Michelle Mackey visited the legendary couple behind the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, Texas, shortly after last year’s Outsider Art Fair in New York City. This year they are back, with the fair opening Thursday. They are bringing works by Reverend Thomas and Tom Burleson, two artists discussed in this article, as well as Reverend Johnny Swearingen, Hector Alonso Benavides, Robert Adale Davis and William S. Burroughs.
Julie Webb and her two Boston terriers welcomed me at the entrance to the gallery. Just outside of Dallas, this 10,000 square foot cabinet of curiosities. which she founded in 1987 with her husband, Bruce (like her, an artist) greets you with a cast iron storefront, painted in red, yellow and blue. It is a magnet for collectors of Outsider art, including the likes of David Byrne and St. Vincent. The entrance is peppered with potted plants and the open doors give way to a visual treasure trove of vintage neon signs, fraternal banners, paintings, sculptures and folk objects.
The Webbs had just returned from the 2015 Outsider Art Fair in NY, so I had the benefit of watching Julie unpack some drawings that they had shown at the Fair.
She pulled out eight drawings by Reverend L.T. Thomas and spread them across the table for me to study. The Reverend used colored pencil and some ballpoint pen on spiral paper, ledger paper and scrap paper. His drawn figures are fashionably dressed in suit jackets that look like military dress coats with a dash of western flare – outlined in vivid colors with matching hats and shoes. In all the drawings, the faces have pursed lips, as if striking a pose. Each drawing bears the same title: “Clyde Barrow, Pretty Boy Floyd or Frederick Douglass.” With the exception of a rare Bonnie Parker drawing, these three men were the only characters in Rev. L.T. Thomas’s drawings. I mentioned to Julie that the figures look remarkably similar. Julie agreed: “they resemble the Reverend himself.” I could see how the oratory skill and righteous leadership of the fearless abolitionist Frederick Douglass would resonate with an African-American Baptist preacher like Thomas. But what about Pretty Boy Floyd and Clyde Barrow? One answer is a personal connection: Reverend Thomas claimed to have known Clyde Barrow. Reverend Thomas was born in Calvert, Texas in 1904, so he was in his twenties when Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde were all wreaking havoc during The Great Depression. Many people thought the outlaws represented the little guy, the poor folk versus the banks. Those stories were more fiction than fact, but one thing is certain: the outlaws were concerned with style. This style is evident in the Reverend’s drawings and in the care he took with his own dress even into his nineties. Julie describes the Reverend as a joy of a person, always stylish and smiling. When the Reverend was asked about his subject matter, he responded: “My mind just gives it to me and the old man upstairs gives it to my mind.”
In my conversations with the Webbs, it struck me that their relationship with their artists is often one of friendship before business. Bruce and Julie Webb visited Reverend Thomas in the nursing home for several years until his death in 1995. They purchased his drawings by paying for dental and medical care, and they bought suits and other stylish items for his wardrobe. In 1998, the Webbs donated fifty of his pieces to Collection de l´Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, the premier collection of Outsider Art.
In the gallery’s flat files I stumbled upon the small, whimsical labyrinths of Tom Burleson. Using colored pencil and marker on card stock or labels, Burleson creates interconnected worlds from edge to edge, like James Siena, with the bright palette and biomorphic shapes of Franz Ackermann. Burleson’s structures suggest a Rube Goldberg chain of events with machine-like parts that are playfully aware of a watchful eye. Burleson was born in 1914 in Waxahachie. He had a short career in minor-league baseball before entering the navy. After being honorably discharged for malaria-induced emotional instability, he continued work as a civilian for companies with military contracts, like Bell Helicopter in Fort Worth and Lockheed Missiles and Space Company in San Jose, California. At Lockheed, he arranged to be on the night shift, where his obsessive drawing gained momentum. Employed as a shipping inspector, his subject matter was probably influenced by the equipment surrounding him – interlocking machine parts and constructs that seem both playful and entrapping. In his retirement years, his reclusiveness grew more acute: he sent his wife out for art supplies so he wouldn’t have to leave the house. He died in 1997.
A third artist whose work captivated me at Webb Gallery stands in contradistinction to the previous two in terms of career trajectory. In contrast to Thomas and Burleson – who never self-identified as artists, did most of their work in the later years of their lives and achieved recognition posthumously – Esther Pearl Watson is a mid- career artist who has exhibited widely across the U.S. and internationally. She has published two graphic novels and teaches at the Art Center College of Design in California. Her acrylic paintings on wood immediately pull you into a narrative world: the imagery involves natural landscape, children, vehicles, façades, and a flying saucer, the latter usually appearing in foil or glitter. The small text written with paint on the top left or right tells the location or a small statement of context, for example: “Waiting until Payday” with the artist’s name and date painted underneath. The brushwork is childlike, but the humor is sophisticated. And there is clearly something odd happening in these scenes. Asking Julie about the subject matter, I learned that Esther’s work pulls from childhood journal entries: her father built flying saucers in their backyard obsessively. His goal was to sell the saucer to NASA or to Ross Perot. I was enthralled with this contemporary version of Noah’s ark and I wondered out loud to Julie about the ridicule Esther and her younger siblings may have suffered from the neighbors. “No, the other children were envious… she had a space ship in her yard!” And Julie should know, because she grew up near the Watson family. I asked Julie how she discovered Watson’s paintings. She was a fan of Esther’s hand-drawn comics on the back page of Bust Magazine for many years. In the late ‘90s, Julie and Bruce received a package from Esther and her husband Mark: it was “full of stickers, postcards, multiple cool zines, and the sweetest handwritten fan note to us about the gallery.” In 2005, Julie received an invitation to Esther’s painting exhibition in Los Angeles – and it was only at that moment that Julie realized the painter and the comic artist were the same Esther Pearl Watson. Immediately, Julie called Esther and included her in a group exhibition at the Webb Gallery in 2005. Since then, Esther has had several shows with the gallery. Additionally, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas just installed a large painting by Watson for their new atrium where it will remain on view until May 2016.
My visit to Webb Gallery was enchanting. The Webbs have a hunger for the overlooked artifact; they recognize the gem that languishes outside of fashion. Because music came up thematically throughout my conversation with Bruce and Julie, I couldn’t help but think of their role as producers. Like Rick Rubin bringing Johnny Cash to a whole new generation of music lovers, Bruce and Julie Webb bring the secret, the buried and the overlooked into the light and into our lives.print