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All Things Round: Galaxies, Eyeballs and Karma

AVAM’s focus on a common shape allows for a multitude of fascinating pieces

Photo: Jill Fannon, License: N/A, Created: 2011:08:29 03:46:34

Jill Fannon

A detail of Mark Swidler’s “30 Styrofoam Cups”

All Things Round: Galaxies, Eyeballs and Karma

At the American Visionary Art Museum through Sept. 2, 2012

Even artists who make sculptures out of toothpicks and glue are part of an artistic tradition. One of the great things about living in Baltimore, home of the American Visionary Art Museum, is that we get a chance to trace such traditions as few others can.

The highlight of AVAM’s new year-long exhibit, All Things Round: Galaxies, Eyeballs and Karma, is Scott Weaver’s “Rolling Through the Bay,” a 9-by-7-by-3-foot sculpture of San Francisco assembled from 104,588 toothpicks and gallons of Elmer’s Glue over the course of 37 years.

For Weaver, a produce manager for a Lucky Supermarket in Sonoma County, Calif., the payoff for hauling his sculpture 3,000 miles in a truck is not just the thrill of being in a museum show but also the epiphany that he’s not the only toothpick sculptor out there. The AVAM permanent collection includes not only “Lusitania,” Chicagoan Wayne Kusy’s 16-foot-long model of the eponymous ocean liner constructed from 194,000 toothpicks, but also the world’s largest collection of Baltimorean Gerald Hawkes’ matchstick sculptures. And Stan Munro, the creator of Toothpick City in Syracuse, N.Y., was planning to attend Friday’s opening of the AVAM exhibit just so he could meet Weaver.

“When I started, I didn’t know anyone else was doing this,” Weaver marveled during the media opening for the AVAM show on Oct. 5. “We all think that when we start out. But to see something like the ‘Lusitania’ is heartening. It’s great to know that there are other toothpick artists out there, to know that I’m not just working alone in a closet. I wonder if it’s as therapeutic for them as it has been for me; it was definitely therapeutic for me after my father left the family. . . . Even though we each have our own techniques, we can all appreciate the endless hours, often tedious hours, this work requires. It often takes me five days just to make the window for a house. But it’s worth it, because people are always astounded that something so small could turn into something so large.”

Weaver wasn’t the only artist to make unexpected connections when he came to AVAM for the new show. Wendy Brackman, who cut up paper plates to construct the 8-foot-diameter mandala that serves as the show’s signature image, was astonished to find the paper plates of Baltimore’s Christine McCormick in the museum’s permanent collection. McCormick’s pointillist paintings on the plates are very different from Brackman’s architectural assemblages, but the younger artist felt an instant kinship with her predecessor. “Oh, wow,” she exclaimed, “that’s so amazing. I would never have thought to do that.”

J.J. Cromer, a Virginia reference librarian, found his colored-pencil-and-ink drawings of blobby creatures and parabolic landscapes hung directly across from the very similar works of Adolf Wölfli, perhaps the most famous artist in the history of outsider art. When the dense, colored drawings by Wölfli, a 19th-century Swiss mental patient, were discovered and collected by Jean Dubuffet and Carl Jung after Wölfli’s death, Art Brut (or Outsider Art, as it became known in North America) was launched as a movement. Cromer isn’t as gifted as Wölfli, but the Virginian is a capable artist working in the same vein.

To trace such patterns, you first have to recognize that outsider artists are real artists, even if they lack formal training and use unconventional materials. Like artists anywhere, they confront similar challenges with their chosen materials and invent more or less successful solutions to those problems—solutions from which others can learn. Second, you have to see enough outsider art to spot lineages and connections. AVAM, which celebrates its 16th anniversary in November, not only brings in prime examples from all over the world, but has also slowly built up a permanent collection. And with the fate of New York’s American Folk Art Museum teetering in the balance due to budget woes, AVAM’s shows and collection are becoming more important than ever.

The new show, All Things Round, is organized around the elemental theme of circular shapes. Because it’s difficult to find artworks that don’t include circles of some sort, the broadly defined show opens the museum to almost any outsider artwork, and co-curators Rebecca Hoffberger and Mary Ellen Vehlow have gathered a most impressive collection of objects. Not everything works—Greg Mort’s Magritte-like paintings are heavy-handed with their metaphors and Shawn Ware’s American Indian-inspired “Dream Catcher” betrays AVAM’s weakness for new-age solipsism—but overall, this is a much stronger show than last year’s What Makes Us Smile? the weakest exhibition in the museum’s history.

All Things Round offers many arresting images. There’s “Children ’Round in My Hair,” a lunar-looking, welded-metal mask by Alabama’s Charlie Lucas. There’s Wölfli’s “Insel Formoosa in Indischen Ozean,” a colored-pencil drawing of three small ovals inside a large oval woven together with notated music and phallic animals, from David Byrne’s collection. There are Marylander Mark Swidler’s delicate Styrofoam coffee-cup carvings. There’s Danny Hoskinson’s six-headed totem pole made from white plastic paint buckets distorted with a blowtorch. There’s the rocket ship made from an Electrolux vacuum cleaner by Jimmy Descant, a former roadie for the Indigo Girls. There’s a mosaic on mirror by Baltimore’s Loring Cornish and a beaded hard-hat by Wilmington’s Nancy Josephson.

And there’s “Rolling Through the Bay.” Weaver’s toothpick sculpture has all the San Francisco sights—the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, Coit Tower, the Palace of Fine Arts, Lombard Street, Chinatown, Mount Tamalpais, the Transamerica Pyramid, the Victorian houses, Castro Street, and much more—depicted in graceful, skeletal outlines. At the preview, Weaver, grinning through his silver mustache, picked up colored ping-pong balls and dropped them through 11 different apertures and gave a motor-mouth tour-guide commentary as each ball took a different path through the sculpture.

“I have two close friends who make art for a living,” Weaver said later, “and I know from watching them that I never could have made this piece if I did art for a living. There were hundreds of hours of gluing toothpicks together and then clipping away the excess and hundreds of hours of just sitting back in a chair with a cup of coffee, looking at the sculpture and thinking about what to do next.”

Did he learn anything from all those hours of work? “Well, the quality of toothpicks has gone way down over the years,” he says. “Richwood Toothpicks used to be the best, but they’re not made anymore. Now Diamond Toothpicks are probably the best.”


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