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D.C. outsider artist Mingering Mike’s works to be exhibited at Smithsonian

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The artist arrives at the museum without an entourage. He greets the press and publicists with a low-pitched “hello” and moves toward the familiarity of his de facto manager. He wears his usual costume — distressed blue pants, a rumpled navy hoodie, the required uniform for the custodial work he does at an office building down the street.

“Don’t get my shoes in it,” he directs the photographer during a shoot. “They know them too much at work,” he fears.

His face, his clothing — all identifiable things are off limits. He does not want real life to interrupt his fame fantasy, which, over time, has taken on a realism of its own. Indeed, Mingering Mike, the beloved Washington-based outsider artist, has always lived between two disparate worlds: the rough streets of his neighborhood in Southeast Washington and a fantasyland of his own making where he was once a soul superstar, selling out shows at the Howard Theatre and whatever happened to exist beyond it. In 2015, Mingering Mike will see the remnants of his private dream exposed, when many of his illustrated album covers and 45s will hang in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

It’s an uplifting story, teetering on unbelievable, which is why it went viral long before the phrase existed in our lexicon.

‘It . . . touches people’

As a poor kid growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, Mingering Mike dreamed of becoming a recording artist. In pursuit of that dream, he drew. In his late teens and 20s, he made album covers out of painted cardboard and discs with hand-drawn grooves that illustrated the story of a young man’s fantasy. He drew characters and sidekicks — “The Outsiders” and “Big D” — who sang with him on his “Capitol Records” and “Fake Records Inc.” labels. Mike recorded some original music and lyrics in his parents’ bathroom, but he never toured or performed on the stage he imagined for himself. The Smithsonian has some of these amateur, muffled recordings, but they don’t carry the same cultural significance that the illustrated covers do.

His works illustrate much about African American culture in Washington at the height of the civil rights movement. Those nuances were woven into the fantasy, and for that, he has a real fan club, which includes international record collectors, musicians such as David Byrne and the Smithsonian Institution. But they’re fans of his art, not necessarily his music.

“It comes from a completely different place than mainstream art comes from and touches people in ways that loftier pieces can’t,” said Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired about 150 pieces of ephemera, including Mike’s LP albums, song lyrics and drawings. It’s a sweet culmination of a surreal story for Mingering Mike and Dori Hadar, the man who discovered this collection of art almost a decade ago.

In 2003, Hadar, 38, a record collector and criminal investigator in Washington was scouring a flea market at RFK Stadium when he came across a collection of vibrant albums. Upon closer inspection, he realized all the albums were fakes made of cardboard. There were double albums, benefit albums, soundtracks to Kung Fu movies starring the superstar. The albums referenced each other, indicating a world of connections. Intrigued, Hadar bought the illustrated records for $2 apiece and went searching for the artist. Hadar tracked Mike down; he was living in the same neighborhood he grew up in. Mike had missed a payment on a storage space he was renting and the albums disappeared. Mike and Hadar became friends, and their story became myth, retold first by diggers, the term for people who search for rare records, then by major news media outlets and music publications. (Disclosure: Hadar is the son of an editor at The Washington Post.)

‘You are so lucky’

Now in his early 60s, Mingering Mike has the cult following he once longed for. And, no, “mingering” has no particular meaning. “It sounded good,” Mike said of the alias he adopted at 18. Perhaps slightly paranoid, or afraid of the consequences of acquiring too much after having so little, he still refuses to reveal his identity, even after movie production companies have optioned his story and galleries have shown his works.

“It would be bothersome if people figured it out,” Mike said of his real name. “If every time you turned around, people were trying to interrupt your work or people were all of a sudden thinking you’re fascinating, they’d be saying: ‘You got some money? Help me out.’ ”

The story of Mingering Mike brings some complications for a museum. In a Manti Te’o Internet culture where elaborate hoaxes are often used to dupe media outlets or prominent institutions, heartwarming tales have to be treated with skepticism. The chance meeting of Hadar and Mike led to massive press attention and, now, the preservation of a decade of outsider art. For some skeptics, it’s a story that’s too great to be true. Umberger had to consider the skeptics’ perspective when she confronted the work.

“I’ve been aware of a few cases where artists in the field of self-taught [created] bodies of work that turned out to be fake,” Umberger said. “But when I arrived and started looking at the art, I could tell we had a different situation here. No one made this with the intention of a glitzy market career in mind. This didn’t raise any red flags.”

And anonymity didn’t stop the works from achieving widespread praise. After initial reports on Mike’s work surfaced, he participated in an exhibition called “The Record” at Duke University, South by Southwest and an exhibition in Amsterdam. All the while, Hadar has managed Mike’s image, promoting the artwork and their unlikely story in the hopes that someone would buy the collection and donate it to a museum.

“I’ve told Mike, you are so lucky that Dori found you,” Umberger said. “He understood the importance of the collection, and the need to keep it together.”

‘That’s pretty cool’

Late last year, Smithsonian benefactors Mike Wilkins and Sheila Duignan purchased the works from Mike and Hadar and donated them to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Wilkins had followed the saga since its early coverage and felt strongly that the works should be in the museum. They purchased the works for an undisclosed sum (Hadar and Mike declined to say the amount) and subsequently donated them to the museum. According to the Smithsonian, Hadar and Mike split the profits of all their projects equally.

“This is what we were always hoping for,” Hadar said of the purchase. “That someone would buy the works” and that they’d end up in a museum.

Hadar “said, ‘The Smithsonian, what do you think about that?’ ” Mike recalled of the moment he heard. “And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty cool.’ ”

Mike, who is single and lives alone in a small apartment in Southeast, has yet to tell his extended family about the Smithsonian’s acquisition, even though many of his relatives inspired the characters in his make-believe world.

Much has changed since Hadar found the collection. A decade ago, Mike’s belongings were withering in a damp storage unit. Now, a conservator wears blue gloves when handling the plastic-covered albums. Mike is not allowed to touch the works when he consults with the conservators. Smithsonian curators and paper conservators are tasked with preserving the outsider art, which that was never meant to last decades.

“I’ve only met Mike once, but it’s always helpful to work with a living artist,” said Kate Maynor, paper conservator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “Mike told me the very specific materials or brand names he used. He has a good memory of them.”

“He did the best he could with what he had available to him,” Umberger said. “It was not on his radar that he should be concerned with longevity and archival preservation.”

Luckily for the Smithsonian, Mike was a meticulous artist, putting many of his pieces in plastic and using quality stock cardboard paper. A few of the older pieces have water damage or cellophane tape markings, but most of the works are intact.

“These are very carefully made,” Maynor said. “Some of the paints he used are very durable. There’s no signs of flaking. Even though he wasn’t concerned with conservation, many of these things are well preserved.”

The Smithsonian will take the next two years to do a thorough preservation analysis of the works and prepare them for its permanent collection. One of the most difficult challenges will be preserving the music that accompanied the albums. The Smithsonian is considering how it can exhibit the art and music, but the exhibition will focus primarily on Mike’s visual works.

That’s a hard pill to swallow for an aspiring soul superstar who still jots down lyrics when the mood strikes him. Mike said he hasn’t given up on music. He hopes to one day write a musical. Once a dreamer, so they say.

As for Hadar, he’s sticking by the fake superstar he found. Like a true manager, he’s ready to support future projects.

“I view [the Smithsonian acquisition] as the end of a chapter in this story and the beginning of a new one,” Hadar said. “I hope that Mike’s real dream of pursuing music will start to come true. It’s where all of this came from in the first place.”

© The Washington Post Company