Some of the hottest artist in Texas can be found in prisons, mental institutions, and on the streets. Finally embraced by the art market, these self-taught “Outsiders” create work that defines the world in their own terms.
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Photographs by Brian Smale
THE NOTEBOOKS, BOUND WITH SHOELACES and cardboard, are filled with thousands of watercolor-and-ink drawings on cheap wrapping paper, laminated in pairs to form thick, brittle leaves, like the pages of an ancient codex. Festooned with stripes and scrolls, captioned in a code resembling an archaic alphabet, the drawings depict in blueprintlike detail a series of fantastic airships that might be the musings of a nineteenth-century futurist, each bearing a title like “Aero Goosey” or the strangely prescient “Aero Jordan.” Pasted beside each image are early-twentieth-century newspaper accounts of aeronautical triumphs (Hot Breakfast Two Miles Up) and disasters (Aeronaut Fatally Burned). Along the bottom of the drawings are longhand notations (such as “Sonora, Cal. 1858”) and ramblings in a broken English-German patois that seem to refer to otherwise unknown aviation pioneers.
These curious documents were the work of Charles August Albert Dellschau, a butcher by trade. A small man with heavy eyebrows, a fierce walrus mustache, and otherwise mild, almost mousy features, Dellschau was born in Brandenburg, Prussia, in 1830 and died in Houston 93 years later, spending his final decades living with relatives on Stratford Street. There, in a tiny upper-story room in the back of a Prairie-style frame house, originated the mystery of C.A.A. Dellschau’s notebooks. Are they, as some profess, a detailed secret history of early aeronautical innovation—or an equally remarkable late flowering of the imagination? Or are they some measure of both, an intriguing alchemy of an old man’s memory and a young man’s dreams?
Whatever they meant to Dellschau (a question we will consider later), his notebooks have suddenly become hot properties. Rarely exhibited since their discovery in a Houston dump almost thirty years ago, pages from Dellschau’s notebooks turned up in January as featured attractions at the annual New York Outsider Art Fair, accompanied by a lavish three-page color advertising foldout in Folk Art magazine for Manhattan’s Ricco/Maresca gallery. The asking price: $12,000 per leaf.
C.A.A. Dellschau’s posthumous overnight celebrity is one indication of the explosive awakening of the folk art market; in the past five years price increases have often outpaced Standard and Poor’s 500. The boom that began in the traditional market strongholds of New York, Chicago, and Atlanta is now being felt in Texas, where local enthusiasts have long lamented the lack of attention to a thriving community of self-taught artists. In recent years cutting-edge folk art galleries have opened in Austin and Waxahachie, and a landmark exhibition opening August 29 at the University of Texas at Austin’s Huntington Art Gallery—“Spirited Journeys: Self-Taught Texas Artists of the Twentieth Century”—will offer the first comprehensive look at a rich but little-known cultural legacy.
Skyrocketing prices notwithstanding, folk art remains value priced by contemporary art standards, ranging from hundreds of dollars for works by important younger artists to the mid—five figures for the biggest names. But the current interest goes far beyond bang for the buck, fulfilling a much deeper cultural need. To encounter this art and the artists who make it is to enter the last redoubts of an individualism that has largely become an American myth in a culture increasingly dominated by a handful of committee-created, synergistically marketed spectacles. The artists driving the boom aren’t “memory painters” à la Grandma Moses, nostalgic revisitors of old-fashioned bucolic pleasures, but “visionary” or “outsider” artists whose images often conjure worlds that may never have existed but are invariably inhabited with penetrating psychological truths. “This art asks the question, What is an artist?” says Lynne Adele, the curator of the Huntington show. “We have artists who are legally blind, schizophrenic, prisoners, homeless, mentally challenged. The true outsiders.”
They are often literally outside society’s pale. The late Eddie Arning, the best-known Texas folk artist, lived at the Austin State Hospital for most of his adult life, as has Ike E. Morgan, a prolific painter of Warhol-esque portraits of dead presidents. Henry Ray Clark, “the Magnificent Pretty Boy,” has spent the past twenty years in and out of prison; only behind bars does he seem motivated to create his ballpoint-on-manila-envelope drawings, science fiction motifs like rocket ships and busty alien women—the tribal art of what he calls “my own private galaxy”—framed by tapestrylike geometric designs. Carl Nash has lived on the streets of Fort Worth and in a Lubbock housing project, scrounging for whatever is available (rusted bedsprings, industrial cable, fencing wire, discarded air-conditioning coils) to make his spirit-haunted figurative sculptures.
Regardless of circumstances, outsider artists have in common a ferocious will to define the world in their own terms, to transcend the boundaries of their lives through their own unbounded vision. And they are able to make us believe that the most profound spiritual adventures, the most ambitious journeys of the imagination, can begin in the humblest and most obscure places.
hector alonzo benavides is 44 years old, a short, balding man peering through oversized tortoiseshell glasses. He is also, as he volunteers quite early in a conversation, an obsessive-compulsive person. “Obsessive-compulsives are either washers or checkers. I’m a checker. I check doors to make sure they’re locked,” he says. Benavides grew up on a ranch in Hebbronville that his family has owned for a hundred years. “I’m not a rancher,” he emphasizes. “I came out to be like my mother’s family. They’re into the arts. I lean toward my mother.” From 1973 until last year he lived with his mother in a small brick house in a Laredo suburb, working variously as an optician, a coin counter in a bank, and a substitute teacher.
In the bridge room of his mother’s elegantly decorated house, Benavides made his art. “My drawings are very detailed,” he says with somewhat coy understatement. Composed of countless tiny checks or stitchlike strokes he calls dots, sometimes stippled with gold and silver paint, the drawings at first glance often resemble abstract collages of precious fabric and lace.
Closer examination reveals the preternatural detail, too intricate for any loom, almost finer than the eye can fathom. Benavides labored over these drawings for up to fifteen hours a day, taking several months to finish a single piece. Often his mother would have to force him to stop. “I would sit down,” he says, “put on music, check doors, and make dots all night long.”
In 1983 he briefly took art classes at a local junior college but refused to change his distinctive style. “If you do as your teacher tells you to do, you will never be better than your teacher,” he says. He resisted even his mother’s criticism. “She didn’t like my work very much. She thought it was too dull, too dark. But she encouraged me anyway.”
Last year Benavides’ mother passed away. Devastated, he moved to San Antonio, taking a one-bedroom apartment next door to his nephew. “I’m still grieving,” he says. “I have dedicated all my pieces to my mother. The more detailed the work, the more it shows how much I loved her.” When not working four nights a week as a security guard, Benavides draws. He sits through the night at his folding table, his eyes inches from the poster board he inscribes with black fine-point Pilot rolling-ball pens, creating a body of elegiac art the equal of any in its intensity and depth of feeling. His recent drawings are even denser than their predecessors, the brooding fields of “dots” or checks buckling with intricate perspective effects that seem to challenge not only the normal process of seeing but also the laws of physics. Seeping from cracks in this extradimensional universe like exotic alien life forms are ineffably delicate colored filigrees. The bursts of color (he uses red, blue, white, and green), he says, “represent an escape from myself. I am running. I am fleeing.” Asked about the source of these complex abstractions, Benavides, a devout Roman Catholic, says, “I just sit down and ask God what he wants me to see. And then I see the picture in my head. The entire thing. It repeats over and over while I’m working.”
These remarkable drawings are repositories of his hopes as well as his grief. “I’ve turned a negative [his obsessive-compulsive behavior] into a positive,” he says. Ultimately he believes that the fiercely independent style of art his mother never found appealing will allow him to fulfill a final promise he made to her. “If you do something your way, you can amount to something,” he says. “I told my mother before she died that I would amount to something.”
the belief that other artists like benavides are out there, pristine and untouched, is what drives most folk art dealers and collectors—not to mention an urgency inspired by the knowledge that a life’s work can disappear without a trace, like Berkeley’s tree falling soundlessly in the forest because no one was there to hear it.
That sense of urgency motivates Bruce and Julie Webb, husband and wife, who operate the first and the largest of the two commercial galleries devoted to contemporary folk art that have opened in Texas in the past several years (the other is Austin’s Yard Dog Folk Art). Located in a former hardware store in downtown Waxahachie, Webb Gallery resembles an overstuffed ethnographic museum dedicated to previously unknown cultures. The warehouse-size gallery accommodates pieces like Carl Nash’s towering ductwork totem and David Strickland’s farm-machinery creatures; the back rooms are crammed with otherworldly ceramic busts, drawers full of exotic drawings (including the work of Mark Cole Greene, the son of Dallas writer A. C. Greene who lives in a group home for the mentally challenged), and eerily animate carved wooden figures by artists like Dallas nonagenarian the Reverend J. L. Hunter.
The Webbs consider themselves as much art-establishment outsiders as the artists they represent. “We basically have a flea market education,” says Julie. They opened an antiques shop in 1987, a year after their marriage, cutting their teeth on car trips through the South and Midwest, where they collected the paraphernalia used in the ceremonies of once-flourishing small-town fraternal orders like the Knights of Pythias and the Odd Fellows.
During their travels the Webbs accumulated so much contemporary folk art that within a few years they realized they were in the business. They continue to spend much of their time driving the back roads in their van, searching for undiscovered artists and encouraging those they already show. But they are acutely aware of how carefully they must tread in this fragile creative ecosystem. “The first time someone comes and looks at the work and says it’s art, it changes,” says Julie. They worry that an artist like Hector Benavides will be pushed by the market into compromising his painstaking technique. But the Webbs find that Texas remains a healthier environment than the folk art hotbeds of the Deep South and Appalachia. “The folk art region in the southeast is inundated [with collectors and dealers],” says Julie. “The artists there are pushed to their limits.” The Webbs believe passionately that folk artists are a precious national resource that is being depleted faster than it is being replenished. “People think folk artists are a dime a dozen,” says Bruce. “But it’s rare to find the individual who has so much faith in their vision that they’ll keep going regardless of poverty, isolation, and lack of recognition. I think we need to celebrate these people right now.”
lack of recognition isn’t always the problem. in fact, these artists can often display a remarkable resistance to the blandishments of success. Xmeah ShaEláReEl started painting eleven years ago and has quickly become one of Texas’ most sought-after self-taught artists. His works are vividly colored, almost psychedelic composites of text and images emerging from swirls of thick acrylic paint that are glossed with polyurethane varnish and placed in glitter-covered frames. The texts range from simple scriptural citations like “Ezekiel 37!” to more secular invocations such as “Safe Sex.” The imagery frequently teems with apocalyptic demons that embody contemporary social ills; in Satan’s Sewage System the Prince of Darkness defecates into the three branches of the American government.
Despite his success, Xmeah (pronounced “Ex-may-uh”) considers himself a messenger of God, not an artist; he regards painting as a poor third to his self-distributed newsletter and audiotapes in effectively communicating God’s plan. Indeed, he believes that his success as a painter has often garbled his message. Horrified to read in the definitive Contemporary American Folk Art: A Collector’s Guide that he and his wife, Cherry, also an accomplished painter, “consider themselves shamans,” Xmeah decided that he would no longer give interviews. He also recently disconnected his telephone, instructing correspondents to rely on the “holy angels” to get in touch with him. And he announced that he was giving up painting.
Xmeah and Cherry live in Beaumont on a street of neat if well-worn small houses and shops punctuated by verdant vacant lots. Their whitewashed house, distinguished by a few colorful signs identifying it as the Church of the Children of Christ of America, is squeezed between Jim’s Tire Shop and a Frigidaire distributor.
Xmeah and Cherry are found in their small front office, composing their newsletter, “The Carrium,” on a word processor. Wearing a plaid flannel dashiki and khaki pants, Xmeah, with a transcendental air of acceptance, graciously agrees to answer some questions. (Later he remarks genially, “If He didn’t want it, you never would have gotten here.”) Xmeah has painted slogans throughout the immaculately kept house: on tabletops, the kitchen cabinets (“Respect God!”), and even the toilet seat. His paintings line the unfinished wood walls of the large front room, where a pulpit and a microphone stand have been set up. A table displays a row of Styrofoam heads—originally used as wig and hat stands—that Cherry has painted in an exuberant style similar to her husband’s.
Born David Jones in Latania, Louisiana, in 1943, Xmeah grew up with sixteen siblings and went to high school in Beaumont. Asked if he was raised in church, he answers, “No! Far from it.” Cherry, who often seconds Xmeah’s remarks with an “amen,” married him in 1984. She offers a similar confession of errant early years: born in Huntsville in 1956, attended high school in Houston, then “nothing but sin” until she met Xmeah.
After serving as a radar technician in the Air Force, Xmeah was working for the phone company in New Jersey in 1976 when he had an experience he likens to the Apostle Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. “I was sitting in my truck at lunch, thinking,” he says. “And then I wasn’t there anymore.” A man approached him, identifying himself as “Xmeah ShaEláReEl, warrior, divine angel of the Lord Jesus Christ.” And David Jones realized that the vision was the man he was intended to be. “We don’t know anything about who we are until that moment when He chooses to show us,” Xmeah says. “I never decided to do this. It was the furthest thing from my mind. I was very happy with my life. I was very happy with the telephone company.”
For all its flamboyant trappings, Xmeah’s theology is quite sophisticated, his rhetoric untainted by such fashionable born-again—isms as a “personal relationship with God.” Instead he seems to inhabit with serene conviction and uncanny insight the conceptual world of Christianity’s first-century founders. It is a world in which human events, soon to be eclipsed in the apocalyptic climax of time and history, are pale intimations of a cosmic struggle between demons and angels. “We are in the latter days,” Xmeah says matter-of-factly, “at the fourth seal of Revelation.”
The depth of his vision perhaps explains Xmeah’s frustration with painting as an appropriate medium for his message. He describes painting as akin to a visual speaking in tongues. Beginning with amorphous fields of white mixed with black or blue, he delineates with brighter colors the images and texts dictated to him by the Spirit.
“The painting is the burning bush,” he says. “It gets your attention.” But Xmeah stresses that even his fantastic images are mere symbols of vastly more ferocious celestial combatants. “These aren’t dark spirits,” he says of the demonic figures in his paintings, shaking his head and exchanging a knowing laugh with Cherry. “And you don’t want to see an angel, either.” The effect of such an encounter is suggested by the inscription on the toilet seat: “If you saw an angel, you would have no problem with constipation.”
That frighteningly violent angelology, long supplanted by chubby Renaissance cupids, was a commonplace of first-century apocalypticism. And there is a certain irony in realizing that the first generations of Christians, waiting confidently for the final conflict between the armies of light and darkness, would scarcely have comprehended a painting like Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam but would probably have found in Xmeah’s visions a coherent representation of their terrifying yet hopeful faith.
C.A.A. DELLSCHAU’S RESCUE from anonymity did not begin until more than four decades after his death—and even then his redemption was tenuous. According to the Dellschau legend, sometime in the late sixties the notebooks were discarded with a pile of trash removed as a fire hazard from a Houston house. Transported to the Washington Street dump, they were purchased from an unidentified trashman by Fred Washington, the proprietor of Washington’s O.K. Trading Center. More certain is that in 1969 an employee of the de Menil family (Houston’s internationally prominent art collectors) found twelve of the notebooks stacked on the floor of the O.K. Trading Center, hidden beneath a tarp. The de Menil representative bought four of the notebooks for $1,500; later that year they were displayed at the University of St. Thomas in an exhibit titled “The Sky Is the Limit.”
In 1972 a Houston alternative-sciences buff named Peter G. Navarro acquired the eight remaining Dellschau notebooks. After studying the thousands of drawings and annotations, Navarro concluded that before coming to Houston (at a date he has variously estimated as the early 1870’s or the late 1880’s), Dellschau had led a secret existence as the secretary and draftsman for the Sonora Aero Club, an organization frequently mentioned in Dellschau’s notes. Navarro envisioned the club as a group of pioneer aeronauts located in the central California mining communities of Sonora and Columbia who were advised by a shadowy parent organization known as NYMZA (an acronym extracted by Navarro from Dellschau’s code) in the construction of “aeros” equipped with futuristic innovations like retractable landing gear, gas propulsion systems, and airborne lavatories. For almost a quarter of a century Navarro’s research has titillated alternative-science theorists, some of whom have speculated that NYMZA may have acquired its advanced technology from extraterrestrial advisers.
Navarro was also accepted as the definitive Dellschau source by more-conventional scholars. In Texas Folk Art: One Hundred Fifty Years of the Southwestern Tradition, an otherwise authoritative survey published in 1981, Navarro’s conclusions that Dellschau’s whereabouts before the 1880’s were mysterious and that he participated in the high-flying activities of the Sonora Aero Club are presented as fact.
In recent years, however, Dellschau’s life and work have also been subjected to more skeptical examination. William Steen, a conservator at the Menil Collection in Houston, has combed census archives and other public records, attempting to establish a factual chronology of Dellschau’s life. Steen found that Dellschau, at age twenty, had entered the U.S. through the port of Galveston in 1850, one of tens of thousands of German immigrants to come to Texas in the mid-1800’s. In 1856 Dellschau applied for U.S. citizenship in Harris County; four years later he received his Letters of Citizenship in Fort Bend County. A year after becoming a citizen he married 32-year-old Antonia Hilt, who had a 4-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. In 1865 Dellschau, who had fought for the Confederacy, signed the Amnesty Oath. The pardoned rebel’s height was recorded as five feet three inches, his hair color auburn, his eyes hazel, his complexion fair, his occupation butcher. He resided in Richmond, Fort Bend County, about 25 miles southwest of Houston. Over the next two decades Dellschau raised his own three children and saw his stepdaughter married to a saddlemaker named Anton Stelzig, acquired land in Richmond, and lost his 6-year-old son and his wife within two weeks in 1877. Ten years later Dellschau moved with his stepdaughter and her husband to Houston, where Stelzig ran a saddle shop; according to anecdotal accounts, Dellschau briefly worked at Stelzig Saddlery as a cranky, uncongenial clerk. The family moved to the house on Stratford Street in 1908, and there the 78-year-old Dellschau undertook the autumnal opus for which he will be remembered.
Steen’s chronology explodes the notion that Dellschau’s life was a blank page before his arrival in Houston, to be filled with tales of a secret career in aeronautical research in California. But Steen himself believes that it’s likely Dellschau did travel to California sometime between 1856 and 1860; at least one other resident of Richmond is known to have gone to California during the gold rush.
If Dellschau was in California in the 1850’s, it is possible that he saw a balloon demonstration or even assisted at one. By then, barnstorming balloonists were crisscrossing the United States in hydrogen-filled aerostats, staging highly publicized demonstration flights at venues as far west as Oakland. At the same time, inventor-entrepreneurs were demonstrating flying models of powered airships and trying to finance full-scale versions (some of them strikingly like Dellschau’s drawings) capable of carrying dozens of passengers across the continent.
But given the mania for lighter-than-air exploits in the popular media of the day, the lack of any independent record of the Sonora Aero Club is telling; “aero clubs” were actually the rage in the first decade of the twentieth century, when sport ballooning enjoyed a vogue. Nevertheless, Dellschau’s Sonora Aero Club may represent an embroidery of his own history. Perhaps while in California he met regularly with a group of would-be aeronauts whose dreams of riding in the clouds were much discussed but never came close to realization. Or maybe Dellschau was merely an avid reader of newspaper accounts during the pre—Civil War balloon craze, a passion that was rekindled by the airplanes, zeppelins, and aero clubs that were making news more than half a century later, when he began to draw.
We will probably never know. Perhaps the miracle described in Dellschau’s mysterious notebooks isn’t the presence of advanced technology in a gold rush mining town but the story of the immigrant butcher who returned from his California adventure, got married, fought in a brutal war, raised his family, buried his wife and child, stood grumpily at a saddle shop counter, and in some secret recess kept alive his visions of flying, finally recording his youthful dreams in the years when most men await their death. And perhaps the lesson that Charles August Albert Dellschau, speaking for all self-taught artists, teaches us is that regardless of who or where we are, in the spirit and the imagination we all can fly.