Self-taught art

House of Blues showcases Southern vernacular art

Oh, Adell.

You’re going to hell.

Royal Robertson wedged this prophecy into his Bible verse-filled calendar, something he felt he had to say.

Well, more like something he couldn’t resist saying.

Because Adell’s leaving him for another man spiraled him into a rage, and he never got over it.

He’d been having visions of God, who came to him in a spaceship. And he interpreted those visions through this artwork, many times using calendars as his surface.

Maybe the calendars had something to do with time, predicting the world’s end with Jesus’ second coming.

Bible verses fill the calendars’ squares, most of them imploring his viewers to turn to the Lord before all hope is lost. That is, all viewers except for Adell.

Robertson’s random prophecies predicted only one destination for her.

Adell. Hell.

The rhyme would be a good opening line for a blues song. Which would be more than appropriate when considering that Robertson’s artwork is among a selection of more than 100 pieces from the House of Blues’ collection of Southern vernacular artwork.

This selection has been carefully chosen and assembled for the exhibit When You’re Lost, Everything’s a Sign: Self-Taught Art from The House of Blues, which runs through Sunday, July 21 at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans.

It all makes perfect sense: the artwork, the musical genre, even the exhibit’s title.

See, there’s really no separation between the artists who created the pieces showing in the Ogden Museum’s fourth-floor gallery and the men and women who sing the blues. Listen to the music; everyone’s lost something along the way.

Love, money, self-respect, hope. Even Adell.

True, Robertson wasn’t singing about Adell. Then again, what’s the difference between his version of the blues and, say, that of B.B. King singing about how he gave his woman seven children and now she wants to give them back in “How Blue Can You Get?”

The House of Blues makes that connection, linking its artwork with American vernacular music traditions. The Ogden is digging a little deeper by looking at the stories behind the artwork, those of the artists’ lives, the inspiration behind their work, the stories told by each piece.

And the recurring theme of signs binds them.

“I looked at the different definitions of a sign when I was putting this show together,” Bradley Sumrall said.

He’s the museum’s chief curator, guiding the way through the gallery on this particular day. He also curated this show, which required searching through the House of Blues’ art collection of more than 10,000 pieces and whittling that number down to 200 works by 48 artists representing the country’s southern region from Texas to Maryland.

Which wasn’t easy. Sumrall is familiar with most all of the artists in the art collection. He’s visited with many and talked to friends and family who knew those now deceased. He’s seen their houses and listened to their stories.

The artwork isn’t complete without the stories.

Take, for instance, James “Son Ford” Thomas, whose name blues fans will recognize. Thomas made his living digging graves in Leland, Miss., an activity that seems to have served as an inspiration for his art.

For he started shaping skulls from gumbo clay. His pieces are sunbaked, some with teeth made of pebbles, others whose mouths are inlaid with actual human teeth.

“They’re so delicate because they weren’t baked in a kiln,” Sumrall said. “One was sent to us in the mail once, and it had crumbled by the time it came here. So, I made sure I went to where the art is stored and personally carried the skulls back.”

The storage facility is in Jefferson Parish. This isn’t storage for artwork only at the House of Blues in New Orleans’ French Quarter; it serves as the archive for all artwork in the entire House of Blues network. So, though the drive to and from Jefferson Parish was relatively short, it also was tension-filled, for one wrong move would have left Sumrall with a pile of dried clay, leaving only Thomas’ story.

And one always works best with the other.

Such as in the case of the prophet himself. Royal Robertson was 14 years old when he received his first vision of God.

“He saw God driving a spaceship in this vision,” Sumrall said. “He believed that aliens gave him visions of the end of days through a complex system of numerology. He believed that his art was divinely sanctioned as a warning to humanity.”

Robertson’s numerology theory might explain why he chose calendars as surfaces for his drawings of God wearing a space suit, sometimes in the spaceship, sometimes outside of it. And below the pictures, the calendar day squares are filled with scripture.

Well, save for that occasional prophecy regarding Adell.

Robertson was born in St. Helena Parish and later moved to Baldwin. He married Adell in the 1950s. They were parents to 11 children.

“When you’d drive by his house, you’d see all of these signs in his yard,” Sumrall said. “A lot of them were about Adell. We left a lot of that out and kept his part of the show pretty tame.”

Robertson died in Houston in 1997. And here’s an interesting twist to this story — he made his living not as an artist but as a sign painter.

He could be the poster artist for this show, because at the end of his life, everything was a sign.

“One definition of a ‘sign’ is something that suggests the presence or existence of a fact, condition or quality,” Sumrall wrote in an essay accompanying this exhibit. “The works in this collection can be viewed as a visual document — a sign pointing to the existence of a culture, the same culture that created vernacular musical forms championed by the House of Blues.”

Sumrall also points out that a sign also is “an indicator, a footprint, proof that something existed in a particular place and time.”

“Several artists included in this exhibition — Leroy Almon, Roy Ferdinand, Herbert Singleton and Archie Byron — depicted their environment with an unflinching eye,” Sumrall wrote. “They not only documented their community, but portrayed history, and shed light on the pressing social issues of their time.”

Then there are the signs that are signs from God, warnings to lead the lost to salvation.

“Reverend Howard Finster was told to ‘make sacred art’ by a giant in a vision that Finster believed to be God,” Sumrall wrote. “Bessie Harvey saw the natural world around her, especially the trees, as having a spiritual element … through her art she has tried to portray her visions of the spirits within these natural objects. Dr. Bob’s describes the Loup Garou as a ladder to the spirit world, made partially from objects collected under the house of a deceased necromancer in Memphis, Tenn. It is a powerful object, a fetish, a bridge to a world beyond our own.”

Finally, signs also can be displays with letter and symbols identifying a place.

“Many of the artists in this exhibition — including James Harold Jennings, B.F. Perkins, Prophet Royal Robertson, L.V. Hull, R.A. Miller and most notably, Reverend Howard Finster of Paradise Gardens and W.C. Rice with his Cross Garden — created art environments,” Sumrall wrote.

“The works of art become signs that could be seen from the road, directing visitors to the location where the artists could sell their wares, be it art objects or salvation.”

All of the artists mentioned by Sumrall are represented by work in the exhibit that, again, is part of the House of Blues’ vast art collection that grew from founder Isaac Tigrett’s passion for blues music and the culture that created and sustained it.

Tigrett opened the first House of Blues in Cambridge, Mass., in 1992. The idea, of course, was to showcase both the music and food of the South. He decorated his club with artwork that derived from the same culture, artwork that now serves as the decor of the House of Blues’ 131 locations.

“What began as a collection of works chosen to decorate the venue has grown into an important collection of self-taught, outside and visionary and African-American folk art,” Sumrall said.

“This visual work developed outside of formal art institutions. It’s a visual document of the culture that created the music.”

Let’s back up for a moment to Sumrall’s earlier mention of the artist W.C. Rice and his cross garden. One of Rice’s crosses is displayed at the exhibit’s entrance. It’s small and rough in nature, but it packs a powerful story.

And again, there’s always a story.

Rice lived in Plattville, Ala. He began making the crosses after his mom and dad died, posting them around his parents’ grave sites in the local cemetery.

“Some of them were the size of telephone poles,” Sumrall said. “He’d go to his parents’ graves every day and place the crosses.”

Then came the inevitable complaints from other cemetery visitors who may have thought Rice to be a little obsessive-compulsive. They didn’t appreciate what they probably saw as clutter.

“So, he just went to the cemetery, dug up his parents and reburied them in his front yard,” Sumrall said.

“He would never sell his crosses; he would only trade them for something else. So, when we saw that the House of Blues had one of his crosses, we were very excited.”

Next up is Jon Bok’s “Padlock Throne Table.” This is a throne-like chair that converts into a table. It’s decorated with padlocks and license plates, and it’s a favorite of schoolchildren visiting this show.

Why?

“It’s interactive,” Sumrall explained. “We invite people to sit in it. And, as you can see, you can fold it into a table.”

The amazing story behind this piece is that Bok is legally blind. And one day, he just stopped making art and disappeared.

“Nobody knows where he is,” Sumrall said.

He continues guiding the way, pointing out Jimmie Lee Sudduth’s painting, “Man on a Proud Horse.”

Sudduth was descended from a mixed African-American and Native American heritage and used his fingers to paint with such natural materials as mud and berries.

Then there’s Reginald Mitchell’s distorted painting of a paddlewheel boat. Mitchell was mentally disabled, and his paintings always came out distorted.

“Reginald Mitchell was taught by James Michalopoulos before Michalopoulas started distorting his own paintings,” Sumrall said.

Next up is the Rev. Howard Finster, who was in his 50s when he began painting. Finster was a Baptist minister from Georgia, and like the Prophet Robertson, also had visions of God and connected them to space aliens.

Finster’s is one of the best-known names in this show. His artwork came to widespread notice in the 1980s, when he designed album covers for such bands as R.E.M. and the Talking Heads.

“He was even a guest on The Tonight Show,” Sumrall said. “He created over 75,000 works.”

And these works are a mixture of figures and carefully printed text.

Which is another reminder of the prophet’s work. But Finster includes no reference to Adell.

Those blues belong only to Robertson. And he sang them through his art.