Blue Greenberg: Inspiration and energy in two Durham spaces

May. 02, 2013 @ 08:37 PM

“Chris Milk Hulburt,” Outsiders Art and Collectibles, 718-C Iredell St., Durham, through May 11.
“Friends of Family,” Scrap Exchange, Cordoba Center for the Arts, 923 Franklin St., Durham, through June 15.


Durham is fast becoming a destination for the culinary arts, and the visual arts are not far behind. New shows at Outsiders Art and Collectibles and the Scrap Exchange offer examples of the art that is in the galleries today. At Outsiders, Chris Milk Hulburt, is an artist who is self-schooled and makes art with intuitive passion. At the Scrap Exchange, the artists there use craftsmanship and decorative skill to make art from such things as souvenir shirts, clothes hangers and pencils; they fit today’s broad definition of folk artists.
The question of what is folk and outsider art and the differences between them comes up regularly. Folk art typically involved traditional forms and social values found within small communities and remained separate from so-called “fine art” well into the 1970s, when a style called “Pattern and Decoration” borrowed repetitive patterns found in stitchery and wall paper, and the boundaries between folk and fine art blurred. Also in the 1970s, French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) wrote about art “outside” the mainstream; he was talking about the art of the mentally insane and borrowed some of those images in work he called “art brut.”
Outsider art had originally been defined as art with a marginal relationship to society’s mainstream – that is, the world of art schools, galleries and museums. Outsider art illustrated extreme mental states, unconventional ideas and elaborate fantasy worlds. Today, however, with the access to information, it is virtually impossible to live in the United States and not know about and be influenced by the greater society. Therefore the definition has broadened to self-taught artists with a passion to tell their stories through the visual arts.
Hulburt began his adult life as a house painter and with the leftover paint and scrap pieces of wood around his house began to experiment in a smaller format. According to Outsiders’ gallery director Pam Gutlon, Hulburt is a puppeteer, a musician, a muralist and a painter. In the last two years he has finished a commission for a mural in Richmond, Va., and one in San Francisco and has been invited to the Fearrington Folk Art Show. Gutlon said Hulburt went from a relative unknown to creating a national name in a very short time.
She talked about Hulburt’s style, which includes such idiosyncratic elements as a man with squared arms, a striped suit and cowboy boots with curled toes. There are also bursting stars and a love of gold leaf. Hulburt paints on found objects of wood and makes use of the grain and worn finishes in his compositions. As an example “Tapper” shows a woodpecker clinging to a slender tree with a background of thin washes over the wood of the cast-off drawer he has used. “Swinging While Happy” is a wonderful scene of a man sitting in a swing with a little girl hanging on one of his legs. The picture is on a piece of wormy wood with pock marks and worn places, even tire marks; the artist has made no attempt to smooth the wood or cover the marks.
In “Shipmate” a jaunty man poles his way through the water, looking to his left at his shipmate, a bird sitting at the top of the sail. We recognize his squared off shoulders, striped suit and two-part stove pipe hat while his white beard swings in the breeze.
“Rainsky” is a city scene drawn in a palette of delicate blues. Little houses, a bit askew, hug the ground line while a big moon sits in the center of a sky bursting with stars. Hulburt uses collage by screwing added wood pieces to their appropriate places within the overall scene.
Hulburt’s pictures are about the happy life; there are no religious themes promising heaven or hell. His stories include smiling heroes, whales making their way across the sea, and birds resting in trees. They bring a smile.
In downtown Durham at the Cordoba Center for the Arts, the Scrap Exchange gives credence to the saying “One man’s trash is another’s treasure.” This month the Exchange is sponsoring a non-juried show celebrating the art of creative reuse. One of the few parameters of the show is that 70 percent of the individual object has to be reworked, repurposed, reused or reclaimed material. Before most of us even knew the word recycle, it has been the maxim for the Exchange and the people who are their constant visitors.
All of us have stuff, but it takes a real artist to turn that stuff into something you might want to keep. Plastic hangers tend to overwhelm us, but are the key elements Randy Jones uses in his pedestal sculpture. How many of you have more Hawaiian shirts in your closets than you care to count? Jim Kellough has wrapped several stretchers in particularly colorful ones and made them into abstract paintings. And then there are the candy wrappers and the tootsie roll pops Johnny Goodyear changes into art objects and the pencils Eve J. Greaves turns into sundials.
Ann Woodward, executive director, talked with me about the exhibit. She said this is an annual event but believes this is the best show with the best work so far. Woodward escorted me back to the front taking me through tunnels Bryant Holsenbeck, a local assemblage artist, has scooped out throughout the space to add a bit more fun. As I bowed low to get to the next area I could feel the energy and creative juices all around. What a wonderful place this is!
Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.