Magnificent obsession

Even from this distance, a long city block away on the courthouse square in Waxahachie, you can tell something's not quite right with Perry Murphy. The sight of him, half-shuffling across Franklin Street, grabs the attention of the dozen people gathered early this evening for Stephen Anderson's art opening at the Webb Gallery. Murphy is heading straight for them, his not-quite-right blue eyes making contact, his sloppy brown shirt accessorized with shiny, heavy jewelry that he displays to the onlookers. "I made these," he says simply, showing off more than a dozen coin-encircled bracelets and necklaces. "I use car glue."

Oddballs at art openings are nothing new, but Murphy isn't so odd to the Waxahachie natives who accept the local lore that his lot in life, and those of his eight siblings, is the result of parents who were close relatives before they married. Too close. Locals accept Murphy wandering their streets, harmlessly looking for things he can pile in the yard or use to make coin art. Gallery owner Julie Webb is used to him and says the coin jewelry appeared around Murphy's neck and wrists a few months after the gallery showed the work of homeless Fort Worth artist Carl Nash. To the delight of the Webb Gallery, with its commitment to "outsider art," Nash seemed to flaunt his penniless existence by collecting pennies and gluing them to found objects. Nash, and maybe even Murphy, are quintessential examples of naive, self-taught art-makers whose challenged-by-fate search for self-expression can take the form of unusual, soulful, primitive art prized for its lack of self-consciousness.

Murphy is an outsider to these gallery-goers who have come from Dallas and Fort Worth to see Stephen Anderson's "outsider art." He doesn't enter the gallery, seemingly content with the attention he attracts on the sidewalk. Eventually, he wanders away.

Those patrons who return to the gallery are treated to an outsider artist quite different from Murphy, yet in many ways the same. Anderson registers fairly high on the kook-ometer himself. Barely five feet tall, with thinning hair and thick, horn-rimmed glasses, Anderson converses more easily than Murphy. For his opening, Anderson wears his trademark silk ascot with one of the natty, English-style hunting jackets he designs and sews by hand. Rather than embrace the "eccentric" label given to him, he says, "I'm individualistic, I think. And things I like, I like intensely."

Anderson quickly reveals an almost limitless mental capacity for art appreciation; over 15 years, he has taught himself to paint with media and techniques uniquely his own. His inner drive is to create art, to learn about it, and to pursue it to the point of obsession.

He paints his intricate portraits with dried tempera, reconstituted with his own saliva. He uses brushes for his unique medium, but also favors sewing needles to apply the paint in a tedious, speck-by-speck method he's perfected over years of experimentation. The saliva, he says, was one such experiment. "I found if I added water or some other liquid, the paint was too thin. I just tried spitting in it, and the consistency was perfect." He often applies colored pencil over the paint and uses the needle with re-liquefied paint for a tessellated effect, working on the surface rather than layering. "The faces need to convey something of the texture of the skin," he says. And his faces do, with the fine lines and subtle irregularities of an eggshell held up to the light. He uses plastic tools to create striation in still-wet paint, and his obsession with the techniques he invented himself shows in intricate sections of his work. He makes all his own frames from the moldings he collects and stores in his basement.

Anderson's genuine creativity seems like a symptom of his quirky life. At 46, he lives with his mother, brother, and sister in Rockford, Illinois, and the bedroom in which he grew up is his studio. He seems to prefer his own private world to the blue-collar tedium of the town around him. The world he's created for himself is orderly, regimented, and logical, in contrast to the early-Hollywood glamour he craves in his handmade clothes and on the TV screen. "I'm organized, and a creature of habit and routine," he says. He keeps his illustration board in the closet, and his paints in a dresser drawer, and, for inspiration, he occasionally consults his unique collection of pinup girls, tacked to the wall, next to windows covered with red curtains. His pinup choices are quirky too; not the movie stars you'd expect, but Mona Lisa, Gainesborough's "Honourable Mrs. Graham," and Mme. Vigee-LeBrun's self-portrait.

He doesn't get out much, he says, preferring the solitude of his room, which is sparsely furnished with a twin bed, a dresser, a large TV, and a VCR. Besides his family, Anderson's companions are the old movie stars he's gotten to know through cable television. He loves the classic movie channel and has a vast collection of its work on video. He is completely obsessed with film noir and, from his rarefied wardrobe alone, could easily be a stand-in for Cecil B. DeMille or Rudolph Valentino from the neck down.

Anderson doesn't travel much -- once or twice to Chicago to art galleries, he says, and museums. To get to Waxahachie, he insisted on riding a Greyhound bus for 24-plus hours. "If I'm going to leave home, I want to see the country," he told his hosts, Plano art collectors George Morton and Karol Howard. They took him to see art in Dallas and Fort Worth galleries and museums, and he stopped at flea markets along the way, until they brought him to the large brick warehouse gallery on Franklin Street.

Anderson's art is an exemplary testament to the pure nature of the best of self-taught artists. "What he does can't be taught in art school," explains Juila Webb. "It comes purely from within him. When you receive art training, you think more about theory, mediums, and techniques. Stephen knows art through his own experiences, and he's not afraid to try things." Pretenders in the folk-art school can be trained artists who try to achieve a naive, rough-looking effect; but they can't disguise an informed approach, and the result seems contrived and often falls flat. Anderson, though, creates from an uninformed place -- he's had no art classes or instruction of any kind and rarely consults art books or fellow artists. He has seemingly stifled passions about everything but old movies and painting, and his abnormal socialization erupts into carefully composed and meticulously executed portraits, mostly of women in ornate dresses he designs himself, bordered with botanical elements.

Those who know him well -- as well as anyone but his family can know him -- say that Anderson has no known diagnosed mental illness, but that he could qualify as an eccentric in his lifestyle and as an obsessive-compulsive in his artwork. "Totally obsessed," says New York gallerist Phyllis Kind, who met Anderson and showed his work at her first gallery in Chicago until it closed in 1998. "I think that kind of total obsession is what we look for in an artist because he can't help but concentrate totally on what he's doing," Kind says from her SoHo gallery on Greene Street. "Stephen is totally authentic about that." Kind, who divides her gallery efforts between outsider art and edgy contemporary art, says Anderson is quite different from most of the artists she works with. "They have to work pretty hard to get themselves in a state where their concentration is up to par, hoping that the muse will come," she says. "Stephen doesn't have to do anything like that," she says. "Every minute of every day he's energized about his painting."

The faces of the women Anderson paints do look like long-lost Hollywood glamour queens, but they are all out of his imagination. "Then they don't look the same," he says. In his "Space Girl" series, women wear Buck Rogers-era costumes while floating in space with alien landscapes in the background. "Discovery," Anderson says, personifies psychic, scientific, and religious discovery in the various images of women. The majority of his Webb-displayed works feature women's faces on organic forms, like "Querca the Black Oak Acorn Girl" and "Ostra the Oyster Girl." "Lady Bug," "Spider Woman," and "Bee Girl" have porcelain-skinned women's faces on insect bodies.

Next spring, Anderson's work will be featured in a concurrent show at Phyllis Kind in New York and Webb Gallery -- two places that couldn't be further apart in the art-world spectrum. He's busy crafting portraits of pop icons for the "Pop Portraits" show, carefully considering whether Jimmy Stewart would play better in New York or Texas. He's painted John Wayne for the Webb Gallery and Cary Grant for Phyllis Kind. "Definitely," he says, with a glimmer of Dustin Hoffman's Rainman slipping into his overly enunciated Midwestern accent. "Nobody is more New York than Cary Grant." And nobody is more "outsider" than Stephen Anderson.

Except maybe Perry Murphy.

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Annabelle Massey Helber