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.

One such artist, Joseph Abrams -- the hat man -- lives a few blocks from Hendershot, in the Jewish Convalescent Home of South Florida on Washington Avenue.

When she arrives at the home early on a recent morning for a scheduled appointment, Abrams is already waiting outside. A frail, smiling man wearing blue pants and a thick brown cardigan in 95-degree weather, he sits in his wheelchair, a cigar in one hand and a bag full of beaded necklaces in his lap. On the back of the wheelchair, a bumper sticker announces "Member Artists Anonymous." Abrams, who is 90, made his living fashioning costume jewelry and women's accessories in New York City's garment district. When Hendershot first spotted him seven years ago, he was sitting on a folding chair at the corner of Washington Avenue and Fifth Street, wearing a fancy hat with flowers on it, fashioned out of newspaper. She then accompanied him to his apartment at Rebecca Towers on Alton Road, where there were about seventy more newspaper hats -- fanciful creations worthy of a couture collection, and all so detailed that each took a week to make. He told her that he had begun constructing the newsprint chapeaus when his wife of many years passed away. Abrams, lonely and bored, picked up some newspaper and started playing with it.

"I had nothing else to do," recalls Abrams, leading the way in his wheelchair to his room in the convalescent home, where a bulletin board is covered with newspaper articles about him and his hats. "I had ideas, so I just kept making them."

Hendershot now helps him take some of the paper hats out of the closet: a red toucan, its long beak jutting from the crown. A green cloche with plastic strawberries growing out of the top. A grinning shark. A flower garden toque. Fezes bedecked with Christmas ribbons or shells.

"Marlene Dietrich would have worn this one," exclaims Hendershot, putting on an elaborate black hat with a bow in back and a swooping brim, suitable for a Hollywood production.

Wearing a high turreted cone hat shaped like an Ocean Drive apartment building he can see from his window, Abrams grins widely, his loose dentures clicking together. The sterile room that smells of disinfectant has suddenly become the scene of a joyous celebration resembling a tea party in Alice's Wonderland.

In the past, Abrams often stationed himself with his hats at the News Cafe on Ocean Drive, where some restaurant-goers bought them. Even actress-model Lauren Hutton recently made an appearance at the senior citizens' home to purchase one. Hendershot still has a few in her gallery, which she usually sells for about $100 each. But the artist's production has slowed these days. Abrams is having some trouble seeing, and he doesn't sleep well; it is harder for him to do the detailed work that the hats require. He has started making simple necklaces out of crystal-like plastic beads in bright colors.

Hendershot is a little worried about Abrams, who seems tired. She promises him that she's going to call his son when she gets home to discuss a problem the old man is having with his eyes. Undaunted, Abrams announces his plans to wheel himself to the Woolworth on Lincoln Road and buy some more beads.

A hat shaped like a birthday cake with construction paper candles and a flourish of toilet paper icing sits on the bed. Hendershot picks it up and touches it lovingly.

"He took toilet tissue and gave it a different life," she marvels. "That to me is the most important thing, to give something a totally different personality, a different vision. If you can do that in life, turn things around, then that gives me joy. I hope it gives other people joy too."

Hendershot acknowledges that, in her experience, people who share her appreciation are relatively few. Despite the growing numbers of converts who have stoked the popularity of the well-promoted outsider artists, Hendershot believes that a love for primitive paintings, strange curios, and the sometimes bizarre ephemera of the human condition is not an acquired taste.

"I think that people enjoy looking at this kind of art or they don't," she says. "It's hard for me to talk about the work. I've just always liked funky stuff made from everyday items."

Hendershot, who is 52 years old, started accumulating her collection about twenty years ago. She lived in a loft in New York's SoHo, where she counts herself among the first seven people to move into what was then a warehouse district in the late Sixties. Her circle of friends included filmmaker Jonathan Demme, who was already scavenging for unusual art. On Saturdays Hendershot would go with Demme and other friends to see a woman who sold Haitian art out of a garage in the neighborhood. Demme also had an acquaintance in prison who did work on slate boards. Like musician David Byrne and other people she knew who cultivated a marginal sensibility, Hendershot frequented flea markets for cast-off paintings and quirky knickknacks, finding wonders in other people's junk.

Leaving behind her successful career as a photo editor, Hendershot moved to Miami in 1988. She drove around the state, asking people on the road if they knew of anybody who made unusual things and knocked on doors of imaginatively decorated houses and trailers, hoping that there might be a visionary artist inside. In Miami she happened upon people like Joseph Abrams who were selling their own work on the street, and visited recognized artists like Purvis Young and Pablo Cano, an academically trained artist who makes fantastic puppets and sculptures from junk. The next year, she opened her first gallery in a small space on Washington Avenue, which had not yet been transformed into club row by the South Beach boom; it was still a slapdash strip of stores. Hendershot found a space between Eighth and Ninth streets, the site of a defunct botanica run by a Cuban man who wore white patent leather shoes and a crooked toupee. Hendershot adopted the nonsense name of the store, Vanity Novelty Garden, when she took it over.

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