Richard A Webster discusses the life and work of THE inspirational CHICAGO artist:
A young artist sold pieces of self-made jewelry to random customers for small dollars in the darkened streets of Chicago. The year was 1978. Days before the fateful night, the artist had heard a voice which told him that someone wanted to kill him. And then the shadow from the alley tapped his shoulder and from the hungry mouth of a .22 caliber, the bullets screamed. Two shots in the gut, crimson blood on the pavement, lonely screams of fear. Mr. Imagination stumbles into a nearby bar and gurgles pleas of help.
The bartender drags his body to an adjacent lot where he is found by the paramedics. The assailant escapes with 40 cents and Mr. Imagination is left with 8 metal clamps stapled to his stomach and a bullet floating in the primordial juice of his heart.
'I recognized the guy from my neighborhood,' Mr. Imagination said. 'I used to give him change. I heard a loud noise that sounded like a cannon. My stomach started burning like someone had opened it up and filled it with hot coals. I floated above the operating table and saw my body and heard the voices of my family. And then I saw a bright light. It was all very peaceful, almost as if I was traveling through history and looking at ancient civilizations.
If you look at my work, it has the feeling of being both ancient and timeless.'
But Mr. Imagination escaped the cruel grasp of death, and near 20 years past his missed appointment with the angel's chorus, his artwork can be found in the Smithsonian and the House of Blues located in both Chicago and Orlando. He was chosen to create a piece for the Coca Cola Olympic Salute to Folk Art at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and was featured in an exhibit at the Terra Museum in 1993, which the New York Times hailed as one of the most significant shows of the year. From Philadelphia to New York, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas, Chicago, Orlando and soon the cities of Europe, Mr. Imagination's art entered the lives of many and made a connection.
Born in 1948, two months premature, Mr. Imagination's mother carried his 4 lb. body in the soft center of a pillow. He grew up on the south side of Chicago in the depths of poverty, but he realized his artistic gift and manipulated what lay at his feet.
'I knew I was an artist when I was real, real young,' he explained. 'It just seems like I was always doing it. As a kid, I would cut up old boxes and paint on those or just use anything I could find. By the time I was a teenager, my room was so full of art I slept under the kitchen table.'
As a child, Mr. Imagination created jewelry from beads and random pieces of necklaces and earrings, carved African masks from tree bark, used rocks and cardboard as templates for his paintings and made hats, dashikis and wooden canes. In the late 70s, he saw a truck dump industrial sandstone in a nearby lot.
'At the time I found the sandstone, I was making houses out of cardboard. I put Elmer's Glue on the roofs and rubbed two of the stones together, sprinkling the falling sand to make them look more realistic. I noticed the stones were forming shapes, so I took a nail and carved my initials. I realized that I was holding free art material in my hand. I collected huge amounts of the sandstone and hid it all over the house. The boys on the corner with their bottles of malt liquor laughed at me, but I knew I had found gold.'
And the gold in Mr. Imagination's eyes can be found in the damp corners of urban decay and the whispering piles of garbage. He works with common, everyday objects, transforming bottle caps, saws, and paintbrushes. Everything has a purpose. What we consider waste he cradles in his hands and sees as a piece of a throne or scepter or the base of a totem.
'He reclaims something which is dead, and gives it new life', observes Carl Hammer of Hammer Galleries.
It is the idea of reclamation which drives Mr. Imagination; taking what is lost, throwing it into the phoenix-fire of his talent and creating an object both buried in the mystery of distant kingdoms and reaching for the glowing promise of the future.
'I saw he had a vision of who he was,' Hammer says of his initial meeting with Mr. Imagination. 'A sense of pride and dignity of where he came from, the product of centuries of ancestral development. At the time there were few African Americans expressing pride in their work. Some people look at his art as cute or fun, but those are surface observations. There is a deadly serious purpose in his art. It is his vocabulary and a way to communicate his thought. He's like the bird which sings the same beautiful song every morning &end ash; it is a declaration of who he is.'
Like a medieval blacksmith manipulating his metal, Mr. Imagination draws from an amorphous slab of sandstone the face of a king or the mask of a god, with no more than a nail. He recaptures the lightning images of his mind's eye and bottles it in the medium of his art, be it sandstone or hundreds of thousands of bottle caps.
It is with bottle caps that his spirit has made it's most recent and powerful declarations. In the glimmering euphoria of his north side apartment in Chicago, imposing thrones of red velvet with large looming backs composed entirely of nailed bottle caps, cast long glorious shadows. The shining body of a boy, his bottle cap dread locks worming about his head, rides a skateboard past a chair interwoven with cigarette packs on which rests a bottle cap vest and jacket.
Towering totems of dark faces with glowing white eyes revolve and digest the motions and emotions of wandering friends and strangers who gaze at bottle cap bordered mirrors and majestic staffs. Through a red glowing forest a deer lopes in tandem with a five-foot lizard to the whistling of a parrot, their bodies rolled thick with bottle caps and their faces made in the image of their creator.