Of mud and mental health

The Webb Gallery offers a double-layered excursion. One, it's about 35 miles south of Dallas, in Waxahachie's historic district. Nice little drive. Two, the artwork is a departure from all the newfangled contemporary and conceptual stuff you find in urban art spaces.

See, Bruce and Julie Webb, the gallery's youthful owners, are noted experts on outsider art. You know, folk art, naive art, self-taught art. Art by people who live outside the conventions of society, education, or, for that matter, sanity. OK, some of the Webb's artists are pretty damn sane, but some of them live in solitary confinement cells in penitentiaries too. Most importantly, though, much of this artwork is phenomenal.

The Webbs know this stuff as though they were walking encyclopedias, but most nobly, they've been passionate about it for years, through all the trends and fickleness of an art world that occasionally embraces outsider art as the Next Big Thing--again. On Saturday, May 9, they open yet another amazing show: paintings by Mark Cole Greene, the odd and gifted offspring of writer A.C. Greene, and mud and clay works by Jimmy Lee Sudduth, James Son Thomas, and Burgess Dulany.

Greene's extremely intricate drawings made with markers, crayons, paint, and ink pens exemplify the power of folk art. Now 43, he only started making art as an adult, after a series of personal losses, and the obsessive quality of the detail comes off more as therapeutic purge than anything based on art theory or calculated aesthetics. At once melancholic, inspiring, rhythmic, and humorous, his depictions of the sinking of the Titanic, or of the Phantom of the Opera, or even of the Dallas skyline, pack an edgy observation missing from so many trained artists' work. He's guileless--he lays every card on the table and then signs his pictures, "from the brain-powered mind of Mark Cole Green." He lives in a mental health facility near Cleburne, and he's told the Webbs that the only thing that keeps him going is his art. When you see it, you feel it. It's truly amazing stuff, and its purity makes you reconsider creativity's role in healing the psyche.

Sudduth, Thomas, and Dulany work with mud. Dirt. Some clay. The 88-year-old, Alabama-based Sudduth's works are called "mud paintings," usually finger-formed self-portraits, animals, and buildings made of an amalgam of dirt, house paint, and sugar. Thomas (1926-1993), a Mississippi blues musician, used the mud he got from his job as a gravedigger to form the three-dimensional figures that haunted his dreams. And Dulany, an 84-year-old Mississippi man isolated from civilization, creates mud sculptures that reportedly bear a striking resemblance to Aztec and Mayan vessels.

Reportedly. That's open-ended. It means go see for yourself.

Mark Cole Greene and MUD is at Webb Gallery, 209 W. Franklin, Waxahachie; (972) 938-8085. The show runs through June 21, Saturdays and Sundays, 1 p.m.-5 p.m. or by appointment.

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Christina Rees