Folk Tales 

The Spelvin Collection turns outsider art into an inside joke.

Meet the Spelvins, Helen and George. The blissfully happy husband-and-wife team have spent the better part of their golden years traveling the length and breadth of this great country assembling what must be the world's most stunning folk-art collection, all the while becoming accidental experts in the increasingly well-documented field. Ask Helen her opinion as to why the untrained brushstrokes of so-called outsider artists are appealing and you are liable to get an ugly earful. The former elementary school teacher might just rip you a new one (or at least make you stand in the corner with a dunce cap), pointing out that just because these artists lack MFAs doesn't mean they are untrained. They may have learned principles of painting in high school, or they might have apprenticed for a relative who worked wood or painted signs for a living. And don't get her started on the term "outsider art." She rejects that term absolutely or, at the very least, applies it only to poseurs who didn't start producing their crude wares until they had some sort of business model firmly in place. She'll likely tell you that most of the people labeled "outsider artists" have been so dubbed by meddling outsiders and that most of the artists she and her husband have collected are more involved in the affairs of their community than the average politician. Then again, she might not say anything at all.

Folk art, in its many manifestations, has been praised for its authenticity, while collectors and advocates have fairly recently been reviled for their objectification of the often undereducated craftspeople they seemingly exploit. While the Spelvins claim to have shied away from "art brut," pieces created by prisoners, mental patients, etc., it is clear that they too have joyously engaged in their own, not-so-unique brand of objectification. Their theory is that most folk artists received their artistic vision only as the result of some personal loss or hardship, whether it be real or imagined. The late Frank Boyle, one of Memphis' best-loved folk painters, would certainly fit the Spelvins' mold, having received his artist's calling after years of drug and alcohol abuse led him beyond the brink of despair. But compared to many of the artists collected by the Spelvins, Boyle's story seems positively tame.

Take, for example, E.B. Hazard of Oleander, Alabama, who never intended to be classified as any kind of artist. The electrified metal frames he constructed and strung with crushed tin cans were devices for communicating with aliens. Hazard, who suffered a fatal heart attack after attaching a number of car batteries to one of his constructions, claimed that not only was he kidnapped by aliens from the planet Noolicalaki, he actually sired two "space-babies."

Another artist in the Spelvins' collection is Max Pritchard of Berea, Kentucky. Pritchard found the Lord at a Waffle House while staring at the pattern in his oat-bran waffle. He took this as a sign that he should carve printing blocks and use them to make message boards proclaiming the Holy Word of the one true and living God. And so he went about his business printing Bible verses like "Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion" on cracker and cereal boxes. Pritchard found himself spending the night in a D.C. jail after he began shouting out the Word of the Lord during a meeting of the Promise Keepers. He thought a highly religious person like himself would fit right in with those pious guys. He was wrong.

There are 10 additional artists included in this touring show and each one has a story that ranges from the tragic to the totally bizarre. A woman left at the altar began painting ghostly brides on black velvet. A man from a less than perfect home started painting portraits of presidents while obsessively trying to help his own boys earn merit badges. A laid-off greenhouse worker mixed media to create cartoon images on old record albums to honor his mother who died of lung cancer. And in spite of the unspoken rules and regulations which require folk art to be crude and naive, each piece in the Spelvin Collection is graphically ingenious, calling to mind such noted artists as Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and even Picasso.

There is one catch to this whole story: Helen and George Spelvin do not exist. Neither do any of the artists this imaginary couple so diligently collected. They, like all of the art in this exhibit at the University of Mississippi Museums in Oxford, are the creations of University of Tennessee art professor Beauvais Lyons, who has previously occupied himself with the creation of inspired installations that mimic important archaeological discoveries. The Spelvin Collection is a natural extension of this same archaeological urge and a fun one at that.

Through May 31st.

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