Curated by Julie and Bruce Webb
The Cell Series is a widely acclaimed exhibition series that presents the work of living artists within the Dzchallengingdz upper galleries of the historic 1877 jail structure. Sustaining the passion of the OJAC founders in supporting and exhibiting contemporary artists, visitors encounter works by artists that attempt to interpret and translate the world we universally experience with often surprising and enlightening results.
Temporarily breaking tradition of inviting a single artist to conceive, create, and install an exhibition of their work; the OJAC invites curator Julie Webb of the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, Texas to create an exhibition/installation of work by several self-taught artists for the February Cell Series. These artists work, or have worked, in self-imposed isolation to deal with what the world has dealt them. They have used their artistic talents to communicate through the language of art. They create in concentrated states and often in obsessive manners to share their world through the beauty of their artwork. artwork. Artists: Hector Alonzo Benavides, Robert Adale Davis, Ike E. Morgan, Helen Burkhart Mayfield, Royal Robertson, Rev. LT Thomas.
The 2016 Cell Series is sponsored in part by Susie and Joe Clack, Tom Jones Fine Art, Amy and Patrick Kelly, Juli and Mac McGinnis, Talley Dunn Gallery, Kathy Webster in Memory of Charles H. Webster, and Anonymous.
Patrick Kelly, the Old Jail Art Center’s Curator of Exhibitions, email interview with Julie Webb. (February 2016)
PK: Thanks for agreeing to curate our Cell Series exhibition. As you know, we traditionally invite individual artists to participate, so this is the first time we have invited a curator to organize the work of multiple artists. Given your expertise in self-taught artists, I thought it would be a great opportunity for visitors to encounter this type of work.
To begin, can we clarify some terminology? The descriptive terms of folk, outsider, primitive, and self-taught get tossed around quite a bit. Do they all refer to the same genre or are there nuances of difference?
JW: We are honored to curate for the Cell Series. The title Exile and Isolation seems perfect for the space of a jail cell; and we have been fortunate to work with some wonderful artists who created artwork under these circumstances.
The terminology is important to identify and give artwork a history and narrative, but it also can get in the way of simply enjoying the artwork for art’s sake. Most of the artists who have been labeled any of these terms view themselves simply as artists.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this art was called “Folk Art” or “Primitive Art” and was characterized by exhibitions and early publications showing Limner painters of colonial times, weather vanes, quilts, and cigar store Indians. It would be more traditional in execution or look.
“Outsider Art” has always been an evolving form and definition. The term comes from a book written by Roger Cardinal and originally published in Europe under the title Art Brut, but for American publications was translated to “Outsider Art.” The best definition of “Outsider Art” would be art created outside of the mainstream art world. It is usually non-academic in approach. It would be art produced out of a drive to create that goes beyond creating for the art world or for art’s sake. The art is often not created as artwork at all.
“Self-taught” seems to be the most user-friendly term. Although, there are artists who would be considered folk or outsider who have training or have been schooled by tradition.
PK: The artists you and Bruce have selected to utilize in the installation are: Ike E. Morgan, Helen Burkhart Mayfield, Hector Alonzo Benavides, Robert Adale Davis, Rev. LT Thomas, and Royal Robertson. Can you briefly tell about each artist and their work?
JW: Ok...All of these artists work or worked in exile or isolation either by their own choice or circumstances.
Ike E. Morgan painted George Washington from the dollar bill when he was in the Austin State Hospital where he resided from age 17 through age 41. He was diagnosed with severe schizophrenia and lived many years at the hospital recovering and learning how to live on his own. For the past 15 years, he has lived on his own with a roommate and paints every day. He still focuses on Washington and other presidential portraits, along with Mona Lisa, Rick James, and various portraits from popular culture.
Helen Burkhart Mayfield lived most of her life in and around the Austin area. She was extremely creative throughout her life. She created artwork, composed music, and started the first interpretive dance troop in Austin. In her last years, Helen lived on the streets and was known to fashion elaborate headpieces and gowns for herself, and stop traffic with her performances. Her drawings reflect a beautifully eloquent yet troubled and highly imaginative artist.
Hector Alonzo Benavides’ work was brought to us by his cousin in 1992. At that time, Hector was in his 40s and resided with his mother in Laredo. Hector was extremely obsessive-compulsive and worked with ballpoint pens and a straight edge, filling a page until his mother stopped him from going through the paper. The pieces represent his love for his mother and his Catholic prayers to the Holy Trinity.
Robert Adale Davis is a new discovery to us. He is currently a full-time caretaker for his elderly mother. He spends his days in a small space with low light, alternating between stitching his artwork, writing complex journals with diagrams, and doing personal research. Among his passions are researching the physics of vibrations and frequencies, aspects of the balance of brain chemistry, and advancement of humans through diet and health.
Robert fills his mind with complex thoughts while doing repetitive motions of hand sewing. His sewing work ranges from tapestries to wire formed mandalas, intricate patches, and the obsessive sewing of clothing transforming them into sculptures.
Rev. LT Thomas was living in a nursing home back in the 1990s when we visited him. He sat in a wheelchair and drew these repeated figures which he referred to as Frederick Douglass, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Clyde Barrow. The figures varied in color, number on a page, and position, but were always the same and had a likeness to Rev. Thomas himself.
Royal Robertson was a sign painter by trade and a sweet but troubled man. He suffered from paranoia and chose to live without medication. His wife Adele left him and took their children. So, he lived alone in southern Louisiana and created an incredible environment that incorporated his interests in science fiction, illustration, design, and biblical text. His home was a showplace of wooden signs, paintings, and sculptures. He worked on poster board drawings, including collage and text references alongside beautiful futuristic and imaginative drawings that he would share with visitors
PK: What do these artists think about or how do they react to their creations being shown in museums and sold in galleries?
JW: These artists, like any artists or people, enjoy that others find joy in what they create. The museum or gallery world can sometimes be a foreign place, as this artwork was not created for art’s sake, but for the drive to create.
Art by artists who only create for themselves is never the same when it is recognized as art. Whatever their background or reasoning behind the drive to create in isolation is part of the art.