artist like Strickland and a contemporary artist. Except, perhaps, their studio space.
The sign on the chain link fence says "Portable and repair welding." The big, flat lot behind Cars R Us in Red Oak is fenced in as though to keep the yard full of old auto parts, farm machinery, and anonymous rusted metal from wandering away. It's all raw material for Strickland, who works in the tradition of roadside "muffler men," seeing the idea for a sculpture in a piece of junk and then welding on additional parts to fit the vision. For years, he's worked in the open field next to the house where he lives with his wife, Nancy, and their children, and the three-sided metal shed is a new luxury for working and part of the reason for today's visit.
It's a messy day, and we pick our way across the mud via a walkway of metal street signs laid down like patio stones, shooing away the ram and goats that roam among the rusting metal hulks. In the next field, there's a potbellied pig, very pregnant. On the walls of the shed hangs a rusted typewriter that's been given a wire face; a fish made from part of a rusted barrel with a glass eye; and a mask, rusted red, with a pair of pliers forming the mouth. David points out that he's built up the floor and says of his new "studio," "With the stove going, it's pretty decent." Bruce claims the typewriter and the fish for the gallery and takes a look at David's work in progress, which is, in fact, a muffler man. He has long, jazzy legs, a leaning stance, a face of wire, and long, loose arms. David points out the pieces he plans to make a banjo from and talks about the arms being perhaps too long. "I might have to cut 'em off," he muses. Then we all walk over to look at the pig.
Before he started making art, Strickland worked for the phone company. Because of a DWI charge, he was required to take a state-sponsored trade course, and he likes to tell people that it's only because the heating and air-conditioning repair class was already filled that he took the welding class. He didn't stick with welding, anyway, taking odd jobs as a carpenter, plumber, and general laborer. And he still does odd jobs. Art is just one of them. For weeks, he'll get completely involved in hauling and scrapping metal, then he'll drop that and make art nonstop for awhile.
"He works best with the gallery representing him," says Julie. Like many artists, he needs a deadline, an impetus. The Webbs help him out in lots of ways, encouraging him, keeping track of his work, and pricing it with him (it sells now for anywhere from $200 to $2,500) so they're not working against each other. He can sell anything to anyone who drops by, and, like many folk artists, he likes the visitors and is happy to see people.
"One day," grins Julie, "David called us and really wanted us to come over. It turns out he wanted us to help him load a pig into his truck."
"What I make, ain't nobody seen it before."
We're really late for Reverend Hunter's now, and he mentions it as soon as we enter the modest house in South Dallas with the red Cadillac parked on the side. The back yard is Hunter's work space, lightly littered with shavings around a pile of found wood and sawn logs. Inside, Hunter, a surprisingly young-looking 92-year-old, and his wife, Ruby, pretty and white-haired with impeccably manicured hands demurely folded in her lap, are waiting. "We visit quite a few reverends, but Reverend and Mrs. Hunter are the most elegant people I've ever met," Julie had told me on the drive over. "They're royalty."
"I knew you'd get after us," says Julie, when Hunter mentions our tardiness. "I believe in being on time," declares Hunter. "I have breakfast at 6:30 a.m. on the dot. At 12, I have dinner, on the dot. I get up at 5 a.m. On The Dot." He's the family alarm clock for the grandchildren, he tells us, calling on the phone to wake them in the morning. Hunter is a natural speaker--he expects the spotlight and speaks to a group of three or four as if we were the whole congregation. He's been pastor of the True Light Baptist Church since the Sixties; he pastored in Texarkana for 13 years before that and for eight years in Sherman before that. He's a man with strong convictions and a lot to say.
Dressed in work clothes--paint-splattered pants and shoes, a plaid flannel shirt, and a cap--Hunter leaves Julie to visit with Ruby in the TV-dominated den and leads us into the living room, where he sits on an exercycle while he talks. Privacy is not the only reason he wanted to take us into this room--several of the new pieces standing on the floor catch Bruce's eye.
A gracefully long-legged walking man and a short stump man with a jaunty hat, his face on the round top of a sawn log, are both good examples of Hunter's sculptures, which he started making as a hobby, to give to his parishioners and family. The best have a sophisticated whimsy, a physical humor, and they are all painted in Hunter's bright, unmixed crayon-box palette. He likes to use the shape of the wood as he finds it, which accounts for those long literal limbs, and he attaches the arms or feet with a mixture of wood shavings and glue, burning in details with a hot ice pick. He's only sort of interested in talking about his art, though. He's very interested in talking about himself. After all, folk art is narrative, the work is really an illustration to the tales, and Hunter, like so many Southern preachers, is a natural raconteur--a storyteller.
It takes him a day or so to make a sculpture, he says offhandedly. "I just like making things and making them right. If I'm making something and I split the foot, I don't make a new foot, I mend that foot." He works when someone orders something. Ideas come to him out of the blue, and people come to him because like Christ, he is a magnet. He explains, "Christ had a magnetic personality. A magnet will pick up things that is akin to it. It won't pick up straw, but it'll pick up nails. It's an invisible power. Jesus talks to the invisible power in you." And Reverend Hunter is like that, drawing people to him.
Business takes place in the course of conversation. Bruce asks, "Is this little man available?" And Hunter answers, "Yes--he's $40, because he has a hat." "What I make, ain't nobody seen it before, and it's my imagination, so nobody else would see it like that either. Asked what inspired the little green-suited guy, Hunter answers simply, "Nothin' else could be done with that except something like that. I saw the bend in that wood and said, 'Now what can I make outta that?'"
Back in the little paneled den, with the space heater and the standard doorway framed in Hunter's red carving, we're discussing the new sculptures. "I like his hat," says Julie. "He looks like he's on his way somewhere important." "I wanted it to be an old hat, just something he grabbed and put on," Hunter tells her, and asks his creation, "Where you goin', fella?" "She," he says, nodding at his wife, "made his newspaper outta a piece of cardboard."
"No one's going to make any money off Carl."
This social call, besides being a meeting of two genuine friends, was the folk-art equivalent of "taking a meeting." The Webbs do sell Hunter's art; though they don't have an exclusive arrangement with him, they visit him often enough so they frequently have the best pieces. Self-taught artists are difficult to have a traditional business relationship with; it requires enormous creativity and a lot of energy. Many gallery owners feel it's not worth the time it takes, and that's not taking into consideration that self-taught and visionary artists are obviously prone to exploitation. For instance, years ago, an orderly was caught trading Ike Morgan (a schizophrenic who's been institutionalized for 20 years) packs of cigarettes for a piece of art.
Painter and sculptor Pamela Nelson is artist in residence at the Stewpot, a Dallas soup kitchen. "I bring materials every week, and they make crafts, pictures, beading, drawing, or paint. These are true outsiders," she says. "And some of the work is good. The first thing I thought is, this is wonderful, I'm going to get them some representation. Then I realized that I couldn't push it. I'll say to someone, 'Did you see I put your picture up on the wall?' [But] it doesn't really matter to them as much as the process of making the picture."
Even Smither, who represented a lot of Texas artists at his own gallery, but who collected folk art and was a friend to many Texas folk artists, refuses to represent folk artists. He'll tell you about George W. White, Jr., who lived in the Dallas black community that was eradicated by the CityPlace development. White absolutely refused to sell his art, a rule he wouldn't break even when approached by Mack Doty of New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. "You couldn't budge him," remembers Smither. "And you can't represent someone like that."
"I don't understand the contract, they don't understand the contract, so why have them?" asks Julie, the most pragmatic of idealists. Instead, the Webbs make a verbal agreement with their artists (but Julie does make a list of what each artist will do for the Webbs and what they can expect the Webbs to do for them).
The Webbs' passion for the personal side of the art pays off sometimes. "We deal with Artist Chuckie almost exclusively, just because of the difficulty of dealing with the artist and his mother," says Julie. "He's 38 and lives in Shreveport with his mother--he could be easily exploited, and his mother is very protective." Because the Webbs have been visiting Chuckie for the longest time, Chuckie's mother has come to trust them, but the relationship requires a lot of nurturing.
The Webbs' relationships with their artists occasionally approach, in 12-step terminology, co-dependency. Take Carl Nash, for instance, the flamboyant Texas sculptor. Technically, he is a Webb Gallery artist, but "No one's going to make any money off Carl, including Carl," Julie says flatly. Still, the Webbs like stories, too, and they can spin a lot of yarns about shepherding Nash through the legal system.
"Disorderly conduct was the last charge we heard about," Julie says. He always calls in the middle of the night and needs a loan, a ride, some help, the bail. "At one point," says Bruce, shaking his head, "he'd broken up all his furniture and made art out of it. Another time, he arrived at night with everything he owned strapped all over his car. Carl, his wife, Wanda, the two babies, and an old man we didn't know, all crammed inside with no luggage." The Webbs have one of his totems in their gallery--it stands 15 1/2 feet tall, its body made out of air-conditioning duct, and its wings from scrap metal.
"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.
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.
"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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