The Outsider Artists of Texas

Frank Jones never studied fine art. He didn’t attend a prestigious art academy. He never wandered the halls of the world’s great museums, making careful copies of the masters or learning their vocabulary or the techniques employed in their masterworks. Instead, his artistic career took shape while he was an inmate in the Texas state penitentiary in Huntsville.

In the ’50s and ’60s, Jones was drawing with red and blue pencil shards he sourced from the trash in prison officials’ offices. Then, in 1964, an art appraiser was invited to judge a prison art exhibition, and a guard entered Jones’ drawings as a joke. Jones won.

His story falls into a larger history of Texas’ so-called “outsider artists.” Often self-taught, sometimes they are eccentric loners, mentally ill, or simply producing work within subcultures that are often overlooked by cultural gatekeepers. But their work is no less central to Texas’ unique character than the acclaimed Robert Rauschenberg, Donald Judd, Georgia O’Keeffe, or other world-renowned artists Texas has produced and inspired. Texas folk, outsider, and self-taught artists play a big part in the history of Texas visual arts, says Julie Webb, who runs the Waxahachie-based Webb Gallery with her husband, the artist Bruce Lee Webb.

“These are artists who create their own world through their art,” Webb says. “I think that’s why trained artists have been inspired by self-taught artists. They are … trying to express themselves through their art, and no one does it better than true naïve artists. They don’t think of it as art. They just create.”

Because these artists work within their own insular experience of the world, Webb says, you can tell where in Texas some self-taught artists come from just by looking at their work. In this way, it can actually be Texas’ outsider art that captures the spirit of the Lone Star State.

Illustration by Vincent Lucido

The Convict

Frank Jones passed away in 1969 incarcerated in Huntsville, just a few years after his art was discovered. But the influence of his work, which is still sought after by collectors around the world, can still be felt. Jones grew up in a poor, rural African-American family in the early 20th century. He received little formal education, never learned to read or write, and spent 25 of his 69 years imprisoned for crimes he may not have committed. Through his art, Jones found a kind of spiritual transcendence, creating meticulous, exacting works that appear like mystical visions.

Illustration by Vincent Lucido

The Religious Visionary

Considered one of the most influential of Texas’ self-taught artists, Rev. Johnnie Swearingen was born in 1908 near Chappell Hill. His paintings offer an expressive take, sometimes playful and sometimes gothic, on the life and times of his corner of the Texas world. Swearingen was ordained as a minister at age 75 and passed away 10 years later. His paintings often take the form of religious visions.

Illustration by Vincent Lucido

The Farmer

Uncle Pete Drgac grew up in a Czech farming community near Caldwell, where he ran a grocery store and bakery. Like many of the descendants of Texas’ turn-of-the-century European settlers, Drgac and his wife lived a self-sufficient life on the prairie, making their own clothes, baking their own bread, and gardening. In his later years, Drgac began making paintings, often inspired by the natural world. He painted Texas songbirds, flora, and household items. The simple geometry of his work and its rich color palette are reminiscent of Matisse’s late collage pieces.

Illustration by Vincent Lucido

The Schizophrenic

Ike Morgan was a patient at Austin State Hospital under treatment for schizophrenia when he began painting. He lived in the hospital from the time he was 17 until he was 41. During this period, his favorite subjects were U.S. presidents, often making dozens of portraits of figures such as George Washington. Morgan is still active today. His work is raw and immediate, playful and surreal, an expression of a singular and fully formed artistic voice.

Illustration by Vincent Lucido

The Pop Artist

Bob “Daddy-O” Wade doesn’t fit into the same category as Texas’ naïve or self-taught artists, but his whimsical, outlandish, swaggering style of Texas pop art and surrealist playfulness blur the lines between Lone Star vernacular and art world establishment. One of the so-called Oak Cliff Four, Wade is perhaps best known for his role in shaping the look and tone of the 1970s’ Cosmic Cowboy counterculture. Some of his beloved pieces include a massive, 40-foot iguana that once graced the roof of the Lone Star Cafe in New York City and the world’s largest pair of cowboy boots, which sits outside of a mall in San Antonio.

Amarillo

The home of Cadillac Ranch is no stranger to eccentric artistic expression. In addition to the iconic Route 66 automobile Stonehenge, Texas is home to a number of peculiar artistic objects and attractions. Near Cadillac Ranch is the VW Slug Bug Ranch, a humorous take on its more-famous predecessor that’s made out of busted up old Volkswagen Beetles that are stuck in the ground. Just outside of Amarillo you’ll also find a giant pair of legs, a sculpture by self-taught artist Lightnin’ McDuff. Ozymandias on the Plains is a tribute to the Percy Bysshe Shelley elegy to lost empires. But in a perfectly Texas twist, McDuff’s sculpture pretends to pay homage to Lubbock football players who lost a fictional game to Amarillo.

Find out more about Texas art in Marfa, or go back in time to Georgia O’Keeffe’s Panhandle years.

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