Saturday, October 4, 2008

A most venerable artist

Age itself is beauty,
but the murals were great

Attired in a spiffy suit and lime-green vest, Frank Calloway sat in his wheelchair chatting and grasping hands with well-wishers – as much the center of attention as his murals at Friday night’s opening party for the new exhibition at the American Visionary Art Museum.

The trip to Baltimore this week from his home state of Alabama likely was Frank’s biggest adventure, including the first airplane flight for an artist whose folksy works are getting attention amazingly late in life.

Frank is 112 years old, according to records of the Alabama mental health department that has cared for him for more than half a century.

He has no birth certificate as proof (not unusual for rural Deep South African-Americans in the late 1890s) – and you might say he doesn’t look a day over 105 – but if true as the State of Alabama maintains, Frank Calloway would be the second-oldest man in the United States and seventh-oldest in the world.

And there he sat in the main hall of the Baltimore art museum’s new exhibition, “The Marriage of Art, Science & Philosophy,” his Cinemascopic visions all around. Frank’s creations in colored pencil and crayon relate to mathematical computations of his own device, and what he sees in his mind may not be those of others.

At 110, asked what he would like to do, Frank wanted to see the ocean. He had never seen an ocean. So he got the closest thing to an ocean available to a venerable resident of the state’s Alice Kidd psychiatric home: an overnight trip to a beach resort on the Gulf of Mexico. His only mural resulting from the trip shows a paddlewheel boat on the water – a ship that only he saw there.

As far as anyone knows, Frank had never even been on a boat until he got to Baltimore Wednesday, and enjoyed a ride on the harbor water taxi.

He’s been cared for in state institutions since the mid-1950s, said to have been diagnosed as mildly schizophrenic. Experts have said that such a malady would account for his use of vivid colors – like purple for cows – in the murals drawn on long sheets unwound from rolls of wide butcher paper.

His artistic abilities were discovered after the state ended its practice of having patients work in the fields – labor that he long felt gave his life meaning. Art was among the occupational activities that replaced outdoor work, and Frank took to it voraciously.

But it was only in the past decade that people started to notice, and there were even sales of some of his artwork – the money helping to pay for personal needs. His murals were exhibited in the state capital, and the state employees telephone directory.

In an era of deinstitutionalization, Frank Calloway might have fit into another environment, but the reality is that the state facility in Tuscaloosa has become his home, and the staff that has long cared for him his only family. A local lawyer was named his personal guardian, to oversee his affairs, and she was part of the entourage that accompanied him to Baltimore.

FAA restrictions notwithstanding, Frank was shown the cockpit by the Southwest Airlines (no rule should be an absolute) and he was awarded a first-flight certificate.

All this at 112.

Simply amazing.

For that matter, so was the work of dozens of other artists chosen by museum founder/curator Rebecca Hoffberger for the exhibition, which runs for nearly a year and is a not-to-miss Baltimore attraction.

And how about: A blog entry that didn’t mention Sarah what’s-her-name. (By the way, I happened on a reference to her in a blog link earlier in the day as “Caribou Barbie.” It’s just too easy, my friends....

Addendum on age

I should, since the theme here was much about a super-centenarian (folks 110 and older), put in a plug for my centenarian Aunt Alice's video on YouTube. Some folks have found it inspiring -- and one left a message saying she left work early because of it! If you like it, mention it to your friends -- Alice is delighted that she has been viewed more than 1,600 times by folks around the world since it was posted just after its recording on her 101st birthday. Here's the link:

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