Velvet Goldmine 

Ingenious, and hilarious, exhibit of fictitious folk art raises intriguing questions about curating and collecting art

Ingenious, and hilarious, exhibit of fictitious folk art raises intriguing questions about curating and collecting art

The George and Helen Spelvin Folk Art Collection

Through Oct. 12

Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery

23rd and West End avenues

Hours: noon-4 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; 1-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

For information, call 322-0605

Back in 1998, when the art world wasn’t looking, the University of Tennessee received a major bequest from noted folk art collectors Helen and George Spelvin. Or did it?

Information available from the Hokes Archives, in which the prestigious collection resides at UT, might lead you to believe so. But then again, the archives themselves may not be what they seem. Not only do they contain the Spelvin Collection, the archives are also the repositories of research by the renowned but obscure British scholar Everitt Ormsby Hokes, who wrote of several ancient civilizations that have gone completely undetected by the archeological community at large. Indeed, the Aazud—”an enterprising people, who are accomplished in the arts, poetry, dance, music, horticulture, cooking and massage”—are as unknown as Helen and George Spelvin, a schoolteacher and insurance agent from Lenoir City, Tenn., whose art holdings are described by archives curator Beauvais Lyons as “one of the most insightful private collections of contemporary outsider art” in the country.

Oddly enough, of this entire cast of characters, the curator with the unlikely name is the only one who really exists. For the past 20 years, Lyons, by day a professor of printmaking at UT-Knoxville, has been building the Hokes Archives and dreaming up art installations that tweak the noses of academic and artistic authority. “I am a deadpan parodist,” Lyons admits. “My process is like a novelist but with cinematic parallels. Like Christopher Guest’s films, which use the convention of the documentary to present a work of fiction, I use visual objects and written narrative to create a story.”

Lyons’ folk art opus involves not only the wholly fictitious Spelvins, but also the equally bogus artists whose velvet paintings and hand-painted cereal boxes are currently showing at Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery. Just as important, if not more so, are the artists’ biographies (all written by Lyons) that accompany the artwork. Through these we learn of the struggle of Juanita Richardson, who first came to think of herself as an artist while working as a cake decorator at the Winn-Dixie. The product of an alcoholic home, she now turns long-necked beer bottles into art that “represents a positive re-imaging of the African Diaspora,” according to one fictional art critic. Then there is the late E.B. Hazzard, whose alien communication device constructed of more than 300 flattened tin cans is the centerpiece of the exhibit. Hazzard, it seems, was abducted by aliens and fathered two intergalactic offspring while in captivity. Returned to Earth, he spent the rest of his life trying to create a means of contacting his children. Or so he claimed. George Spelvin, a shrewd judge of character due to his years in the insurance business, thinks Hazzard was shining us all on. As is Lyons, of course.

His witty parodies of outsider art notwithstanding, Lyons isn’t putting down the genre. “I love folk art,” he says. “I even own a couple Howard Finsters and I’m a lot like George and Helen Spelvin in terms of my attitudes and values. Helen’s a third-grade teacher who sees very creative people who are only 8 years old. As a teacher and artist myself, I find the question of whether artistry can be taught interesting. That’s one of the questions this exhibit addresses.”

In a way, Lyons is a self-taught-self-taught artist. For the Spelvin show, he works in a number of disciplines they just don’t teach in art school. “I’d never painted on velvet before,” he admits. That didn’t stop him from creating a series of velvet paintings—or from creating the artist behind them. Charlotte Black was a Southern girl who ached to be married but never got an offer. So she turned her unrequited longings to the bridal section of her Sunday newspaper and captured the smiling faces there in silvery paint on black velvet. Happily, Black hasn’t painted a velvet bride since she got married herself a few years ago.

Another issue that Lyons’ faux folk art exhibit raises is the role of the collector in determining what is “art” and what isn’t. “To a great extent, this show focuses on the collectors, their identity in owning and appropriating art for their own purposes,” says Lyons. “It’s more a statement about George and Helen Spelvin than it is about the artists.” According to Lyons’ curatorial notes on the collectors, “Visiting George and Helen Spelvin’s modest yellow split-level house in Lenoir City is like making a pilgrimage to a sacred temple of American Folk Art. While their neighbors purchased bass boats, home entertainment systems, recreational vehicles and patio furniture, the Spelvins were quietly amassing a significant collection of contemporary folk art. When the collection outgrew the size of their home and their capacity to maintain it, they donated over 900 works to the Hokes Archives at the University of Tennessee. Placing the collection in the hands of the state’s major research university, they wanted it to 'serve as a study collection and teaching tool.’ This traveling exhibition offers a significant opportunity to realize this objective.”

With that in mind, viewers may learn something about tolerance from Loretta Howard’s “Inter-racial Rag Doll Friendship Chain,” or about patriotism from Arthur Middleton’s red-white-and-blue portraits of American presidents. More likely, though, they’ll pick up on Lyons’ message that art is best taken with a grain of salt. In this case, Lyons isn’t mocking homespun styles or high ideals, he’s challenging the viewer to question any piece of art as it is interpreted by a collector, curator or other voice of authority. Viewers can also apply that challenge to blues musician Lester Coleman Dowdey’s wooden “limberjacks,” Emma Whorley’s flower paintings on book pages, Rufus “Sparks” Martinez’s ceramic jugs, Max Pritchard’s hand-printed religious tracts on cereal boxes, P.J. Hipples’ drawings and Lucas Farley’s enamel-painted records.

Humor aside, viewers may even wonder if this isn’t art, after all. That’s perfectly valid in Lyons’ book. “I’m interested in taste as a social construct, particularly the idea of how value is ascribed to art,” he says. “Judgments of quality are subjective, and what’s wonderful about art is that it can speak to many tastes. After all, one man’s Renoir is another man’s velvet Elvis.”

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