In the latest edition of Plumage-TX Magazine, Gallery Director, Gabriel Diego Delgado writes about his personal experience with artists of the Naive genre with an in-depth analysis of the Texas artist, F.L. "Doc" Spellmon.
This can be read in the Winter 2015 edition here:
Insight of the Outside
By: Gabriel Diego Delgado
I bought my first major art purchases and paintings a few months after graduating with my Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art. A Fine Art Studio major and colleague persuaded me to join him (Jon Read) and another friend (Tex Kerschen) to visit the studio of Rev. Albert Wagner. It was with Wagner’s work that I would begin my exploration into “Outsider” or “Naïve Art”. Wagner was one of those art community figures who existed outside the norm of traditional fine art practices; someone you would hear stories about. Thrown into the naïve “Outsider Artist” genre, Wagner was a self-taught artist and self-proclaimed preacher with a church in his basement who lived on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio. We were making a holy trek to see his work, in what has been described by those covering the economic development of Cleveland as a signature crack neighborhood, undoubtedly in one of Forbes most financially miserable cities. I was unfamiliar with his legacy and was curious to see why his persona had such an impact on a trusted art associate. The story goes that he was a fanatical womanizer and heavy drinker, who in preparation for his fiftieth birthday was in his basement cleaning when paint splatters on the floorboards began speaking to him. It was the voice of God telling him he needed to change his life and turn to God and preach. From that day on, he painted holy relics of the gospel and conducted informal church sermons in the basement. As a prolific artist he was able to create well over 3,000 works of art within his lifetime; most of the sales of his work while he was still alive were undocumented (like mine) where he took cash on the spot and sold the works off the walls of his home. After his death in 2006 at 82, his children held an auction and sold over 800 works of art.
Upon arriving at Wagner’s studio we were greeted by a person, whether friend, colleague, family member or caretaker was not apparent. We were told that the Reverend was still sleeping, but we could look around if we wanted. When we went upstairs to the second floor, we saw the artist. Still woozy from a late afternoon nap, he was still reclining in his bed when he invited us into his room to share his art. Stacks of paintings were amassed on the floor around his bed, some littered on the peripherals of his sheets. On that cold and windy Ohio day I took home with me two small religious paintings of the baby Jesus and the Holy Mother. After meeting the artist, seeing the house full of his vision, the way he lived his life, you could not help but be impressed and acknowledge you were in the presence of someone living on a higher plane than yourself.
As my professional art career took many turns and twists at several art institutions, I would go onto meet other ‘outsider’ artists who would have an impact on my outlook of this genre. Jesse Lott, a Houston based African American artist who called the 5th Ward home, shared a studio with me in the early 2000’s, or I shared it with him. I felt his magic, his artistic mojo, his Rastafarian energy. Lott is credited as one of the founding members of the Project Row Houses in Houston’s 3rd Ward. Lott was/ is the mystical godfather of the African American Art community from the 1960’s to today. Texas Evangelical Forrest Price with his political statements and divine teachings showed me how to make art filled with hope, despair, redemption, guilt, gratitude, salvation and other worldly repentances. Price strived to live his life in a way that complimented the Dead Sea Scrolls. An artist beyond description, his gentle demeanor allowed him to serve the Lord in his own way but still maintain an aura of artistic importance in the collective Houston art community.
When I recently saw the artwork of F.L. Doc Spellmon, I knew I found my next “Outsider Art” interest. For the exhibition “Texas Vintage” at J.R. Mooney Galleries of Boerne, we were able to curate in three paintings by Spellmon in order to help recognize his importance in the African American art community of San Antonio during the 1950’s – 1970’s. A pioneer of African American “Outsider Art”, Spellmon’s vision included historical documentations about slavery atrocities, battles concerning the Buffalo Soldiers, aspects of everyday life, gin distilleries, African cultures, religion and everything in between. Through the renowned collector of Texas vintage art, Johnny Wright from Fredericksburg, Texas, I was fortunate to witness a wonderful array of over 40 original Doc Spellmon paintings. Wright had purchased a large estate of his work directly from the artist before he died. Wright was offering the gallery an opportunity to share with our clients some of this wonderful collection. I immediately knew we needed to have more of his selections in the gallery for our patrons to experience. After selecting about 18 more paintings with the considerations of Art Consultant, Katherine Shevchenko, the decision was made to bring in a body of work as sort of an appendage to the exhibition; work that would be available for consultation and reference the importance of his career in the “Outsider” genre.
As we began to document his artwork for the exhibition catalog, we also began to document the backs of the paintings along with the front image. The backs of canvases, serving platters, boards, discarded wood other devices held an almost biographical anthology. Spellmon would make his own art and exhibition labels and affix them to the backs of the art. You could see labels showcasing the various organizations and businesses he founded like the “Black Art Studio” LTD and “Art By DOC”. Others included side jobs where he was immersed in the arts community bringing collectors and patrons to art studios and organizations like the Carver Community Center with labels like, “Art Tours by Appointment” and “Art You Can Identify With”. His comical side would emerge with stickers on his hangers, which read: “Guaranteed Lifetime Hanger”. This was often placed on a crooked piece of recycled wood or particle board that was affixed to the back of the painting by way of nails, staples and glue with an offset and non-centered wire hanger. In 1977 Mayor Lila Cockrell declared F.L. Doc Spellmon Texas Emissary of the Muses and gave him his own City of San Antonio sponsored Proclamation. In Spellmon’s own way of artistic genius and merit he photocopied that proclamation in various sizes and affixed this document to the back of his paintings after August 24, 1977. So from a historical context we can now see from the back of the paintings when they were roughly created, by way of which stickers were affixed to the backing. Always accompanying most paintings was a large self-portrait sticker with what would be considered a business profile head shot complete with a small two paragraph bio of him with the highest merit of quotes referencing him back to Jackson Pollock, Grandma Moses and others. Often considered an “Outsider Artist” due to his visual and playful, and mistakenly, naive imagery, Spellmon actually acquired four degrees in his lifetime including a Masters in the Arts and taught painting and drawing at Lackland Airforce Base in San Antonio. A prolific artist as well, Bill Banks and Andrea Marshall in the biography: F.L. Spellmon “The Life and Works of an African American Artist”, published by Banks Fine Art, LLC, mentioned he participated in over 19 exhibitions from 1986 – 1989.
Within the appendix selection of paintings, four pieces stand out as ones that need further mention and spotlight: a painting sketch titled “Bath Time” measuring 8” x 10” and it’s formalized larger complete work “Bath Time” measuring 15” x 13”; two paintings from the Buffalo Soldiers series including “Getting Away” and “Two Iron Men: Black Seminole Indian Collection”.
The “Bath Time” series can be categorized into his autobiographical series of artworks. They harken back to the times of slavery or post-Civil War with aspects of the everyday life of freed slaves. A pictorial assimilation of the heavyset house slave who took care of the slave children, “Bath Time” is a childlike illustration of two children in a washtub being hovered over and scrubbed by an African American woman in a red headscarf and blouse covered by a white apron. We see a shantytown shack structure in the background complete with paper-collaged flowers in the final larger painting. Both give credit to the matriarchal role in African American culture as well as the rudimental outdoor plumbing that existed in this time era. In today’s contemporary art world reference, the children’s faces remind me of the neon body sculptures by American artist, Bruce Nauman. I half expect the children to be animated and start poking each other in the eye or move their heads in a mechanized jaunt of angular rotations. Addressing the overall physical entity of the actual painting, both paintings have deliberately painted outer frames and course overlays of thick paint, marker, ink, and other mixed media to give a layered concoction of visual pleasure. Yes we see the children, the mother and the house, but what we need to do is take time to ingest all the underpainting; the layers we can see only by bubbled protrusions under the final composition. To first see the ‘Bath’ paint sketch and compare it to the final painting, we can begin to dissect the artist’s intentions, his decisions and formulations to make one of his many pieces.
Historically, the paintings in the “Buffalo Soldiers” series of artwork are comprised of documented events. In “Getting Away”, a smaller 13” x 17” painting, we see a Buffalo Soldier on horseback, facing backward, shooting at what looks like Native Americans. However, contextually within the Buffalo Soldier’s legacy, we know the Buffalo Soldiers were one of the only regiments that were able to sustain the harsh conditions of desert fighting and chase the famous war chief, Geronimo, through Arizona. This could be the famous Geronimo and his soldiers engulfed in a shoot-out and daring escape from the 10th regiment. “Two Iron Men: Black Seminole Indians Collection” on the other hand portrays the Black Seminole scouts, in some cases runaway and freed slaves, who initially joined the Seminole Indian camps in Florida and were asked to enlist in the Army and fight in the Texas-Indian Wars, where they had documented engagements with Comanche, Kiowa, Apaches and Kickapoos, attached to and fighting alongside the Buffalo Soldier regiments. The title can refer to the weaponry, particularly the sword and saber, or the tenacity of these men.
In conclusion, “Outsider Art” should not be dismissed, ignored or deemed irrelevant. In most cases, these artists exist on the peripherals of today’s society. However, a few, like Price, Lott and Spellmon have become intrinsically important to the civic makeup of their respective art communities. Their artworks drive an importance that allows their legacy to continue, influencing future generations of artists, collectors, and appreciators. The outsider has now become the insight-er, revealing aspects of our collective cultures in a fresh light. Maybe we are the ones looking in from the outside and they are the ones in their own profound earthbound nirvana.