Experiencing a shared vision Works of whimsy: Matchsticks and toothpicks are only some of the media used for the art at the American Visionary Art Museum.

November 25, 1995|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

In a cultured moment, the Lizard Man of Lee County met a Development Director of Baltimore County. It happened at Friday's opening of the American Visionary Art Museum at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. It happened because it was meant to be:

Courtney McKeldin: "Isn't he amazing?"

Lizard Man: Says nothing, remains nailed to museum wall, flashing his wood-carved tongue and showing off his green toe-nails.

Ms. McKeldin: "He's got a nice smile on his face -- for a lizard man."

Lizard Man: Again says nothing, but what is he thinking?

What was L. C. Carson thinking when he carved "The Lizard Man of Lee County"? Does it matter what he was thinking? Does it matter he never received any art training or grants or scholarships? No and no. The artist -- whoever he is -- created -- all by his lonesome -- this Lizard Man for development directors and anyone else to appreciate. No one graded his work or corrected him or paid him or told him he was wrong. The Lizard Man, if nothing else, is all right.

Call it "visionary art," a term requiring a traveling definition but an art form no longer lacking a showcase. The Visionary Art Museum is the only major museum designed for visionary art in the United States. Six gallery rooms house 400 works by 120 artists. Call the work raw, screwy, schizophrenic, tribal, innate or obsessive. It's the private art of outcasts -- the homeless, the mentally ill, the unemployed, the disabled, the old -- people just "making ideas."

There are no better stories here than the ones found in the artists' biographies hanging on the walls:

Carl Nash "lived in various vacant buildings in Fort Worth" and was evicted because his home-grown sculptures were an "eye sore." City bulldozers leveled much of his early art work. He took his stuff to western Texas, where he could work in peace. His "Bear Head" (Pine, paint, plywood) won't get crushed here.

Herbert Singleton carved "killer sticks" for pimps and drug dealers in New Orleans' French Quarter, where he often traded the clubs for drugs. The man spent 13 years in Angola State Prison. His painted pine work at the museum includes a New Orleans' "Jazz Funeral" scene with the inscription: "Glad you dead. You rascal you."

And speaking of match-sticks, Baltimore's Gerald Hawkes appeared at Friday's opening to accept the hugs and handshakes of guests enjoying his work of countless match-sticks -- including a bust called "My Becky. Woman of the Year." Mr. Hawkes asked people to sign his guest book. This wasn't just any day after Thanksgiving.

"This is a dream to me," he said. "It's fantastic."

A bundled, steady stream of folks wound through the three-story, $7 million museum at the foot of Federal Hill on Key Highway. A young boy was overheard asking his mom whether his work one day could be here. "As long as you stay untrained and don't go to art school," his mom said.

Courtney McKeldin, the development director, and her grown daughter, Carolyn, stood briefly admiring a bouquet of Mylar balloons. "Giant Skylight Coming Soon!" the sign said. This was not art but the truth. A giant skylight is coming soon.

"It's the chirping museum," said Carolyn McKeldin.

Having authored a scratch-and-sniff book about New York City, she felt at home with the museum's quirkiness. And she was absolutely right: When guests got too close to the art work, little security alarms mouthed off. There was much chirping. (Carolyn McKeldin was also quite fond of "The Lizard Man.")

Aptly, the inscription in one gallery reads: "Out of the many, one." It's home to Mr. Hawkes' match-stick art and Dale Brown's violin built of match-sticks stained with coffee and a bow crafted of horse hair. He was born in 1959, married early, fathered three kids and was sent to prison for "shooting while intoxicated." Mr. Brown started a bluegrass band in prison, his bio says.

This gallery is also a temple to very small, pointed sticks.

"Good lord! It's made of toothpicks. Now, there's somebody with perseverance," said one admirer of a model of the Lusitania, its hull snapped like a toothpick.

Wayne Kusy, a magazine publisher in Chicago, built a model of the Lusitania from 192,000 toothpicks. The artist started building model ships of toothpicks while in in the fifth grade. He lost several early works "in a freak moving accident when a door fell on them."

But this Lusitania -- the real one being the British steamer sunk by a German submarine in 1915 -- is safely preserved in toothpicks 80 years later in Baltimore.

Spencer and Carroll Haynes, in town from Salisbury, loved the art work called "Presidential Totem Pole." It's a series of carved heads lined up and on each other and in no order. And the truly beautiful thing is none of the heads remotely resembles any one president. One does have a beard, though.

"I think that's Lincoln . . . I think," Mrs. Haynes said. The point is "this is whimsy. It's just delightful."

Her husband was busy staring at a wooden carving of a man.

"Hey, Carroll, look at this. This is a real voltage regulator on his chest!"

A visit to the museum's restaurant was mandatory. At the Joy America Cafe, the menus are bound in art work, waiters will put a lemon in your water, and they don't carry Budweiser. This is Samuel Adams country.

Experiencing our own vision, we ordered the grilled salmon club sandwich with apple smoked bacon and root vegetable crispies. The sandwich with the longest name was a piece of work, too.

After eating, we passed by the host's stand and looked for a toothpick.

Not a one.

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