Columbus takes pride in being the home of George Bellows, Roman Johnson and Emerson Burkhart; in its associations with Roy Lichtenstein, Stanley Twardowicz, and ground-breaking ceramist and ceramic engineer, Arthur Baggs.
Melissa Wolfe, Curator of American Art at the Columbus Museum of Art, who chose this show, recognizes that it's not only the famous artists, nor those successful in prized genres like landscape and portraiture that give us our rich legacy in the visual arts. At least as important in Columbus is our abundant and abiding heritage of folk and outsider artists. Wolfe has selected generously from the untrained masters in mounting this show. Their works have astonishing presence—they are visual magnets in the show. They as much as anything assure Columbus its pride of place in the national art history.
William Hawkins (1895 – 1990), The Iguana, 1978-81
Enamel on Masonite with glitter, 33 ½ x 51
Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio: Gift of the Estate of Michael W. Bletz in memory of “Mic”
Grandpa Smoky Brown (1919 – 2005), Wizard of Oz, 1992
Mixed media on cardboard, 30 x 40
Elijah Pierce (1892 – 1984),
Crucifixion, mid-1930s (reworked by artist in 1970s)
Carved and painted wood with glitter on wood panel, 47 ¾ x 30 ¾
Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio: Museum Purchase
Columbus has been (and continues to be) the home of exceptional carvers. I have written previously about the great Elijah Pierce , and this show includes a masterwork—almost 4 feet by 3 feet—from the collection of the Columbus Museum of Art, Crucifixion. Most of the figures are bas-relief, cut out from the background, but the crucified figures, as one can see from the shadows in the image, are detached; they literally stand out. The magnificent work is arresting for its size, its high coloration, its contrast of hellish red and celestial blue, the two spheres overseen by the central figures of crucified Christ and, below his feet, the be-suited Devil with horns and pitchfork. The symmetrical composition and clarity of character and symbol mark Pierce's evident didactic intent. The work is a latter-day stained glass window, a scriptural narrative that both the educated and illiterate both can follow and take to heart.
Walter O. Mayo (1878 – 1970)
Ark of the Covenant, nd
Carved and painted wood, 20 ½ x 23 ¼
Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio: Promised Gift from the Family of Helen Cobb and
Walter L. Mayo, Sr.
An extremely elegant carver whose subjects, secular and spiritual, were realized in three dimensions, was Walter A. Mayo . Mayo came to Columbus from small town central Ohio. He was a mule driver before he was a truck driver and, like Dawkins and Brown, came to art later in life. His observational work captures not only detail but affect; it represents a world of happy rural normality. His spiritual work, like this Ark of the Covenant, shows that his imagination found unseen, spiritual worlds just as detailed as the everyday, but invested with passionate belief. Wolfe's gallery notes report the thrilling fact that, "Mayo also carved a miniature, hand-lettered scroll listing the Ten Commandments that is placed within the Ark."
Ralph Bell (1913 – 1995)
Untitled (Man with Red Hat and Dog), 1993
Acrylic on wood panel, 36 x 36 x 4 ¼
Campbell inventory #93DC
Private Collection [c/o Keny Galleries]
Mary Merrill (1920 – 1999), Calypso
Mixed media on linoleum, 11 ¼ x 9Private Collection
It's no coincidence, I think, that Hawkins, Brown, Mayo, Bell, and Merrill began making art late in their lives. Unlike academically trained artists, they seem to have come to art with lives full of experience and reflection, ready for some place to put it—exuberantly. Such explosions of color and invention. such confidence in instinct make their pieces in this show masterworks indeed. We are all lucky for Wolfe's insight in recognizing this art that comes directly from life unmediated by technique.
Between the world of fine art and outsider art lies another category on which Columbus can pride itself, cartoons. Ohio State educated Milton Caniff, and now houses his papers in its nonpareil Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon kept many a youthful Sunday enthralling, and I am delighted that Wolfe included him in this show of Columbus greats. This panel of Terry and the Pirates from June of 1943 is huge (two sheets of paper, probably 4 feet high). To see it at this original size is to fully appreciate the cartoonist's mastery of black and white dramatic composition, and the integration of text into each panel, while he keeps each panel its own tense, charged, pod of energy. It's wonderful story-telling in spring-coiled visuals.
Milton Caniff (1907 – 1988), Terry and the Pirates, June 20, 1943
Ink on paper, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, OSU
"This is George Busby, darling, and he's in marvelous form!"
James Thurber (1894 – 1961)
This is George Busby, Darling and He’s in Marvellous Form
Ink on paper, 10 ½ x 8 ¼
Private Collection, courtesy of Keny Galleries