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,