The George and Helen Spelvin Folk Art Collection

Filed under: Art Pranks, Pranksters

Helen and George Spelvin

Visiting George and Helen Spelvin”™s modest house in Lenoir City, Tennessee, is like making a pilgrimage to a sacred temple of American Folk Art. While their neighbors purchased bass boats, home entertainment systems, recreational vehicles, and patio furniture, the Spelvins were quietly amassing a significant collection of contemporary folk art.

The Spelvins seldom purchased work through art galleries. Instead, they believed it was important to establish relationships with the artists whose work they acquired. As an agent for State Farm Insurance, George Spelvin loved to meet people and had a way of making the artists they encountered feel at ease. However, it was actually Helen Spelvin who was the driving force behind their collecting habits.

The appeal of folk art for them is its authenticity. Some common characteristics may be found in these works: many of the pieces show a mastery of representation, an emphasis on portraiture, a strong sense of contrast and design, and a concern with craftsmanship. George privileged art that showed discipline and a strong work ethic. Helen shared this philosophy but also chose artists whose work offered moral or spiritual lessons on the power of the individual to overcome adverse conditions. As an elementary school teacher, Helen believed that artistic creativity is learned by example and that aspects of art could be taught. She disliked the term “Outsider Art,” claiming that many of the artists in their collection play a stronger role in their communities than most academically trained artists. What follows are some of their stories.


Lucas Farley

In 1977 Lucas Farley”™s mother died of lung cancer. Farley began painting records and placing them on his fence as a tribute to her. Among the records were the sound track from the movie “To Sir with Love” and two albums from Percy Faith and his Orchestra. Since his Mother never liked secular music, turning the records into paintings may have served as a form of penance. The week before the Spelvins appeared at his front door, Lucas Farley had been laid off from Turnipseed Greenhouse. He was thrilled to sell the records to the Spelvins for $200. Farley used the money to buy an 8-track sound system for his Chevy Nova. In 1992 Mr. Farley died of lung cancer, just like his mother. They both smoked Camel Lights.

Farley House


Arthur MiddletonArthur Middleton was the product of a broken home. He strived to “do better” for his young sons William and Thomas. In 1979, Middleton assumed a leadership role in the Great Smoky Mountain Council of the Boy Scouts of America. He was obsessed with his son”™s fulfillment of merit badge requirements, which are considered to be a “character-building tool,” Middleton initiated an ambitious series of portrait paintings of U.S. Presidents in order to help his sons fulfill the Fine Art and American Heritage badge requirements. Few think that the Middleton boys had much to do with the creation of these paintings. When completed, the series depicting George Washington to Ronald Reagan was installed in the Community Room of the Blount County Optimist Club.


Lester DowdeyLester Coleman Dowdey made his first “limberjack” when his six-year-old niece Angela Cooper had a toothache. Using some discount paint and scrap lumber from the Lowes Building Materials where he worked, Dowdey created a puppet character with a sore tooth.

Dowdey Puppet

Making the figure dance to his harmonica seemed to have a curative effect on the young Angela. Word about his healing puppet traveled quickly throughout his neighborhood in Alcoa, Tennessee. Soon he was making varied puppets to cure ulcers, forgetfulness, arthritis, and other ailments. His most commonly used puppet was one he calls “Mr. Stop Smoking.” Lester Dowdey”™s uncle J. C. Burris had made limberjacks but used them to tell stories, often performing with them while playing his harmonica at folk music festivals. Unlike his uncle, Dowdey was never a professional musician. Lester Coleman Dowdey”™s limberjack puppets are an example of what anthropologists call “sympathetic magic,” which is based on the metaphysical belief that “like affects like.” Some anthropologists consider magical thinking a precursor to scientific thinking. It is indicative of a human concern with control over nature through understanding cause and effect.


P. J. Hipple

P. J. Hipple believes he always knew how to draw. As a child he drew comic strips of invented super-heros on mimeograph sheets using ball point pens. As a teenager, his interests turned to cars and girls and admitted to “running with a rough crowd in high school,” and was therefore tracked into vocational and shop courses. While he was working at Dobbs Ford, an engine fell on P. J. Hipple”™s left foot. Being forced to recuperate for over four months while receiving workman”™s compensation gave him the time to begin drawing again.

Hipple Drawing

In most respects his drawing style had not changed much from almost twenty years before. With game shows and commercials in the back-ground and advertising inserts from the daily paper strewn about him, P. J. Hipple made a series of “shopping mazes” on cream colored paper. Each drawing took him a week and required as many as two Pilot “fine-line” pens to complete. During his recuperation, he completed fifteen of these drawings, six of which are now in the Spelvin Collection.


Charlotte Black with painting

Going to her wedding on May 5, 1987, Charlotte Black knew something was wrong. As it turned out, she was right. Her fiancé Sam Gaines never arrived at the Chapel of Love in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. His mother later told her that “he got cold feet.” Supported by her friends and family, Charlotte Black invited her best friend to accompany her to Tahiti for the ten-day honeymoon vacation. The morning of their sixth day they found an art gallery featuring the paintings of Edgar Leeteg. Called the “American Gauguin,” from 1933-1953, Leeteg produced over 1,700 works on velveteen, becoming rich from tourist patronage. Charlotte Black had taken two art classes in high school and was inspired by the sculptural use of light in Leeteg”™s representations of Tahitian women. She decided that she would take up painting on her return home. The idea of painting brides came to her while looking through the wedding listings in the Sunday Southern Style section of the Clarion Ledger. Hoping to be married herself someday, she identified with the smiling women dressed in white. Her paintings were faithfully copied from the newspaper photographs. She had completed almost twenty bride paintings before meeting and marrying Charles White. Mr. White, who makes furniture as a hobby, helped her frame the paintings using Mississippi Poplar finished with silver enamel spray paint. She continues to paint in her spare time, mostly pet portraits and horses. Happily married, she has chosen not to make any more bride paintings.


Rufus Martinez

Rufus “Sparks” Martinez was twenty-eight years old when Dean Hunt picked him up hitch-hiking just east of Orangeburg, South Carolina. Martinez, who made a sporadic living as a migrant worker on peanut plantations, melon farms and peach orchards, often being paid “under the table,” often at rates below the minimum wage. Dean Hunt opened a door to a better life for Rufus Martinez. Hunt, who operated a successful pottery near Spartanburg took an immediate liking to Martinez, and offered him a job as his assistant. Martinez knew almost nothing about pottery when he accepted the offer. Dean Hunt”™s motivation to hire Rufus Martinez was not as pure as it appeared. He had employed a series of college ceramics students, most of whom were unwilling to put up with the twelve-hour, non-stop work days. In contrast, Martinez knew the meaning of work and quickly adapted to the physical routine of his new employer. Martinez accompanied Hunt to various arts and craft fairs where he was introduced to the face jugs of Lanier Meaders. On his return home, Mr. Martinez began to create his own version which he calls “mug jugs.” With a stylistic affinity to Aztec figures, these pots are a unique rendition of a traditional southern ceramic art form.


In 1994 E. B. Hazzard claimed he had been kidnapped by aliens and taken to the planet Noolicalaki, where he was forced to marry an alien woman. From their union, he fathered two inter-galactic children. After thirty-four months, he was returned to Earth for reasons he could not explain. In an attempt to be “reunited with his alien family,” Hazzard constructed several “Alien Communication Devices” made from tent pole frames, electrical conduit, hub caps, a folding metal cot, refrigerator shelving, duct tape, a six-volt battery, and flattened tin cans.

Hazard Device

Using these devices, Hazzard claimed to have received communications from his wife, but reported he was unable make the device properly transmit his messages. Mr. Hazzard regarded himself as more of an engineer than an artist and some speculate that he may have been schizophrenic. George Spelvin, who was a good judge of character from his years of investigating insurance fraud believed that Hazzard was not psychologically unstable, but just a prankster. He was fond of saying, “E. B. had an imagination that was out of this world.”


Emma Whorley

Emma Whorley, who worked as a librarian for forty-seven years, began painting and drawing on book pages on her 75th birthday. She later described this as “against both my nature and my training.” Her designs recall textile patterns from Cambodia where Whorley had spent two years doing missionary work. Her style is also informed by her practice of doing needlepoint since she was a young girl. While the alteration of books has precedence among Modern artists, particularly the Surrealists, Emma Whorley”™s transformation of books was not a rebellious act but one of reverence for the meaning of the original text. By making visual images out of books, she hoped to compete with color television, which she believed was a cause of illiteracy.


Juanita Richardson

As a child Juanita Richardson lived above a tavern in Baltimore, Maryland. She learned to hate the smell of beer, associating it with drunken brawls and a life out of control. Seeking a better life, her mother moved Juanita and her four siblings to Macon, Georgia, to live with relatives. While central Georgia was removed from the dangers of urban life, Juanita felt out of place in her new surroundings and embarrassed by her rural cousins. She was torn between the excitement of Baltimore and the stability of her new home. Following her graduation from high school, Juanita moved to Atlanta where she took a job as a cake decorator at a Winn Dixie grocery store. It was here she began to think of herself as a visual artist. Juanita first started painting beer bottles in 1985.

Richardson Bottles

As she claimed in an interview on WGCL, an Atlanta CBS affiliate, “I wanted to make something good come from something bad.” She mostly painted on returnable long neck bottles with the belief that turning them into art would mean they would no longer find a use as containers for alcohol. Richardson painted a variety of subjects, including flowers, people, and animals. The Spelvins felt her boats were her strongest subject because they referenced her childhood experience of watching ships in the Baltimore Harbor.


Max Pritchard

Max Pritchard found the Lord in 1986 at a Wafflehouse Restaurant in Berea, Kentucky. Mesmerized by the pattern of his oatbran waffle, Pritchard conceived of carving the twenty-six characters of the alphabet out of linoleum to produce a system to “hand-print the sacred word of God.” Pritchard was inspired by the life of Jesus, who could turn water into wine and could feed thousands of people from a single loaf of bread. Following Jesus”™ example, Pritchard transformed cereal and cracker boxes into biblical tracts. The most common cereal box he used was Nabisco Shredded Wheat. To this day Pritchard continues to print his religious tracts, often standing on street corners as a “human billboard for God.”


Loretta Howard

Loretta Howard was “brought up” to be a racist. Her maternal grandfather was a member of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and proudly displayed a portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the living room. In 1982, at age of 36, Loretta Howard was abandoned by her husband of twelve years. With two children to support, she took a job as a shipping clerk at Shelbyville Printing Company. During her swing-shift dinner breaks, Loretta Howard developed friendships with her African-American co-workers. Her friend Mary Ellis, who had children the same age as the Howard girls, began inviting Loretta to join her at church and to attend family gatherings. Through their growing friendship, Loretta Howard began to confront her racist past. In 1992 Loretta Howard conceived of the “Inter-racial Rag Doll Friendship Chain.” The piece began as a fifth grade Sunday School craft project. Adding to this project, Loretta created a compelling statement for tolerance and racial harmony. The completed work was carried in the 1995 Reverend Martin Luther King Day March in Nashville.

© Beauvais Lyons