Unusual artists use unusual mediums
By THERESA BLACKWELL
LARGO -- He was born profoundly deaf in 1900 and never learned to speak or sign, but the late James Castle learned to communicate with soot from a wood stove mixed with saliva. He dipped a sharpened stick in the medium and drew scenes on scraps of paper he found.
A small yard scene by Castle hangs in a local folk art show. Not to waste paper, Castle drew the Indiana home for the deaf and dumb that he attended for one year on the reverse side.
"Folk Art from the City of Orlando and the Mennello Museum" runs through June 23 at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art.
Half are Florida artists and nearly all are Southeastern. Many are African-American. Some worked in spite of deafness, crushed legs, lost fingers and mental illness. They worked from memory or from visions they attributed to God.
They struggled to find materials for their art, using salvaged wood, paper bags or the waste products of their jobs such as sawdust, cardboard, even bones.
Though untrained, they learned to connect. They communicated with a directness and accessibility sometimes lacking in more erudite art.
Ken Rollins, the executive director of the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, said artists with specific credentials often get primary attention, overlooking the work of untrained, intuitive artists driven by a passionate need to create.
"We can learn from this exhibition the indomitable creative spirit that courses through the veins of these nontraditional art makers," he said.
The exhibition was curated by Frank Holt, the director of the Mennello Museum of American Folk Art in Orlando.
The folk art museum opened in 1998 with a gift of paintings by the late Earl Cunningham from Michael A. and Marilyn L. Mennello of Winter Park. Four Earl Cunningham paintings hang in the show, including The Hurricane Warning. The stormy-weather colors are darker than many of the jewel-toned Florida scenes he painted with oil on Masonite board.
Cunningham was born in Maine and worked as a chicken farmer, seaman and junk dealer before settling in St. Augustine in 1949. He opened an antique and secondhand shop, and painted for the next 28 years.
Natasha Nickodem, a registrar and exhibitions assistant at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, worked with Holt to hang the show in Largo.
"It's exciting to see a show with such a wide variety of styles, colors and materials," she said. "I think you'll enjoy yourself."
Nickodem said collectors were the first to appreciate folk art, but art museums are catching up. She said that the show is popular and that a lot of people especially like a horse crafted from bones called The Horse Hope by Taft Richardson of Tampa. "A lot of people love it, actually," she said.
At first sight it resembles a skeleton, but this horse has wings and a quiet sense of the spiritual. Richardson has worked with other artists to bring art to at-risk Tampa youth.
Another spiritual artist in the show is the late Jesse Aaron of Gainesville, with Boar's Head, crafted of wood. Catherine Abrams of St. Petersburg, an art historian and teacher, researched the artists in the show and wrote a guide for docents.
She said one night, before he went to bed, Aaron asked God to help him find a new direction for supporting his family. God told him to "make art" and he found animal forms in the wood.
Abrams said the artist's powerfully expressive art is very similar in form to some African art, though he had never been exposed to the African art. In fact, she said, his initial reaction when he finally saw African sculpture was to accuse the artists of copying him.
The Sculls of Miami -- sisters Haydee and Sahara Scull, and Haydee's son Michael Scull -- anchor one wall with Memories of Havana. The relief painting recalls the sisters' happy childhood in 1950s Cuba, where they may have studied art.
In a street scene, a fruit vendor's eyes fixate on the protruding derriere of woman in a polka-dot dress. His hand presses over his heart. A woman in mismatched shoes laughs at the distress of another man, the recipient of a shower from a balcony above.
The late Sybil Gibson of Miami has three works in the show. Once relatively well-to-do, she left her family and became a nomad. She eventually settled in Miami to create prolifically.
She soaked grocery bags and spread them out to make paper she could afford, and she used inexpensive pastels. She died in a Dunedin nursing home before she could see any of her work exhibited.
The late John Gerdes of Maitland used a cast-off sewing machine case, circuit boards and vacuum tubes to create the robot S.A.M. and beer to thin his pigment in Kalidescope #1.
Abrams said self-taught artists teach us to use new materials and express ourselves in new ways and they teach us that there is an artist within each of us waiting to be set free.
She would love for kids especially to see that you don't have to have a lot of money to do art.
"You can get a grocery bag -- you can create art using everyday materials," she said. "What you have to say is more important than the media you use."
If you go
"Folk Art from the City of Orlando and the Mennello Museum" through June 23, Gulf Coast Museum of Art, 12211 Walsingham Road, Largo. Also through June 23, "Charles Parkhill: New Work" and "Tomas Marais: Havana, Paris, Tampa Bay." Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursday; noon-4 Sunday; closed Monday. $5 adults, $4 seniors, $3 students, free for ages 12 and younger. Free Thursdays. 518-6833.
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