I am always suspicious of art-as-spectacle. If you’re keeping score at home, that means I am suspicious of about 75% of the art in the market right now. That does not mean that I cannot appreciate it if it measures up to promotion. In the late 90s, I was taken to a large-scale art spectacle but one reason it stays with me because it was not explained as an art experience. It wasn’t explained to me, period. I was visiting my family in Wilson, NC and one night, my aunt told my wife and me to get in the car. She was going to “show us something.” We were given no hints as to where we were going. It ends up that we were going to Lucama, NC. I had never even heard of Lucama despite it being 8 miles from where I was born. It was completely dark, aside from the headlights. I’d spent enough of my life in Wilson County to know that we weren’t missing anything but tobacco and corn fields, but I could not figure out where we were going. We started out on a state highway and ended up on back roads until we finally rounded a curve and the world in front of us lit up in a swirling, kinetic energy. My aunt had taken us to Vollis Simpson’s farm.
Simpson was what I would call an untrained artist and what a-holes from NYC call “outsider artists”. As I explain to my students, “outsider” implies an “inside” that someone like Simpson is not allowed into. I’m Gen X so, by today’s standards, you have to work hard to offend me. More often than not, I don’t get offended. I just think that you’re an idiot and, I feel sorry for you. But the term “outsider artist” gets my southern dander up because I know what that means. It means, “Look at that hick trying to make art. Isn’t that darling? I’ll pay your poor, noble soul $50 for your painting and sell it for $5,000 because it has a good story.” Simpson wasn’t “trained.” All that means is that Simpson didn’t have $60,000 in student loans so that he could walk around talking about his “practice”. He made stuff. It was good. You want an artist statement? “I’m not $60,000 in debt” sounds like an awesome artist statement to me.
Simpson made what we now call “whirligigs”. These are kinetic sculptures elevated 20+ feet off the ground on large poles. They are composed of an array of found materials and constructed to move in the wind like a windmill and weather vane had a baby. It’s all of the stuff the guys on American Pickers toss to the side to get to the thing they want, but all of that tossed-off stuff has been welded together and reborn as art. Some of them rotate on the pole and are composed of moving parts within it. A large number of them are covered in reflectors like you would find on bicycles so that when someone’s aunt throws them in a car and drives them out into the middle of a farming county in the middle of the night, the sky will light up when the headlights hit the reflectors and make you feel like every Close Encounter of the Third Kind dream you ever had in your life just came true. If the wind is blowing, spinning the whirligigs, then the effect is even that much greater.
The whole experience was surreal. My aunt never even said the word “art”, but she knew she was giving us an art experience. We couldn’t make out the forms in the dark which made the reflected light feel like it was floating, not tethered to any construction. The car slowed down, and we could see silhouettes but nothing that would do the work justice. It didn’t matter. It was unlike anything in my art brain. I had seen untrained art but not “in the wild”. There was a Bessie Harvey show at the Knoxville Museum of Art when I was in school and I had seen a handful of other things along the way, but nothing this substantial and on site.
My aunt explained to us that Simpson owned the farm and worked there. The whirligigs had been built and placed at that curve because his daughter had died in a car crash on that curve. It was a tribute to her. None of that is true but that was the legend surrounding it at the time. In retrospect, it’s one more legend that was unspooled by the internet. So many childhood mythologies have ben upended by the fact-checking of the internet. It’s a shame. Because, let’s be honest, if Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” is not about him watching an enemy drown, then what the hell is it about? Lyrically, it’s hard to find another reading of that song.
Over the years, the reputation of Simpson has expanded beyond Wilson County. I saw his work at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore and the American Folk Art Museum in NY. The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh owns a whirligig as does the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, NC. That is all that I have seen. I’m sure his work is much more widespread at this point.
The city of Wilson has embraced his legacy. There is now a Whirligig Park in downtown Wilson where they have transported and installed a large number of the pieces that we saw spinning and floating before us that night, 20+ years ago. You can see a constant live video feed of the park:
The park is creating an economy. That’s what art does. To paraphrase comedian Lewis Black, build a big thing and then people will drive from miles around to say “Hey, there’s that big thing.” Apartments will soon sit across from the park as well as a Simpson museum. There is already a taproom. A small town of about 50,000 people have a legitimate tourist draw that brings people off of I-95 just to see this art. The ripples from this will be felt for years as long as everyone stays focused on maintain the legacy.
What can an artist take from this? It’s an “If you build it, they will come” story. The less I know about Simpson, the better. I don’t know if his ambition was to be known or respected or if he was just making stuff with no expectation that anyone would care. What I want to think is that he just felt compelled to make something and the rest was history. I want this to be true because that’s what I want for myself, not in terms of pride or legacy but that I can make my work and not worry about the rest. Ideally, I’d make work and occasionally someone would show up with a van, pay my noble, ignorant soul for work and leave. It’s too late for that. I peeked behind the curtain.
How many fields of study in the West have a greater disconnect between expectation and reality than the arts? I would assume that the average pre-med undergrad starts school thinking that they are going to learn how to identify what is making people ill and help heal those people. No one is going to say, “Well, that’s not what we really do here.” But art school? That’s different. My freshman painting class did not even teach me how to make a glaze. We read Michel Foucault. Which is more useful to someone that does not know how to paint? Learning how to use the 600+ year old backbone of Western painting or reading about Disney and the Tasaday tribe?
I started as an art major and bailed after 3 semesters. I went into geology. At least I understood the purpose of it. I found it fascinating…until I saw how many science labs I had to make up to pursue it as a major. It was overwhelming. In addition to being exhausted, I missed making things. I had no time for even a hobbyist attempt to make art. The desire to make stuff outweighed my disinterest in group critiques. I often tell students that “doing what you love” means “doing what you love 30% of the time and putting up with all of the other crap associated with it for the other 70%.” In order to be an artist, I needed to suck it up and plow through 70% of critiques that centered on hard-hitting issues like, “I feel like no one takes me seriously because I’m pretty.”
A friend once called me “an overeducated folk artist.” It was meant and accepted as a compliment. He’s also called me the “greatest 2D Design student of all time” which, again, was not intended as a criticism. He often refers to himself as “self-taught since (the year he got his MFA)”. I am very basic about the way I think about and interact with art. The most positive description I can give you of my critical theory classes are that I thought they were “cute”. They were little more than 2-hour blocks of time that I wasn’t in the studio. At best we had a fun discussion about issues of minute wordplay that people come up with to justify having the job of teaching critical theory. “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” I went to school to learn how to properly make things. Tell me the rules of visual design. There are rules. We’ve been at this for 100,000 years. We’ve learned how to elicit responses from people and manipulate opinion and emotion. Tell me the rules of materials so it doesn’t fall apart. Instead of that, I got stuck in a critique with the professor saying, “Someone tell me how Chris’s paintings connect to Larry Clark’s movie, Kids.” Umm…they don- “Tell me!” Maybe I should have studied business and made art on the side. Business majors rarely crack a book. I should have been a legitimate folk/untrained artist. The game is not good for my soul.
I have been back in Nashville for 6 years. Since then, a number of artists have moved here, all for different reasons. Some accompanied spouses. Some moved for jobs. All want to know “what the scene is like”. I think I have told everyone the same thing. No one is an artist here because they think it is going to lead somewhere in terms of a career. They are here because they want to be here. They make art here because they are serious about being artists. The two rarely go together well to make a career. No studio visit is coming your way that is going to change your life. For a few years, I had what felt like a revolving door of studio visits from out-of-towners that were here out of pure curiosity due to Nashville’s ‘it city” status. All of them went the same way: uncomfortable conversation couched in subtextual pity from my guest that I live and work here without a tenure-track position as an excuse. Enough of these visits have happened that I now have a very simple rule regarding studio visits: state the reason for your request to come here. If you don’t have one, don’t ask. I don’t have time for this anymore. If I had a farm, I’d meet you at my mailbox with a shotgun and say something like “Whachoo want?”
There are artists whose work I respect but whose biographies I respect even more for one simple decision they made in their life: to stay put. Morandi never left Bologna and barely traveled. Prince never left Minneapolis. I don’t think people do this to be a big fish in a small pond. I think they do this because they need a constant reminder of where they came from and not spend every day immersed in the game. Being in a scene is a full-time job and antithetical to making work. Your work is a response at that point, not a call. I have a feeling that if someone showed up at Paisley Park and tipped their hand to Prince that they felt sorry for him having to live in Minneapolis instead of LA that he’d have had a game-ending response for them.
There are people that move here, and their social media profiles list them as being from “New York/Nashville” or “LA/Nashville”. You’d think my computer developed some sort of “smell-o-vision” technology by the whiff of desperation that I get when reading this. Let it go. You’re here. Everyone knows it. You can take the MetroCard out of your wallet. It doesn’t work here. With this posturing comes a desire to “create a level of criticality” in the Nashville art scene. “We need what New York has.” No, we don’t. All of us would be there if that’s what we wanted. Relax. Whenever someone says that, I cannot help but be reminded of Thelma Ritter in Rear Window when she says, “Intelligence. Nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence.” Criticality is good but it’s never what I think it should be. When I think of criticality, I think of someone saying, “You know what? This is awful. You can’t paint.” So many people, in all likelihood including me, need to hear that. You’re awful. Go find something else to do or at least go make it and stop trying to crack this art world code with it. Perhaps you’d be interested in art as a hobby. It’s like golf. It’s difficult. You’re not going pro but, you can still play after work, drink beer and have fun. What is really implied in this statement of criticality is the desire to build an extension of art school out in to the real world. I get it. Art school is a cocoon, but very few butterflies emerge. You make art in a fantasy world disconnected from reality. Then you graduate. Reality is tough. You want to go back, but you have the terminal degree and you didn’t get a teaching job to keep you in the cocoon. Maybe you can pull that world into the real world? But the real world doesn’t have time for word games and cheap therapy. The real world needs you to make something worth considering.