Inside Looking Out

Tamara Hendershot seeks out those who work their artistic magic in obscurity. The visionary art she finds is hot, but for her, buying and selling it is a labor of love.

Ultimately, as with artists in other areas of the commercial art world, few outsider artists are likely to gain widespread recognition; most will continue to work in relative obscurity. But unlike trained artists who can spend a frustrated lifetime trying to further their careers, to someone like Milton Schwartz, a philosopher king in his own magnificent domain, that kind of attention really doesn't matter.

One look at Tamara Hendershot's business card reveals that she is not your typical art dealer. On the front of the postcard-size announcement for her gallery is a photo of a sink full of dirty dishes. Arranged casually around the basin, next to a bottle of dishwashing liquid, sit an aluminum-can angel, a snarling rag doll whose head is made from a Clorox bottle, a wooden boat, a painting of a group of black angels, and an unsigned, glassy-eyed portrait of a long-haired guy named Eddy.

Hendershot, a former photo editor from New York, moved to Miami eight years ago and started seeking out self-taught artists in South Florida. Driven by her own sense of wonder rather than by any notion of what sells, Hendershot collects artists as much as art. The work by the artists whom she befriends is often obscure, even by the standards of outsider art, but Hendershot prefers to remain something of an outsider herself within the art business.

"I'm not a mainstream dealer with a lot of money," she acknowledges. "It's like apples and oranges -- or rather they're talking apples, I'm talking dried-up prunes. My knowledge is the same, my drive is the same, but I don't have a lot of money. I don't know if I'd describe this as a business, but I do know it's something I love."

It was Hendershot who submitted Schwartz's collage to the judges of the Art Exhibition by the Mentally Ill. She teaches part-time at the facility where Schwartz lives, talking to the residents about current events and culture. One day Schwartz invited her up to his room to see what he was working on. Hendershot was simply amazed. She has since sold some of Schwartz's collages for $50 each. Hendershot keeps a percentage and sends the rest to the artist's sister, who doles out the money to him in installments. If he were to get all of the money at once, he would buy a pack of cigarettes, then send the rest of the cash to the Red Cross, New York's Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, or one of his many other favorite charities.

"Milton is miraculous," exclaims Hendershot, who is including Schwartz in a book she is working on with Miami poet Jeffrey Knapp about Florida visionary artists. "How else do you describe people like him, who see so much but can't see themselves?"

The arched trellis gate that greets visitors to Hendershot's multicolor home on Fourth Street proclaims "Vanity Novelty Garden" in carefree brushstrokes. A tangled jungle of tropical foliage in the tiny front yard is barely contained by a pink stucco wall studded on top with conch shells. The house would look more at home on a Caribbean island than at the bottom of South Beach, where most of the remaining cottages now sport for-sale signs; the monstrous Portofino Tower looms in the distance. A large ash-color cat sleeps under Hendershot's front steps. Her weary, un-air-conditioned Volvo, Greenie, sits at the curb.

On the screened-in porch, a scarecrow keeps watch near a plywood sign in the shape of a mermaid that reads "The Lord says buy folk art." The sign once stood on the sidewalk outside her former gallery on Lincoln Road. Inside the house, a menagerie of creatures real and imagined has taken over the living room. Two kittens lie on the floor next to a shy hound dog, while a tailless tabby and a white cat lounge on the back of a bamboo couch. On the floor next to them, on the coffee table, and on the mantel stand dozens of figures, including a dog made of driftwood, gourds transformed into striped snakes, a wooden penguin, a roughly carved porcupine covered with bottle caps, a gray whirligig in the shape of a crane, more birds made from egg carton Styrofoam, a manatee carved from dried cow dung, and a tall wooden gentleman made from a tree branch.

Paintings cover the walls. There are thickly brushed portraits of everyday people and religious icons by artists from North Carolina and Tennessee. Vivid pastel memories of one artist's life in the Bahamas. Jazz musicians and horses by Purvis Young, whose work Hendershot sells and whom she is in awe of. Alabama artist Thornton Dial's sensuous, swirling watercolors. More whimsical figures blaze a trail to several other small rooms. In the bedroom, Barbie and Ken dolls in homemade tropical outfits are posed in postnuptial bliss in a small wooden chapel. Piles of books and catalogues about self-taught artists cover the coffee table.

"I don't work with the big names established by some kind of consensus," says Hendershot, who is dressed in one of her typical workday outfits -- a vintage Fifties dress of black-and-white striped cotton with a flowered green kitchen apron tied around her waist. Drinking from a can of Miller Lite, she takes a seat on the couch. Above her head, a painting of a crudely depicted couple proclaims "While You Talking, I Am Praying." "Some people in the business don't want to know the artists. They buy from other dealers or galleries and they never meet the artists; that way they can promote the art any way they want and not feel that they've done anything wrong. That's another angle, and I respect that. But I couldn't work for one second in this world and not meet the artists. It wouldn't mean anything. I could not possibly live without them."

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