Inside Looking Out
Award-winning artist Milton Schwartz charts the course of Western civilization on a growing sheaf of manila file folders that he keeps in a desk drawer. Each of the folders is covered inside and out with a crowded collage of words and pictures. Schwartz's meticulously arranged constructions reveal a sublime world perspective that fuses religious fervor with a potpourri of pop culture images. Photos and drawings clipped from newspapers, tourist brochures, and advertisements illustrate Schwartz's hand-printed pronouncements --the StarKist mermaid and Abraham Lincoln, the Hooters girls and the Virgin Mary appear side by side. The text is written in the didactic style of biblical teachings, but with the zip of advertising copy. One series, The Life of Jesus Christ From One to Ten, offers Schwartz's interpretation of everyday activity in the Nazarene community. In addition to Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, his characters include physicians Dr. Luv Ever Ready and Dr. Hym Watchal, nurse Miti Fine, fisherman Commodore Catchall, and animal trainer Jake Master Wise. The rambling primer, replete with found slogans and original proverbs, promotes a do-unto-others philosophy and outlines the regimens for healthy eating and exercise that, according to Schwartz, were adhered to by the characters in the Scriptures.
"This is a way for me to get my outlet," Schwartz says of his current work. "When I write, it's not for 1996. I believe that the babies of the future will be interested in this."
Despite his statement of purpose, Schwartz's work has recently garnered some attention. One of his collages took first prize among the more than 700 entries to the eighth annual "National Art Exhibition by the Mentally Ill," which is on display through the end of this month at the University of Miami's New Gallery, one stop on its countrywide tour. The show was organized by a Miami-based volunteer group, with the goal of reducing the stigma associated with mental disorders by exposing the work to the public. It also gives institutionalized artists a chance to make some money, as the works are for sale.
A former New York City fabric merchant who now resides in a private Miami Beach adult living facility, Schwartz is self-taught, compulsive, prolific, and visionary, all characteristics of those commonly known as outsider artists: prisoners, the homeless, the rural poor, the insane, closet eccentrics, country clerics, and garden-variety obsessives with no formal training and a lot of time on their hands. By definition, outsider art seems to combust from the soul, born of a spiritual necessity.
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This kind of marginalized expression has long fascinated trained artists in search of a primitive, pure aesthetic. Art by the insane was championed early in this century by the surrealists. American painters in the Twenties looked for a national identity in the self-taught folk art of rural dwellers. In the Fifties, the painter Jean Dubuffet dubbed the work of psychiatric patients art brut, or "raw art." Roger Cardinal, a British historian, is widely credited with coining the term "outsider art," which he used in a 1972 book by that name.
Over the past decade, outsider art has gained popularity among a broader audience. The emotional appeal of these artists' ostensibly simple, flat perspective paintings and rough cast-off constructions presents an obvious antidote to the jaded, over-conceptualized statements of the mainstream art world. The art also has a politically correct cachet, as it is usually generated within sectors of the population that have traditionally been ignored. Major museum shows displaying outsider art have toured the country (one, "Passionate Visions of the American South," came to the Bass last fall). And two self-taught art shows are on exhibit in Atlanta, as part of the Olympic Arts Festival. The genre has even been consecrated by Congress: The American Visionary Art Museum, which opened in Baltimore last November, has been designated the official U.S. repository for self-taught art.
Some outsider art has also increased dramatically in market value. In March the fourth annual Outsider Art Fair was held in New York City. Writing about the event, a New York Times critic called the fair a "frenzy." The number of galleries dealing in outsider art is still relatively small -- 35 dealers had booths at the fair -- but the works of outsider "masters" now sell for six figures. Overtown painter Purvis Young is one of the outsider market's contemporary stars. His visceral depictions of boat people, black saints, and pregnant women sell for up to $10,000 apiece.
"It's part of the art world, it's part of the hype, it's part of the media," says Joy Moos, who carries work by Young and other popular outsider artists in her three-thousand-square-foot gallery in Little Haiti. "All of a sudden it was out there. These artists are suddenly coming to the forefront."
With the art's newfound popularity have rightfully come concerns that the artists will be exploited by ambitious dealers, as well as the rather patronizing assumption that the art will be "spoiled" if the artists are exposed to new influences -- dealers have even been known to drop artists whose work has become too "sophisticated." Certainly, the fickle attentions of both the art market and the media, which may court an artist one minute, ignore him the next, can upset the delicate psychological balance of someone who is not mentally prepared to deal with life outside an institution. But the elitist idea that all low-income, self-taught artists are unwitting idiot savants with no notion of the world around them is simply naive.
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."
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.
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.
"That's what we do all day around here, drink coladas," Holmes says jovially, offering one to Hendershot and one to a fellow resident, whom he addresses in Spanish -- Holmes was born in Bogata, where his father worked in the foreign service. His parents now live in Homestead. As he lifts his own plastic cup, his hands shake slightly, not from coffee, but from his medication. He is dressed surfer-style, in baggy jeans, sport sandals, and a T-shirt that says "Baja, California." A fashionable patch of hair sprouts beneath his lower lip.
A graduate in history from the University of Pennsylvania, Holmes, who is 50, has been in and out of institutions most of his adult life. He started painting 25 years ago, in a Philadelphia facility that had an art therapy program. "I'm a believer in art therapy in institutions," says Holmes, who complains of voices in his head. "I paint just because it gives me a lift. My art is just a giant therapy. Painting relaxes me. I paint something and I sit back and look at it, then I paint some more, and I try to keep going," he continues, breaking into a gap-toothed smile. "Then I give up."
Holmes goes upstairs to his sunny room. A pile of books sits on a desk under the window -- Alan Ginsberg's collected poems, a volume of Picasso's work, Mein Kampf, Perestroika. His roommate sleeps motionless on the bed nearest the door.
Holmes shows Hendershot his latest works. She frowns at the manner in which the housekeeper has piled them in a corner, like so much clutter, but the artist just shrugs, used to such things. Many of the paintings are simple pictures of white-and-yellow daisies, disarmingly juxtaposed with words painted above them that Holmes says have just been on his mind -- "resurrect," "God," "assume," "shirt," "truth," "Save Us Anyway." Other flowers are poignantly named for Holmes's old girlfriends, like Janet and Suzanne. These seem to take on human form -- seduction can be seen in the curve of a stem, sadness in the droop of a petal. One flower is named for his mother. He retrieved it from the garbage can where she threw it after he gave it to her as a present.
Some paintings are actual portraits, mottled faces floating in the middle of bright or earth-color backgrounds, or full-length figures -- Larry, a "marijuana buddy" from college. Jesus. A self-portrait in which Holmes paints himself van Gogh-like, with glazed, saucer eyes. One called Gloria shows a frowzy potato face of a woman with a black eye, wearing a porkpie hat and smoking a cigarette. Speaking quietly, Holmes identifies her as a prostitute he met on a trip to Mexico. He glances over at his roommate, who is in a deep sleep. The man has lain there all morning, knocked out from some new medication.
Hendershot loudly compliments each painting as she flips through the stack. Holmes sells her two paintings, charging $15 for both. She has some clients who are fans of his work, mostly in the film industry -- they might pay as much as $300 apiece for them. She subsequently gives the artist a percentage. Holmes spends his extra income on cigarettes. He likes to peruse the stores on nearby Eighth Street, where he buys statues of Buddha or other religious figures. Half of the $500 he got from the American Visionary Art Museum went for art supplies. He spent another $40 on a bust of Jesus that somebody later stole from its hiding place on the top shelf of his closet.
The sales have not inspired Holmes to paint more; in fact, he seems mostly amused at the whole notion of the commercial art world, and he admits that he's gotten a little bored with the whole thing. Most of the time he reads. "I'm not as excited about art as I used to be," Holmes confesses. Nonetheless, art has been on his mind. He picks up a piece of notebook paper from the dresser, and reads out loud what he has written on it. "What is art? If I knew, I would keep the knowledge to myself. I am not the artist."
Hendershot pulls up to the house in Opa-locka where Willie Eaglin and four other black senior citizens are sitting outside on lawn chairs, along with their caretaker, a bulky, jovial man named Joe. She shouts greetings and comes into the yard, carrying two plastic bags. One bag is full of old clothes, sheets, and some self-threading needles. She puts it down next to Eaglin and takes a package of oatmeal cookies out of the other bag and passes them around.
Eaglin is wearing a stocking cap he cut and sewed from a pantyhose leg; three necklaces strung with wooden beads, buttons, and plastic cigarillo tips; and a beatific smile. His T-shirt says "Hiney Winery," and the voice inside the black watch on his wrist announces the time when he pushes a button -- the watch was a gift from Hendershot. Brown loafers tap out a Broadway shuffle on the grass beneath his feet.
He is eager to show Hendershot what he has made since her last visit. Inside a shopping bag on a table next to him are a dozen handbags and a throw rug, woven from scraps of cloth and yarn. The rug is mostly red and irregular in shape; it looks like a blossoming poppy. Each of the purses is a wild tapestry -- braided rags woven together and sewn with combinations of red, yellow, black, and green yarn. Eaglin's needlework exhibits an extraordinary sense of materials and color, considering the fact that he cannot see. He works at night, listening to the baseball game on the radio.
Originally from Washington, D.C., Eaglin used to shine shoes at Miami International Airport. Now 88, he developed cataracts in late middle age. After he lost his sight, he took some vocational courses at the Lighthouse for the Blind. In an art therapy class, the students were taught to make yarn dolls. While everyone else simply followed directions, Eaglin began to weave fantastic rugs. The instructor, an artist who was friendly with Hendershot, called her with the news.
The art dealer and Eaglin became fast friends and have known each other for eight years. When Eaglin, who has no relatives here, was robbed in another senior citizens' residence, Hendershot had him moved to this one, where he is getting better care. Similar to the arrangement she has with the other artists she works with, she pays Eaglin whatever he asks for the rugs, then sells them at a higher price, which can be determined by her customer's budget.
"If nobody wanted 'em, I'd make them anyway," says Eaglin, stroking the gray beard that hangs off his chin like brush on a mountainside. "The man upstairs gives me the ideas -- if you know what I mean."
Hendershot pulls her chair close to Eaglin's and inquires after his health.
"I can't squawk," says the old man, his eyes open wide. Then together they shout out, "No complaintin'!" and break up giggling. They make plans to go fishing so Eaglin can try out a new fishing line he made out of rags. Hendershot kisses him goodbye on the lips.
"If there were more people like you, Willie," she beams, "life would be wonderful.
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