Butch Anthony: It Started with a Turnip

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Art Review by Christina Day

There’s some new work up at the Akron Art Museum, and it’s not what you might expect when you picture “museum show” in your head.  It’s not what you’d expect if you haven’t been in the Akron Art Museum in the last year or two.  In the Corbin Foundation gallery (part of the old post office wing, to the left of the lobby) of the Museum, there’s a show of old photos that have been doodled on by the most unassuming, unpretentious, “I just sort of make stuff with whatever I find around” kind of maker you could conjure in your mind.  “Vita Post Mortum” featuring works by Butch Anthony is a celebration of life, and death, and all the oddities in between.

Title Morti Swoonia Akronensis_web versionWatching Butch Anthony when he came to town for the show’s opening, seeing his calm, unassuming manner wash over the admittedly more high-strung and wound-up museum patrons (myself included) like a balm, I couldn’t help but wonder, is he for real?  Could he really just be a guy in a shack, drawing to humor himself and his buddy (as he claims), and through a series of fortuitous events (including media coverage from the likes of NPR and the New York Times), sheer will, and perseverance end up in An Institution.  Can you get here through distinctly non-academic hard work alone, even with an obvious aesthetic sensibility?  Can you really completely “buck the system” and do what you want, and still land a show of this profile?  The answer, it seems, is apparently yes.

Butch Anthony doesn’t fit the profile you summon when you summon up the notion of an Artist in a Museum.  For instance, Museum Artists don’t often have a single-incident origin story for their career.  Butch Anthony has one.  One day, the fable goes, Butch’s friend John Henry dug up an incredibly gnarly turnip.  He showed it to Butch, who was known around town for liking bizarre and twisty things.  Butch said “Looks kind of like a man’s face.  You should draw it.”  John had been drawing all his life, and so he drew the turnip.  For a joke, Butch put the drawing in a local pawn shop with what he assumed was the most ridiculous sum he could reasonably put on the thing: $50.  The next day, someone bought it.  “Well shoot,” Butch tells the audience, “If that’s the kind of money you can make from drawing, I ought to give it a go.”  His drawing also sold right out of the gate.  And thus, an artist was born.

Title Morti Swoonia Chrisonia _26inx22in framed_web versionThis suspiciously modest beginning does overlook some key factors in his success.  First, he has a really keen eye.  This trait is something he’s been honing since childhood, by observing nature in all its iterations, and by various methods of collecting, destroying, and ultimately creating bizarre objects and images.  Butch developed a taste for the obscure abnormalities of form that occur out in the world, and his neighbors took notice.  The more people that found out about Butch and the various projects he’d cook up for himself, the more they wanted to bring him whatever nonsense they found in their yards and in the woods.

Second, he had always been a maker.  He made a one room cabin for himself on his parents’ property as a young teen, and continues to build sheds, lean-tos, and other homemade and increasingly stunning small architecture when the need arises.  And for Butch, that need arises often.  When the sale of his art at junk shops became consistently successful, he decided to open his own shop, naming it the Museum of Wonder, filling the place with weird taxidermied creatures, drawings, doodles of skeletal structures he calls “intertwangleism” (“If I make up my own –ism,” he reasons, “no one can tell me I’m doing it wrong.”)  He hosts an annual “micro folk-art festival” he calls the Doo Nanny on his property in Seale, Alabama, for which he’s built all sorts of structures.  Then, because the influx of tourists were making it hard for him to get any work done, he set up a Drive Thru Art Museum down the road out of shipping containers, so people could get their quick folk art fix, and the artist could have some space to create.

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Butch Anthony with Museum Staff: Chris Ross and Joe Walton. Opening reception for Vita Post Mortum.

So of course it’s not just luck; it’s a blend of tremendous initiative, a skilled eye, dogged determination, a bloodhound’s sense of smell for opportunity, and the grounded humility to not let your own stupid ego get in the way of the life you want.  You combine all of that with the inclusiveness that comes from embracing the weird, the diversity and sheer quantity of thoughts and resources gained by inviting the community to come be a part of whatever action you’re creating, and you’re bordering on unstoppable.  This is the recipe for a movement.  No wonder he’s got an unsinkable air of optimism and calm about him.

It’s hard not to like Butch Anthony’s work.  There’s something irrepressibly fun about each piece, the wink of an artist who simply loves what he does.  He’s not tortured, there’s no undertone of unrest here.  Yet, it’s easy to see a sophistication of composition and a quality of materials and technique that validates his work as Works of Fine Art.  They might have been made of junk, but Butch obviously knows how to build a structurally sound object or image.  Butch’s work is engaging in a direct and unpretentious way.  In a way that made me not feel immediately and constantly that I was in a museum.  It was not an unwelcome sentiment.

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Butch Anthony originals are on sale in the Museum gift shop, including postcard-sized pieces for, what else, $50

Strangely, Butch Anthony was not the only exhibit that just didn’t feel sterile and museum-y to me. The show currently on display in the Arnstein Galleries (the biggest space, up the stairs to the right) is the colorful, satirical, doodle-y work of Trenton Doyle Hancock.  The color and scribbles take over the walls, so that the experience of being in the room won’t soon leave your thoughts.  The same goes for some of the Museum’s permanent collection, which has rotated to some degree and now features work by some of the recent artists they’ve shown, like Mickalene Thomas’s vibrantly rhinestoned Girlfriends and Lovers, and the El Anatsui they’ve had hidden in a corner for a decade is now the crowning jewel, visible when you first ascend the stairs.  Here the work transcends the typical clinical specimen presentation of a museum and comes to life, referencing the other pieces in the room and allowing your eye and mind to draw new and more interesting connections.

The Museum does have a history of seeking out folk and outsider art, and it was great to see them really embrace it.  I felt, rather distinctly, like the Akron Art Museum has an identity, that walking from gallery to gallery, I could form and hold on to a cohesive aesthetic thread.  Like someone was telling me an actual story, maybe one that spans cultures and generations, but one that has a cohesive theme and a point.  Not to sound grandiose, but in the 21st century, to set up an environment that feels both inclusive in its choice of works and distinct in its organizational identity is an impressive feat.  I felt as I left the Museum that I had a clearer sense than ever of who they are and what they have to offer.  And that I absolutely could not get that same experience somewhere else.

Butch Anthony: Vita Post Mortum is open now through January 25, 2015 at the Akron Art Museum.

All artwork courtesy of the Museum of Wonder, Seale, Alabama,
and Black Rat Projects, London


Christina Day is a co-owner/director/curator at FORUM artspace in the 78th Street Studios complex in Cleveland, as well as a member of the SPACES board.  She received her BFA in Printmaking from the Myers School of Art in 2012. You can reach her at christina@forumartspace.com

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