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'Spelvin Collection' makes whimsical statements about a genre known for its authenticity

Fantastic folk art

Thursday, January 18, 2001

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Making its world premiere today at a Carnegie Mellon University gallery is a touring exhibition of contemporary folk art so visionary that it might seem unreal. Or is that, might seem real?

"It's as real as real is," says Petra Fallaux, director of the Regina Gouger Miller Gallery, as she stands before one of the displays:

Among treasures of the Spelvin Folk Art Collection at Carnegie Mellon University are the collaged 33 rpm records by Lucas Farley of Poplar Hill, Va. According to the accompanying text, he starting making them and placing them on his fence as a tribute to his mother, a Camel Light smoker who died of lung cancer. "[M]ost of his neighbors thought of them as 'Halloween decorations that had been left out too long.' " (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

Bible passages hand-printed on the insides of 16 opened cereal boxes.

Hung with them is a photograph of the artist, Max Pritchard, who, according to an accompanying text, "found the Lord in 1986 at a Wafflehouse Restaurant in Berea, Kentucky. Mesmerized by the pattern of his oatbran waffle, Pritchard conceived of carving the twenty-six characters of the alphabet out of linoleum to produce a system to 'hand-print the sacred word of God.' Not a good student of history, Pritchard was unaware that Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468) had used similar principles for printing the Bible over five hundred years before. ..."

Nearby are the jointed wood "limberjack" puppets of Lester Coleman Dowdey, who, we are informed, became famous in Alcoa, Tenn., when they first cured his niece's toothache and he made them for other ailments. "His most commonly used puppet was one he calls 'Mr. Stop Smoking.' "

These colorful examples of "outsider" art and eight others, ranging from E.B. Hazzard's "alien communication

device" made of more than 300 flattened tin cans on tent poles to Charlotte Black's velvet paintings of brides, are part of the George and Helen Spelvin Folk Art Collection. This exhibition comes here from the collection's new home at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville's Hokes Archives.

Hokes is pronounced "hoax."

Keep that in mind as you read on or visit the show, which runs at the CMU gallery through March 2.

Curator is the Hokes Archives director, Beauvais Lyons, who will attend the opening reception from 5 to 7 p.m. tomorrow.

He'll answer questions, though perhaps not all those the exhibition might raise.

Also, "I'm going to reenact the harmonica playing of Lester Dowdey with a limberjack," he says. "It's very much like the shaman who uses sympathetic magic."

The artist and art professor has been here (at CMU) once before, back in 1994, with his archaeological exhibit, "Reconstruction of an Aazudian Temple." It told, in artifacts and words, the story of the extremely little-known Aazuds, whom he said lived in 3500 to 2000 B.C. on the Euphrates River and were "an enterprising people ... accomplished in the arts, poetry, dance, music, horticulture, cooking and massage."

 
    ART PREVIEW

Among treasures of the Spelvin Folk Art Collection at Carnegie Mellon University are the collaged 33 rpm records by Lucas Farley of Poplar Hill, Va. According to the accompanying text, he starting making them and placing them on his fence as a tribute to his mother, a Camel Light smoker who died of lung cancer. "[M]ost of his neighbors thought of them as 'Halloween decorations that had been left out too long.' " (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

 
 

Lyons is so very, very ... well, creative, that we'll leave it to him to elaborate on the moving story of the Spelvin Collection, which was donated to the Hokes Archives in 1998 when it outgrew the Lenoir City, Tenn., home of Helen and George Spelvin. The school teacher and insurance agent "devoted their energy to the study and collection of visionary folk art" by crisscrossing six states in their old Volvo wagon.

"Once discovered," Lyons writes in the introduction to the show, "much of this art was netted through 'sharecropping,' in which the Spelvins acquired the pieces for relatively small payments. This is a common pattern in the provenance of folk art and may explain the increased critical and curatorial attention given to this field."

Indeed, one need look no further than Sunday's New York Times for a story on outsider art, pegged to the annual Outsider Art Fair opening next week in Soho. The piece describes a current Folk Art Museum show, which includes "blot and squiggle abstracts that the Georgia farm worker J.B. Murry said were religious texts dictated by God" and "obsessively elaborated see-through boys drawn by Dwight Makintosh."

The Spelvin Collection presents six shopping maze drawings on cream-colored paper by P.J. Kipple, Juanita Richardson's paintings on returnable long-neck beer bottles, even an "inter-racial rag doll friendship chain" by Loretta Howard, whose grandfather was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Haven't heard of them? Well, Lyons deadpans, "There are some better known folk artists in the Spelvin Collection, but many of those people have already been presented widely in previous exhibitions."

This one, you just have to see to believe.

Or not believe.


For more information on the Spelvin Collection, the Hokes Archives and Lyons, go to the Web site http://web.utk.edu/~blyons/.



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