A powerful voice is closing

Outsiders Art falls to economic reality
Sep. 12, 2013 @ 03:21 PM

“Transformation:  The Art of Charlie Lucas,” Outsiders Art and Collectibles, 718-C Iredell St., Durham, opens Sept. 25, and a farewell announcement from the gallery owner, Pamela Gutlon.

"Truth to Power: Communicating Messages of Social Justice through Visual Art," Pleiades Gallery, 109 E. Chapel Hill St., through Sept. 15.


Pamela Gutlon had a dream; she was going to introduce outsider art to Durham and the Triangle and she was going to make that art the means for bringing together the communities of business, non-profits and art. 

For four years she brought dozens of Southern outsiders to our community and hosted hundreds of people who came to openings to see and learn about these self-taught artists who make art because it is as important to them as breathing. 

Her focus on these artists, some who had never sold their work before, brought many of them significant success; one has been featured in “World Vision,” a national outsider art magazine, and several others could quit their day jobs and make art full time.

Gutlon knows she accomplished her goal but the tough economic times have taken their toll and, as she said, “If I was independently wealthy, I would keep this gallery going in a heartbeat, but the young collectors, who are the audience that is open to this art, are spending their money on groceries and kids and there is nothing left over for art so I have to face facts and put on my big girl pants and go find a job.”

She has tried just about everything to keep the doors open.  Last year she opened a small annex gallery in the American Dance Festival studio building; upfitting cost her lots of money and the whole thing turned out to be a bad idea.  And this summer she took a motor trip to Massachusetts and had four “pop up” art shows along the way. Although it was a financial success, she decided selling art on the road was not for her. She is a romantic who has become a pragmatist the hard way. 

“I have cashed in a lot of my savings thinking things were going to get better,” she said, “but I finally have to face reality, so I’m going to close with a bang — a big silent auction on November 2.  I have invited all my artists to join in and we are going to sell out to the bare walls.”  Most are sad she is closing and wanted her to keep trying; they have rallied around, however, and will be a part of this last event.

Gutlon is a firm believer in outsider art and its influence on contemporary artists and its place in today’s world of art.  Besides Charlie Lucas, whose show will close things out, she reminded me of some others. There is Roderick McClain, who uses child-like images as a backdrop for his homilies like “It’s not every day you catch your parents fighting in language you didn’t know they knew.”  And there is Eddie Hayes from Atkinson, who does church scenes and blueberry fields and is now a part of the Wilmington Museum collection of outsider art.  There is also Sam Ezell, a janitor at the Daniel Boone factory, and Sarah Rakes, who paints chickens and flowers in rainbow colors.

Gutlon used her gallery to host dozens of charitable events, especially for Student U,  Bayou Rescue, Durham Urban Ministries and Duke Cancer Patient Support. As we finished our conversation she made one last telling point, “I believe the traditional gallery with an owner who shows work and sells on commission is changing.  The new scene is a cooperative where the artists invest their own money and work in the gallery as part of their investment.”

Certainly one such plan can be found at Pleiades Gallery in downtown Durham, now in its fifth month of operation, where eight artists share in the gallery started by Renee Leverty and Kimberly Wheaton.  Their current show is an open juried exhibition around the theme of social justice.  Gallery members have addressed just about every social problem there is; the show is a microcosm of the world’s ailments. 

There are Kim Wheaton’s portraits of men who stand at traffic stops asking for a handout, and Ernest Oliphant’s skateboarders, surrounded by swirling phrases like “God loves you; He does not condemn you.” There are Sandra Elliott’s portrait of a female activist and Jenny Warburg’s photograph of state NAACP President Rev. William Barber, arm in arm with white North Carolinians, marching on a Moral Monday. 

Two raw women’s issues are confronted in Virginia Tyler’s installation of a pile of gravel, a sledge hammer and a pan which represent the 480 pounds of stones a 14-year-old girl from a small village in Ghana breaks up in one day by hand, and in Claudia Corletto’s abortion piece with its inflated plastic bag, printed with all the words of the new North Carolina abortion law. 

Juliet Jenson’s photograph “Freedom” shows a commissioned graffiti-painted wall just before the Durham police scrubbed it because they thought it was vandalism.  Leverty’s sculpture of a brick, a broken chain and big iron clippers is a strong image and while each viewer will understand it differently, no one will go away untouched.  Interestingly the gun issue was not the burning one in this show but Jim Adams’ “Skeletons in the Closet” says it all.  Using a single-shot 12-gauge shotgun, he remade the handle into the bony leg of an animal and attached a skeleton head at the end of the barrel. If we get nothing else from this show, we see how art can be a powerful voice against the injustices of our times.

Every time an art institution closes we lose a powerful voice for the underrepresented; Outsiders Art and Collectibles will be sorely missed.  Durham is lucky to have Pleiades in its community. We wish the group well.  We need them.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.