Artful Transformations

~ Possessed ~

Angels and Other Aliens Invade Visionary Art Museum

Painting portraits of your demons, ghosts, angels and aliens may not make their visits any easier to live with, but at least you won't be the only one who can see them.

by Sandra Martin

American Visionary Art Museum, off Light Street in Baltimore's south Inner Harbor, is the kind of place where, soon as you walk in the double glass doors, you realize you've been missing something. Something Big. As big as psychic Uri Geller's 1976 Cadillac, adorned with 5,000 mentally bent forks and spoons. To discover that wonder, you don't even need to cross the threshold. It's parked next door in the soaring 45-foot-high cathedral of the old Four Roses Whiskey warehouse, now converted to art.

What you've been missing doesn't have to be big. It can be as small as Edmund Monsiel's four-by-six-inch pencil sketches of himself as a man with a hundred faces. A Pole who hid from the Nazis in his brother's attic, Monsiel lived the remaining 20 years of his life in isolation.

What is this missing link? Let's take their word for it and call it vision.



Here, at the spot declared by Congress as America's official "national museum, repository and education center for the best in original self-taught artistry," are more visions than a sleepless night can count. This season's assembled 260 visions go under the name Angels and Other Aliens, which makes them a little different than earlier visitations to the four-year-old museum. Previous shows have been The Tree of Life, the first; Wind in My Hair; the End is Near; and Love and Eros. Each exhibit continues for 11 months. Angels and Other Aliens opened October 2.

"This show, which has a whimsical aspect, is rooted in the conviction that we're not alone, that visionary people have come before us and that everybody can't be nuts in believing in space aliens and invisible friends," museum founder and director Rebecca Hoffberger told me, talking a mile a minute over her car phone.

The creatures of these visions include, of course, angels. Though not typically chubby Raphaelite cherubs, they are angels nonetheless, in full force of wing.

Here are even more devils. Some are horned and tailed fellows uncannily similar to the species third graders draw with red crayons. Others are self-satisfied, smirking demons, like the ones charmingly drawn by Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern, with posteriors curled into flowers. Schroder-Sonnenstern, born in East Prussia in 1892, was an unschooled genius who took up painting after becoming an invalid. All in all, these devils are a lively lot who seem to have caught not only the imagination but also the sympathy of the artists upon whom they've settled their visitations.

Here, too, are mermaids, like Chicago Bolshevik Pauline Simon's flagrantly colored ones. Here are extra-, intra-, supra- and sub-terrestrials. Here are creatures formed from bottlecaps, match sticks and junk. Here are spirits of the once living, supposedly photographed by mediums. And here are suffering souls - presumably the artists themselves - poked, prodded and harrowed by implacable haunts until the poor host is transformed into fragments of his or her own imagination.

Every one is eye-witness testimony to a universe with a population far more dense and diverse than earth's mere six billion human count. They are next of kin to the dreams you've forgotten and nightmares you didn't; the voices you'd rather not have heard; the hauntings and hobblings of 4am; ghostly callers; dead parents, friends and lovers.

Who are these artists to be on such familiar terms with the ghastly pests you and I repeatedly - and more or less successfully - swat away?



Farmers, geneticists, recluses, housewives, mechanics, preachers, mental patients, disabled house painters, itinerants, felons and Guiness-World-Record holding hitchhikers are represented in Angels and Other Aliens. Culturally and ethnically, the artists have little in common but their lack of formal training in art. Even the most educated have refused to make their art a matter of rules. They're called primitive, folk, outsider, self-taught and junk as well as visionary artists.

They're outsiders in a couple of ways. Not only have most seen visions and heard voices, they're also outside what's been the mainstream of Western art for the last 500 years.

"Since the Renaissance, beauty, exquisite craftsmanship and sometimes an uplifting message had to be part of art," explained folk art collector Linda Kulla, after touring the Visionary Art Museum. "In the 20th century, beauty and craft have been displaced by raw, powerful expression.

"Thus Picasso, who was trained and clearly able to work in many styles, made his 'Bull's Head' by putting together a bicycle seat and handlebars. The artistry seen by 20th century eyes is the leap of imagination that saw two things and put them together in a new relationship."

There have always been people like this, but until our time, you'd not have found their work in a museum.

With the Visionary Art Museum, outsiders by both definitions have a place of their own in Baltimore, as its founder Hoffberger explained:

"This is the last frontier. When I was working in a department of psychiatry in Baltimore, I was sad about our definition of what was sane and not. I had worked with shamans in Mexico who had certainly heard voices. So I wanted to extend the notion of what is a worthwhile life. What this museum is about is giving due respect to those who have heard a voice. It's chock full of fresh vision stuff."


Possessed or Obsessed?

Are these artists possessed?

"Not possessed but perhaps obsessed," said Hoffberger. "When artists go through things in life too big for words, it often will come out in art. These are artists brave enough to say they have had an angelic encounter."

Many, or so their brief museum bios suggest, are driven to art by their experiences, losses or hauntings. Thus Frank Jones, who died in the 1960s in prison in Huntsville, Texas, drew images he called "devil houses" to contain the winged devils that visited him.

Andrew Epstein, born in 1949 in Chicago, believes himself the no-longer passive life-long victim of alien abductions. "My paintings are my way of visualizing and reclaiming my confusion and terror for all those years," he writes. "I figured that if I painted what is constantly playing in my head, maybe seeing them hanging on my wall would allow me to own these memories."

Making their paintings, sculptures and installations gives many such artists what Hoffberger calls "a moment of control." One of the artists who's work is on display in the museum shop, convict Herman Rose, says, "When I'm doing art, I feel perfect."

Other artists suggest they're Picasso-like, or obsessed not by aliens but by objects. "I just had a lot of material. Had to do something with it," explained farmer-mechanic-visionary artist Vollis Simpson of his 55-foot high whirligig rising in the museum's courtyard.

His giant, three-ton creation is part of the museum's permanent "vision-collection" of 4,000 pieces. Hoffberger and her staff get "about a foot and a half of unsolicited mail a day" from artists who'd like their work to join the museum's collection. It's "very rare" she explained, for "people who send slides and promote themselves" to get invited in. "We want people so immersed in their work that others discover them."


Recycled into Art

Angels and Other Aliens is about 98 percent borrowed, as is typical for a show at the Visionary Art Museum. "For each new theme, we pick a guest curator who goes around the world. To pick out about 300 pieces, they'll look at 6,000 or 7,000 images," Hoffberger said.

Many works of visionary or outsider art are privately owned, whether by the artist or by collectors. Baltimore's Visionary Art Museum is one of about a dozen such museums throughout the world.

There's more opportunity in the museum shop, where the art of about three dozen artists is on display, along with a collection of wonderful manufactured oddities.

"I get calls all the time from local artists who love the museum and want to set up their work," said store manager Leslie Dungee.

One of those is Chesapeake Country neighbor Bob Kelbaugh (see companion story) whose recycled, mostly metal water-skier wears a $600 price tag. Three other of his works are in the shop: the Disco Fan, made of oak and record vinyl; Junk Car, made of wood salvaged from an old Woody; and Ring of Fire, a wooden ring with half a microphone.

Hoffberger built her brainchild on land given by the city: A "marvelous site," she calls it, with the reservation that everybody else was afraid to develop "our Chernobyl" because of past chemical contamination.

Working out of her basement, Hoffberger raised millions to build and open the museum, including "over a million" from Body Shop founder Anita Roddick and "over $2 million" from 93-year-old philanthropist Zanvyl Krieger, former owner of both the Colts and Orioles and part of the namesake of the city's Kennedy Krieger Institute.

The award-winning 35,000-square-foot space began with the old, curved northernmost part of the 1913, brick Copper Paint building. Architects Rebecca Swanson and Alex Castro added three-story tall curved concrete walls and a central spiral staircase with newel posts all cast by metal artist David Hess in the forms of native Maryland trees. They divided the interior space into six galleries.

"If you were looking down from heaven, "you could see that it's almost exactly like a human heart," said Hoffberger.

Which may be what you've been missing.

And might at this time of year when the veil between worlds is thinnest, make worth your while a visit to the Visionary Art Museum, where you can see - through the eyes of artists whose close encounters are not limited to any season - who and what might be just on the other side.

National Visionary Art Museum: 800 Key Highway. Open 10am Wed. through Sun., until 6pm Wed., Thurs. and Sun. and 8pm Fri. and Sat. $6 with age discounts: 410/244-1900.

Shady Side Artist-in-Residence Bob Kelbaugh
by Christy Grimes

photo by Christy Grimes Kelbaugh's Phone.

Bob Kelbaugh knew he'd hit pay dirt when he spotted the chrome sheaths of not one but two old-style steam irons glinting through the detritus of an otherwise typical garage sale. The irons cost a dollar each. "They still work," the seller assured him. She couldn't know how little this mattered to the sculptor, who wasn't about to press his laundry. Once he got his new irons home, Kelbaugh planned to pull them to pieces.

A steam iron's value for Kelbaugh is in its shape and not how well it creases a pant leg. "The bottom plate is a nice foot shape and a stable base for a figure," noted Kelbaugh. "The old irons have metal covers rather than plastic, like newer ones. They also make nice feet." There's more: "I can even use the little steam tanks inside. They look like duck's feet. So when the garage sale lady told me the irons still work, all I could think was: 'Hey! I'm getting three feet for two bucks!"


Spare Parts into Art

The iron bottoms are now the feet of Kelbaugh's masterpiece, "Fisherman," a cheerful angler made entirely of spare parts Kelbaugh has gathered from not only garage sales but salvage yards, flea markets, in the woods and along the road among other sources.

The Picasso-like transformation junk-sculptor Kelbaugh makes is joining utterly diverse parts in the unlikeliest ways that somehow add up to a fully recognizable character. A pair of the slightly bowed slats from a set of automobile leaf springs suffice to identify the "Water-skier." The figure skiing on the leaf springs has auto shifter rods for legs and the aluminum housing of an appliance motor for its insect-like head. The skier clings to a tow rope with the curved and spindly fingers of the garden hand rakes Kelbaugh chose for hands. As a final touch, Kelbaugh has reinforced the rope with a stiff metal wire so it appears to be pulled taut by a speeding motorboat - except this rope ends abruptly in midair a few feet in front of the skier.

"It's important to me that people 'get it'," stressed Kelbaugh. "I never want to have people think, "what is it?"

Alert to the human and animal-like possibilities of the machine and auto parts he collects, Kelbaugh made the face of his "Fisherman" from three pressure gauges plus a vintage car's teardrop taillight. The curved rockers of a weathered rocking chair are the bow legs that identify his "Cowboy."

Even the huge, wild collage of odds and ends currently planted in the center of Kelbaugh's studio is recognizable as a telephone, if only by the rotary dial he has placed front and center of the maze of tubing and pipes that snake around and through hubcaps, plumbing fixtures, hood ornaments, doll parts and hundreds of other odds and ends he has made part of his phone. The other clue is the phone receiver that hooks on one side like any other phone - except that nearby Kelbaugh has added a bouquet of cattails made of ancient toilet tank floats deep-dyed a rich, lustrous copper by years of steeping in rusty water, each speared by a thin, rusted-rod stem. When he finishes it, Kelbaugh intends this as a working phone.

"There are also lots of places on it to hang your keys," he pointed out. A big round taillight from a '61 Ford will blink as the phone rings. When Kelbaugh finishes could be next week or next millennium. "Sometimes a piece is never complete," he said. "I'll keep seeing things I want to change."


Whence Art Comes


Kelbaugh's studio is a detached garage in the lush yard of his Shady Side home, a slice of pure heaven tucked into a South Creek cove. Outside the garage door, sun working through heavy tree cover dots the grassed-over driveway and sparkles off the cove across the tiny street. Inside is cozy and dim.

Kelbaugh's sculptures are everywhere, parked casually in corners and on shelves lining the walls. On the floor, bins and boxes overflow with the materials of his art: dismantled appliances, an ancient movie projector, headlights and reflectors from antique cars and a few enameled metal desk fans. On the floor rests a manual typewriter Kelbaugh plans to dissect. "Those manuals have lots of well-made parts," he observed. Above and around his workbench stands ready a library of fasteners, small tools and hundreds of small parts. Generations of toys broken or discarded by Kelbaugh's five children find a new home on their father's studio shelves, where for example a squad of tiny monster trucks swarm a Felix the Cat figurine and partly obscure a Bart Simpson Bart Bank.

Kelbaugh has amassed a bank of parts to draw on for his works and seldom has to venture to the junkyard or anywhere else. That's now. While still building equity, the sculptor was a regular at the late, lamented Castro's Collectibles of Shady Side, a fleamarket as unique as Kelbaugh.

Junk sculptors were common customers for owner BeBe Castro. Even in this company Kelbaugh stood out. "We had a lot behind the barn we called the Dust and Rust Yard, though everyone else called it the Junkyard," Castro recalled. "We said we carried everything from A to Z: auto parts to zithers. Bob often found unusual stuff to haul home."

"One day Bob brought us a wonderful gift," said Castro. "A small model of the Castro Collectibles truck made entirely of found stuff. It's one of the few things we have today to remind us of the business. He used an old two-reel projector for the body and four antique porcelain doorknobs for whitewall tires. That's when I knew Bob was an accomplished artisan."


Reviving Beauty

Artist or artisan, Kelbaugh demurs labels. "About myself I hesitate to use words like 'art' or 'artist,' he said. "It feels, I don't know, pretentious. I'm definitely a recycler." Better still, a reviver: in his works Kelbaugh finds new uses for cherished objects that have lost their original utility. His art brings them back to life and shows their beauty. Far from holding his work sacred, the sculptor has been known even to leave pieces outdoors for years at a time.

Whatever he calls himself, Kelbaugh started early. Distinguished for his artistic talent from childhood, Kelbaugh had a passion for building that led him straight into sculpture. His junior high art teacher offered him $30 for a piece he did from molten metal, "back when minimum wage was $1," Castro noted.

In a corner of Kelbaugh's studio stands the Bloodmobile, a contraption on wheels topped by a deeply rusted steering wheel found in the woods and fronted by a motorcycle headlight. Water dyed red circulates from a holding tank through clear tubes snaking around the sculpture and into actual O.R. blood bags. The Bloodmobile won first place in the 1979 student sculpture art show at Prince George's Community College.

"I aim for whimsy," said Kelbaugh. "I want there to be something for everybody in my work. With something like the Bloodmobile, kids can laugh at it, or a 70-year-old man can recognize a part off a '37 Ford."

Kelbaugh wants to be understood, but his creative quest is private. A true outsider artist, he avoids studying the work of other artists past or present to protect the purity of his vision. He affiliates with no art movement or philosophy. "I want what I make to be totally original. Still, it's almost impossible not to be influenced by something I've seen in the past: a model car, a cartoon, whatever."

Not everyone can appreciate Kelbaugh's work. As a youth serving on a Navy aircraft carrier, Kelbaugh made a replica of a 1950 Ford from his shipmates' leftover model kit pieces. It grew to half the size of the actual car. Declared a fire hazard by a safety officer concerned by the amount of glue holding the sculpture together, it was cast overboard.

Kelbaugh shares his space with a friendly stray black cat he feeds from a bowl ceremoniously framed by an ornate ring of some sort Kelbaugh extracted from a vacuum cleaner. "I couldn't find another use for it," he explained.

On the windowsill above his bench sits a small work in progress: what looks like a bonsai tree of light fixtures and extension sockets strung together into a twisting trunk with branches snaking out in all directions, bearing the occasional bare bulb or night light. Kelbaugh tends to improvise. He'll start with a single part then weld, screw, glue or bolt other parts on, according to what years of building tell him.

"I don't always know what I'm going for when I start," he said. "I didn't set out to make a cowboy, for example. I had these steam irons I could use as feet for a figure. Then I went looking for legs and found the rockers. It went from there. Only near the end did I decide he'd make a good cowboy. Often, the parts tell me where to go."

Experience honed his sense for what works. "It's not precise though," Kelbaugh pointed out. "I'm not building a space shuttle, where everything has to fit exactly. I've even broken things. You're in here, you're trying to fashion something, and it'll just break. And sometimes it actually looks better that way."

By day Kelbaugh remodels interiors. Rather than a pastime to vent his creativity or unwind from his 9 to 5, sculpting gives Kelbaugh a way to extend it: he loves to build and doesn't distinguish what he does at work from what he does in his studio. "There's no change-up at all," he admitted. In both places he's making shapes, making them fit together and making them stay up, hold fast and look beautiful.

Yes, beautiful. Kelbaugh's original use of found objects is jocular but the joke gives way to something deeper. Kelbaugh finds the beauty of the shapes and materials of old tools and machines: the sleek streamlining of a drill housing or the kaleidoscope designs of old pulley sprockets.

He also finds beauty in their tarnishes. Many of the parts he uses are weathered. Paint is worn from wood, metals are crusted or burnished by oxidation. "I wipe pieces down, treat wood with tung oil and blow dust off with compressed air, but that's all I'll do, Kelbaugh said. "I don't want to destroy the character of the piece. The condition it's in when you find it is part of its beauty. I even like to think I can leave the sculptures outside like a junked car, to have it take on a patina - just to see what aging does to it."

| Issue 43 |

Volume VII Number 43
October 28-November 3, 1999
New Bay Times

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