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.

It was always a precarious business. When the landlady wanted to triple the rent on the Washington Avenue space, she moved the gallery to Lincoln Road. When that too became prime property, she went to Second Street, conveniently located next to Ted's Hideaway, the quintessential neighborhood dive bar. When the ceiling in that space started to cave in last year, she took everything home.

These days Hendershot limits most of her retail sales to her regular clients among collectors and dealers, sending out photos of new work to her contacts in New York and around the country. Mostly, she avoids selling directly by sending works by the Florida artists she handles to the Rising Fawn Gallery in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

"There's always something unique and special about the work by the artists that she likes," says Jimmy Hedges, the owner of Rising Fawn, who was in Miami recently to pick up some paintings from Hendershot. "They are people who find beauty in what others would find to be totally despairing situations. Fortunately, there's someone like Tamara who appreciates them."

With Hendershot, a drive to a restaurant for lunch easily extends into a road trip of discovery through the less-visited neighborhoods of Miami. Sitting in the passenger seat, she gives precarious directions to a neighborhood in Allapattah, where she has often gone searching for new artists. After some circling, she points to a house in the middle of the block, across from a trailer park where the wooden trailers are painted in vivid pastel hues. "There it is!"

Everything in the yard, including the house itself, is painted bright yellow or red. The fence, which is adorned with metal lions and no-trespassing signs, is red and yellow striped. The cast iron garden benches are yellow, as are the silks painted on the black jockey statues. An eclectic flock of red and yellow garden flamingos grazes on the lawn. Red lobsters crawl up the side of the house. Numerous pots of plastic flowers are painted red and yellow. Even the palm trees have been painted yellow -- unfortunately, they didn't survive the paint job; only the trunks remain. A small cottage behind the house sports the same red and yellow treatment.

The psychedelic-patterned yard is Hendershot's favorite Miami environment. Considered an in situ form of outsider art, environments can be clandestine, tucked away inside a room or closet. Strange gardens like these are also referred to simply as yard art.

"Not just one thing is creative," explains Hendershot, pulling out her camera and taking pictures of the site. "It has to be obsessive, but not a pile of junk. It has to be over indulgently done. It's not done to attract attention. Whoever lives here, they're just doing it for their own enjoyment."

A few minutes later, a woman wearing a housecoat opens the front door a crack. She gives permission for Hendershot to take pictures, and starts to disappear back into the house. Hendershot asks her if she's been working on the house a long time. Yes, she says, and with a wave quickly shuts the door.

"Whenever I have a dilemma I come here and look at this," sighs Hendershot, back in the car. "It helps me think about things in a different way."

The Joy America Cafe, on the top floor of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, was named after a painting by Miami artist Eric Holmes -- a colorful expressionist portrait of a naked girl standing in front of a chair with her arms thrown jubilantly above her head, painted on a piece of wood. "Joy America" is written in large letters across the top, and, in the bottom right-hand corner of the painting, where the artist's signature should be, the word truth is printed in block letters.

"Tamara called me, and she knew we had, like, no money, but she said she had a painting that was far too good to be in anybody's living room," recalls museum director Rebecca Hoffberger, who bought the work for the museum for $500. (Star Trek's Leonard Nimoy and his wife Susan, who have a collection of nude portraits by outsider artists, later tried unsuccessfully to buy the painting from the museum).

"When we were thinking about what to name the restaurant, I really wanted to give something more back to Eric," says the museum director during a phone call from Baltimore. "I called him and said, 'We'd love to name the restaurant Joy America.' Eric said, 'Well, the painting's real name is actually Virgin America in Front of the Electric Chair.' I said, 'Well, um, would it be all right with you if we named it Joy America anyway?'"

Recalling the conversation with Hoffberger, Holmes smiles mischievously. "I cook up stories about things after I paint them. After I finished Joy America, I saw that the chair in the picture looked like an electric chair."

Holmes lives in an HRS adult living facility in Little Havana. He and Hendershot sit visiting on a floral-print couch in the two-story residence's tidy common room on an recent morning. At his request, she has brought scrap lumber so that he can make some new paintings. He brushes his graying shoulder-length hair out of his face and slowly picks up a thimble-size colada from the coffee table in front of him.

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