Monthly Archives: August 2011

Annie Hooper’s statues

Before I tell you about Annie Hooper herself, I want to tell you about Annie the artist. The most remarkable thing about Annie Hooper – and the reason why I am in North Carolina – is her creation of 2,500 statues from found material.  At the end of World War II, she spent the next 35 years of her life making them from driftwood, putty and cement. Almost all depict Biblical characters and scenes.

Annie first had them all set up in her house, and from what I understand, there was barely room to walk around the crowds of little people. Believing that God was directing her to create this work, her intention was to introduce others to the teachings of the Bible. She chose to recreate Bible scenes that were meaningful to her – the Annunciation, Jacob’s dream, the Resurrection, to name a few. She did not recreate some scenes, such as the Crucifixion, which is somewhat puzzling given its significance in Biblical narrative.

Strangers who arrived at her home were invited in for a tour of the various scenes, with Annie narrating the stories. When her husband became ill and she did not have time to conduct personal tours of her home, she left signs with messages to accompany the statues. Her life’s work was never intended for sale or public display in a gallery; she only wanted others to appreciate the messages in the Bible and what they had taught her.

The statues are currently housed in the basement of the Gregg Museum of Art and Design in Raleigh, North Carolina. I was let into the dimly lit room and sat with the wee folk for quite some time. Each statue is about 18 inches tall, some with wings, some carrying staffs, all alike but different.  Others have described being with the statues as “creepy”, but I felt nothing strange. They are lovely and extraordinary, and I wish that I had the opportunity to see them displayed as Annie intended.

Annie Hooper – Swastika, a Good Omen

Annie's suitcase

I know I’m supposed to be writing about Canadian outsider art, but here I am in Raleigh, North Carolina. I got up early enough to make my arrival at the Gregg Museum of Art and Design, not too early to appear pathetic, but not too late to appear uninterested.  (In truth, it took me a frustrating hour to get there with an Egyptian cab driver, Sammi. But I digress.)

So, the Gregg Museum is on the second floor of the student centre at the University of North Carolina, and you get there by dragging yourself up 3 flights of stairs in insufferable heat. I met Roger Manley, the Museum’s gracious director, when I arrived, and he sat me down at a big table with a stack of documents and two suitcases of papers left by Annie Hooper. Heavenly. I spent the entire day sifting through a mountain of letters, poems, and novels left by Annie. I call her “Annie” only because I had the chance to catch a glimpse of her in the two days I spent reading the material she left behind. I discovered that Annie was a prolific writer of poems, sermons, and stories.

The manuscript

I started with her novel because I believe that so much of a person can be discerned from his or her writings, even if they are fictionalized. My heart sank when I read the title of her novel – Swastika, A Good Omen. I thought I was about to uncover a nasty anti-Semitic secret about artist Annie. In fact, it turned out to be a romantic novel, in the style of Jane Austen, with the title referencing the ancient meaning of swastika – a lucky or auspicious object.

I am a child of the 60s and 70s. I grew up with a view to righting the wrongs of gender inequality. I eschewed the trappings of conventional gender roles and stereotypes and believed that, within a short time, a better world would emerge from the ashes. But I have a proclivity for Jane Austen novels. I admit it.  The male character is always terribly misunderstood and maligned by society, but in the end, the virtuous female character gets the (misunderstood but honourable) man, she gets the house, she gets the money. Hmm. Annie’s novel follows this traditional story line. In the end Lena gets the poor (but soon to be rich) Walter. She gets the refurbished house (named “Swastika”) and she lives in fabulous wealth, happily and forever after. Indeed, I have stripped the plot to omit all metaphors of birds trapped in cages, lengthy descriptions of incredible dresses with lace and velvet trimmings, and declarations of unrequited love (a la Romeo and Juliet), but you get the gist of it.

I wondered how this novel would set me up for viewing Annie’s sculptures the next day. I didn’t yet know what I may have learned about my artist.

The Annie Hooper collection

What am I doing in Raleigh, North Carolina?!

Researching the Canadian outsider art scene has led me down some very interesting paths. But that’s what it’s all about, right? So, now I’m in Raleigh, North Carolina to see the Annie Hooper exhibit. It’s a long way from home, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the collection before it’s moved into storage.

I had never heard of outsider artist, Annie Hooper, until I talked to Roger Manley, the Director of the Gregg Museum of Art and Design at the University of NC.  I was making phone calls to people whose expertise is outsider art – curators, dealers, artists – and several people suggested that I get in touch with Roger. I told him about my particular interest in outsider art and he told me about Annie Hooper.

For a gal living on the west coast of Canada, I knew that Raleigh is “somewhere on the east coast of the USA” but I couldn’t be any more precise than that. However, I did locate it on the map and get myself here.

Many, many details about the exhibit to follow…

Best of show – Morton Bartlett

I had arranged to meet Marion Harris, a NY dealer in untraditional art and antiques, at the Outsider Art Fair. She was exhibiting drawings of my friend, Ian McKay, and I promised to see the display and take some photos.

 

Morton Bartlett photo

Meeting Marion was worth the trip to the Fair. She has an eye for the exquisite and is one of those people with whom I would be happy to be stranded on a desert island. And she has a heart the size of the moon. I was surprised to learn that Marion discovered the work of Morton Bartlett, one of my outsider art heroes. I had a chance to see a collection of 12 enlarged black and white photographs, made directly from negatives that were found in Bartlett’s collection.

Morton Bartlett (1909 – 1992) was born, an only child, in Chicago and became an orphan at the age of 8. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard, where he studied for two years and left without graduating. It is thought that the Depression interrupted his studies. He then worked in a series of jobs, from advertising photographer, gas station manager, and travelling furniture salesman. He did not study art professionally and never married.

In his very private life, between 1936 to 1963, Bartlett created 15 sculptures of half-size to scale children and made the clothes to dress them – from frocks and hand-knit sweaters for the girls to shorts and caps for the boys. The aim of Bartlett’s remarkable project seems to have been to photograph his children doing things that ordinary children do. Except for an interview he gave to Yankee Magazine in 1962, his work was done entirely in private. His work only became public after he died in 1992.

Bartlett was a plaster-sculpting hobbyist who consulted his collection of anatomy and costume books and children’s growth charts in the creation of his intricately detailed pieces.  Apparently it took him 50 hours to create a head, and a year to complete each body. They were posed in dreamy states – reading books, snuggled in bed – or playful scenarios like dancing or playing with a dog. But why did he do this? Of course we’ll never know, but the art historians speculate that he simply created the family he wanted but never had. His photo album is testament to their existence.

Bartlett’s photo collection is mesmerizing and beautiful. At first glance, they appear to be photographs of real children, except… something’s not quite right. The children are so studied and still – that’s the only way I can describe them.  It’s touching to see the photograph of a crying baby, but it’s also a bit heartbreaking.  His children are set in plaster and frozen in time. They will never squirm out of focus. They will never grow up. But they were loved; there is no doubt of that.

The Outsider Art Fair

Von Bruenchenhein: furniture made from chicken bones

My dream of going to the Outsider Art Fair in NYC finally came true last year. Amazing. The strange thing is that it’s in a high-rise office building in Manhattan. You step off an elevator into an alternative universe of paintings, drawings, structures, weavings and general hubbub. Then you wonder where to look first.

Works from every outsider artist you’ve ever read about is there – Darger, RamirezBartlett, Traylor,  Zinelli, Von Bruenchenhein. Everything. (In case you’re wondering, the Dargers are going for $100,000 – $200,000. They are magnificent, but… ) And every major outsider art dealer was there, from Japan to the USA. There had been a private opening for “special guests”  (i.e., the big collectors) the night before, and I noticed some red dots and a few blank spaces on the wall where works had been carted home already.

A few things surprised me. First, there was a lot for sale by single artists (e.g., Yoakum). Why was that? Is there a super-abundance of his work, or is no one collecting it? Second, there was some pure junk. Although there wasn’t a lot of it, there was “stuff” there that made me want to avert my eyes. (Examples withheld to protect the innocent.) Third, there were some handicrafts for sale, which to me is so “folk art” (even if it is from another country), that it shouldn’t have been there. (But, I guess, you pay your money, you get a booth.) I understand that the Fair is expanding to include folk art in 2012.

Finster

I went there with some prejudices. I thought I didn’t like the work of Howard  Finster, whose religious fervour informs every piece he creates. I have to say, though, that his small wooden constructions are quite beguiling. It’s like looking into a doll house, filled with angels and shiny objects, with biblical text written everywhere.

Elvis at 3

Finster was 3 when he had his first vision, and began preaching at tent revivals at age 16. According to his website, he gave up preaching when he asked who remembered his Sunday sermon later that day, and no one did. He decided to reach out to the “congregation of the world” through his art. I note that his family still maintains an enormous commercial venture based on his work, including many items on eBay. You might be interested in buying ($349.99) a wooden statue, called “Elvis at 3.”  It is inscribed with the following message:

HOWARD FINSTER

FROM GOD MAN OF VISIONS SPEAKING TO YOU BY FOLK ART

 MY HANDS GET TIRED BUT NEVER STOP

I MEASURE YOUR SOUL FROM BOTTOM TO TOP

I CAN’T STAND TO SEE YOU LATE

JUST OUTSIDE OF GODS GATES

TO ALL OF YOU I MAY NEVER MEET

GET READY TO JOIN ME ON GODS GOLDEN STREETS

WHERE YOU AND I WITH ANGELS MEET

WHERE I WILL BOW AT JESUS FEET

GOD BLESS YOU ALL

I’m not sure what motivated Finster to represent Elvis at age 3 (instead of, say, 7 or 39) but I hope they recognize each other in heaven.