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Discover Mid-America — December 2005

It’s art and it’s us, mostly

Mike Murphy, Randy Mason, and Don “the Cameraman” Mayberger are pretty regular, if nerdy, guys who got jobs at a television station. About ten years ago, they began a trek whose only limit is the horizon itself. And it’s a trip we can take if we want.

Their show, Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations, has been a Thursday night, prime-time staple of Kansas City public television ever since. Each week, the three seek out “Visionary Art” and the people who create it.

Around the nation such art is more commonly known as folk art. Unlike “folk,” however, the term “visionary” avoids connotations of homage that do little to legitimize what people do when they pick up a hammer and a chisel to re-form a rock in their yard, use a welding torch to stitch sheet metal into animals and people, or form concrete into stories. Visionary also lacks that patronizing smell that seems admiring but indicates that art of the folk will not be soon appearing on the front lawn.

Randy, Mike and Don began their travels close to home, taking viewers to J.C. Carter’s metal sculpture garden near Warrensburg, MO, where J.C.’s dogs crooned to them. Carter’s creations in welded metal — scrap and parts and pieces of tractors, cars and household appliances — were enough to take one’s breath away. Then, it was off to see the world’s largest collection of farm implement seats in Iona. From there, they went to Sikeston to get rolls “throwed” at them at Lambert’s Café.

As the show developed over the years, the trio became more serious about legitimizing the creativity of garden-variety workers, entrepreneurs and religious devotees. But none of this really had to do with the messages of the art, which many times were written directly on the paintings and sculptures in concrete, rock and wood. Rather, Randy, Mike and Don reveal how the art reflects the person and the culture, our culture. By doing this, they illuminate a more fundamentally human desire to step out of the rigid structures of society into that ill-defined space unable to be captured by money, status or power.

In a sense, the artists that Mike, Randy and Don introduce viewers to have done what everyone does — just some of us express ourselves in store-bought bric-a-brac or things we’ve made from instructions in a magazine or an episode of Martha Stewart. What we learn from Rare Visions is that Carhenge in Alliance, NE, the Elvis is Alive Museum in Wright City, MO, or Dinosaur World in Eureka Springs, AR, are not oddities and eccentricities. They are expressions found outside a store or magazine — even if some of these places are stores and much of the art made from old magazines.

At some point, each of these artists have stepped out of the world of capital, politics and prescriptive morality into a boundary land that isn’t apart from society but isn’t quite a part of it either. In Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations, zealots turn to painting, inscribing biblical quotes and prophecy on barn wood. A men and women sick of jobs or looking for something to do that isn’t already packaged begins to build castles, shrines and gardens of concrete in his front yard. Retirees fold themselves into creative expression to connect with other people. Young people without opportunity pick up chainsaws, knives and chisels to find their prosperity. Each of them, however different, are made of the very same material we are.

And that’s what’s best about Rare Visions. Randy, Mike and Don are clearly documenting the kinds of collections of yard art, whirligigs and wind chimes that rust and fade when the creators die. What may seem to many to be clutter gets thrown away. The three have kept their own democratic vision of visionary art over the years. This vision has held the show together as it has moved outside the Midwest from time to time.

And they have avoided the sort of Nuevo Chi-Chi that affects people who want to align themselves with something different but don’t want to be different themselves. They do not act or behave as if Visionary Art has made them special. They do not drop names.

They do the important work of showing how extraordinary ordinary people and things can be. Folk and visionary art museums have sprung up in recent years, revealing an American interest in what makes ordinary people extraordinary. But, like mainstream museums, they can only take so much and have to be selective about their collections. They also create a sort of view through the bulletproof glass look on the eccentrics who make these things. In addition, visionary artists don’t generally start sculpting or painting for money. But a market may develop, and certainly, a major market in “good” visionary art had recently made an appearance. Even so, the arrival of both a private and museum market creates hierarchies of good and bad, expressive and contrived, and well or poorly composed.

And still this is what Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations has been able to avoid. Each week, the boys meet people who are interesting because of their devotion to what they do. Perhaps that is why the program is so intriguing. It shows us the freedom we often say we want but have been too narrow of vision or self-conscious to seek. It shows us people who are what we want to be.

Some of this can be quite serious, other times, extraordinarily funny. But most of the time, the show enters the gray areas where people create messages in sculptures, concrete and metal that are clear to them, but, like classic paintings in a mainstream art museum, contain nuances that need interpretation. So, each week, Randy, Mike and Don pull out the World’s Biggest Ball of Video tape, which becomes a pale contrivance next to the visionary art. With the ball of tape, they push themselves aside, shine a spotlight on the important work, and then roll it back to their van and pull on their baseball gloves for a game of catch.

Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations may be showing on your local public television or available through satellite and cable services from other public television stations. It may also be available from the local library video shelf. If not, ask the reference librarian to see if the library will acquire it.

See the RVRR Web site, http://www.rarevisionsroadtrip.com. Of special interest is the search page that finds visionary artists across the country. All episode of RVRR are on DVD and video. See also books at, http://www.rarevisionsroadtrip.com/souvenirs.shtml

Other links: American Visionary Art Museum, http://www.avam.org/ Visionaryart.com, http://www.visionaryart.com/

Patrick Dobson is a Kansas City-based writer and Ph.D. candidate in history. He can be contacted at patrickdobson@earthlink.net.


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