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Artist creates a magical world with playful yet serious sculptures

Thursday, November 14, 2002

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

As St. Nicholas is the personification of Christmas, Mr. Imagination is a living manifestation of creativity.

Mr. Imagination touches up one of his pieces, "Taking a Walk," at the Society for Contemporary Craft, where his work is on display. "Taking a Walk" and the untitled work at left are among the sculptures that make up a fantasy world created by self-taught artist. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

He's a Chicago-born self-taught artist who now lives in Bethlehem, Pa., and his fanciful sculpture has transformed the Society for Contemporary Craft into a magical world brimming with creations that are as playful as the art of children and as serious as objects designed for ritual.

His seemingly spontaneous, non-contrived, somewhat compulsively embellished style would deem him an "outsider" artist, a category that's gained prominence in the world of museums, galleries and collectors in recent decades. But, aside from the connotation of penitentiary or asylum resident that the designation frequently carries, the term doesn't fit the overall inclusiveness of his nature.

"Visionary," a term applied to such well-known self-taughts as the late Rev. Howard Finster, better suits Mr. Imagination, born Gregory Warmack in Chicago in 1948 and called Mr. I by his friends.

The third of nine children, Warmack grew up in economic impoverishment balanced by a rich family and spiritual life. He began making art when he was a child, using discarded cardboard and other scrounged material. As a teen, he sold jewelry he made from discarded objects in neighborhood restaurants and bars. One night he was robbed at gunpoint while making his rounds.

"I heard these two loud sounds. I realized this guy had just shot me in my stomach -- twice." He was nearly killed for the 40 cents in his pockets. One of the bullets still rests near his spine, a location that the surgeons felt too risky to disturb.

    If You Go


WHERE: Society for Contemporary Craft, 2100 Smallman St., Strip District.

WHEN: Opening reception 5:30 to 8 p.m. tomorrow; the artist will speak at 6 p.m. The exhibition continues through March 1.

EVENTS: From noon to 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Mr. Imagination will give a gallery talk ($5), and from 1 to 5 p.m. he'll conduct a workshop making Memory Bottles ($100, members $80, artists $60; registration required). A free hands-on art activity designed by the artist will occur daily throughout the exhibition, and from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Dec. 14 children may be photographed with Mr. Imagination's hats, vests and thrones. HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays.

INFORMATION: 412-261-7003 or www.contemporarycraft.org


While he lay in a coma in the hospital, he recalls becoming aware of something "in the back of me, like a beam of light, brighter than the sun, brighter than any light I had ever seen." He describes an out-of-body experience that includes traveling through a tunnel, a phenomenon periodically related by people who've been near death. But Warmack's has a twist: He also felt that he was traveling back in time.

Warmack thought nothing of it until, after a year of recuperation, he began to work in sandstone (a steel industry waste byproduct dumped in vacant neighborhood lots). The faces he carved into it looked "old and ancient." He surmises that perhaps during his coma experience "artists who've died before entered my mind and body and soul, and they help to guide me."

Not long after, he decided that art was his life's calling and took on the name Mr. Imagination.

Two decades later, he's an internationally known and collected figure.

"Artists seem to go through a lot of problems, but artists just keep going," he muses.

Gentle presence

The exhibition is part of a citywide spotlight on folk and outsider art initiated by the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, which will show two works by Mr. Imagination in a traveling Smithsonian exhibition opening later this month. Of all the shows scheduled, Mr. Imagination's is the most comprehensive presentation of work by a globally recognized artist.

A tall, lean gentle man, Warmack, who's African American, speaks in a quiet voice that peaks with delight when he talks about his work or the projects he's carried out with young people.

Walking past a magical figure that's part horse, part Sphinx, with the large staring white eyes characteristic of his works and dreadlocks of strung bottle caps, and into a space thickly populated by his figures, he pauses at each, telling its story as though introducing the visitor to a member of his family -- which, in a way, he is.

That's "Big Mama," he says of a small plaster figure with imposing attitude, in a red floor-length gown, wearing an attached black cloth stole and two strings of beads that flow into her low neckline. A light-catching button tree -- titled "Pearl" -- branches like a clear-coated cactus; its sister is in the collection of the Museum of American Folk Art in New York. "Going to Church" comprises a polychromed plaster grouping of a mother and her two children. "The reason you don't see a man here ... it's a problem," Warmack says, and his voice trails off.

At a swing set tableau he created, his voice becomes even softer, more tender. "A long time ago, you could go to a playground and you could see kids out there having fun. But now it's hard to find that 'cause now it's not safe any more. At a lot of these playgrounds, the swings are standing still." He stoops and gently pushes the boy and the girl on their swings, demonstrating how he hopes children -- it's displayed on a low pedestal -- will interact with the work.

When his cell phone rings, it seems anachronistic. He tells someone in a distant space that he'll call back. A few moments later, it rings again. He talks for a moment and then hands the phone to a reporter, saying it's his mother. Margaret Warmack, who the artist says encouraged his artistic pursuits, is calling from California. When asked if she likes his artwork, she exclaims, "I do -- yes, I do!" But, just like a mother, she won't play favorites: "I love everything, nothing special."

Mr. Imagination wears his name well: From refrigerator coils to bowling pins, the castoffs of a consumer society find new life in his hands.

Most evident are the bottle caps, a passion that began when a mentor gave him a collection of them. Now they stud, tip and dangle from surfaces, each, he proudly points out, individually attached, none glued. While caps rule in numbers -- hundreds of thousands -- another favorite category of Warmack's includes the brushy-haired figures that take shape beneath the bristles of brooms and brushes, each simultaneously a self-portrait and yet emphatically individualistic.

House of Blues

Unfettered by academic training or a steeping in art history, it's still remarkable that Warmack can so clearly stay the path of his vision, considering the gallery and media attention he's received.

Mr. Imagination and some of the inhabitants of the fantasy world he is constructing at the Society for Contemporary Craft in the Strip District. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Since his first solo exhibition at the Carl Hammer Galleries in Chicago in 1983, he's designed an Absolut Vodka ad and received commissions from Coca-Cola to create a work for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and to transform guitars into artworks that were presented to B.B. King and Bo Diddley.

Warmack is also house artist for the hip House of Blues nightclub chain and has installed permanent work at their Chicago and Las Vegas locations. At the Orlando House of Blues -- where he conducted a workshop last weekend -- he built a "Unity Grotto" in 1998 dedicated to the late Princess Diana. While he was building it, people brought personal objects -- a dead child's picture, teeth, braces, a space-traveled coin -- that he incorporated into the design. Everything has a meaning ... this is for everyone," he says. "It's this thing of unity, peace -- and once you walk in there, it's really, really spiritual."

In this kind of artistic expression, more than in any other form, the artist and work are inextricably linked, and to interact with Mr. Imagination this weekend is an opportunity to rediscover wonder. But if you can't make it, be assured that when you do visit, you'll find the shadow of his presence behind each artwork.

Mary Thomas can be reached at mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.

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