Thursday, December 20, 2007

anthenaeum's wild imagination exhibit: outsider artist james harold jennings (part one)

North Carolinian Ginger Young collected an exceptional group of works for her curated show: Wild Imagination. The exhibit, featuring rarely seen works by six self-taught artists from the American South, is currently on display at Alexandria's Athenaeum (Dec. 15, 07 - Jan 27, 08). The entire show has a combined commercial value over six figures and is whispered to be attracting the attention of some noted Smithsonianites. I have never seen so many Howard Finster's works (there are eight) in one venue; they excitingly and aptly depict several points along his artistic journey.

It's rare indeed to find such a collection of true outsider artists anywhere locally except for at the American Visionary Museum in Baltimore, or at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, or in the Outsider Art Show held there each January. Rarer still, is when one finds them in a quiet and unobtrusive historic hall used for part time ballet classes and other cultural events.

Young assembled such revolutionary outsider artists original works such as Howard Finster, Mose Tolliver, Jimmie Lee Sudduth, James Arthur Snipes, Nellie Mae Rowe, and James Harold Jennings. Amazingly, they all sit there on the wall with the light peacefully streaming in - check your hours of operation before you go - it took us two tries to gain access.

Of the Harold Jennings (1931 - 1999) pieces, one can see: Windmill; James Harold; Amazon Women; Indian Abstract; Spinning Man; Indian Family; Statue of Liberty; and Tall Woman. It's difficult to believe these works came from an eccentrically reclusive child who dropped out of school after the fifth grade. His school teacher mother home schooled him in the rural area of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He read dictionaries, encyclopedias, and magazines such as Popular Mechanics and National Geographic. Jennings worked for a time on his family's tobacco farm. Later, he was a night watchman and a movie projectionist - disliking both jobs.

When his mother died in1974, he received a small inheritance and supported himself by picking up bottles and cans along the road. Jennings' moved out of his home and began organizing three abandoned school buses, which were located across the street, in a sort of environmental assemblage. He slept and read in a big orange one, cooked and ate in another, and in the third, he created and stored his art. He lived from the late l980’s until his death in 1999 without electricity, telephone, or running water.

James Harold Jennings made by hand an estimated 4,000-plus works of art, most of them accomplished later in life. He worked non-stop and daily on his painstakingly detailed wood pieces. He carved and painted brightly colored figures with happy and bold strokes. His earlier works featured mechanical pieces with moving parts, but these tapered off as time went on.

Jennings’ was known to press his fingers into his closed eyelids for inspired ideas created by the blotches of color which appeared. Calling himself the “sun, moon and star artist,” he often used these symbols of nature. He began using scrap lumber to make assorted whimsical pieces such as whirligigs, windmills, and Ferris Wheels.

It wasn't long before pilgrims-in-the-know began searching him out. He remained shy and reclusive, but demonstrated pride with his spectacular crowns, symbolism of women, rows of Indians, animals, and imaginary creatures, all blowing about in the wind. He is reported to have said that his work was inspired by religion, but his inspirations came from experiences with “astral projection and metempsychosis.”

Jennings' work has been considered to be a outlay of Appalachian art traditions which embrace abstraction. Jennings' work was influenced by dreams, visions, and occasional articles and books.

Perhaps his visionary spirit finally got the better of him. On April 20, 1999, "Indian" James Harold Jennings committed suicide. His 69th birthday is said to have ended with failing health and fears about the impending millennium. Fortunately for us who did not know him, in 2002, The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, NC, mounted an exhibition of his life and work entitled "Health, Happiness, and Metempsychosis."