ON OPENING night they had Cole (Country) Cummings' fabulous car right in the courtyard of Shaw Junior High, under a spotlight. Today there are only some photos of the car hanging in the gallery, but you get the idea.
"He delivers groceries in it," says Lilian Burwell, director of the Alma Thomas Memorial Gallery at Shaw, where the "Folk Art in the City" show will remain through Jan. 19. "He waits at the Safeway at 6th and H streets NE and he takes shoppers home in it."
The car is a Chevrolet of uncertain age. It has a new skin of posters, decals and spray paint fringed with armies of pink and blue plastic spoons, and the top is piled 10 feet high with bicycles, tricycles, televisions, tin cans, dolls, a four-way siren and a standing lamp.
"He got arrested once, but the judge scolded the officer and told him to go out and catch criminals, not artists."
And that's only the beginning. This show has so much vitality it almost jumps off the walls. When Sam Gilliam saw Dorothy Fortune's afghan with its brilliant stripes, he said it must be by a Washington Color School painter. But Fortune has no interest in exhibiting, collects yarn scraps and puts them together in subtle combinations "for something to do."
On the far wall--in fact it is the far wall--Freddie Reynolds' amazing collage vibrates with energy. It is like a Cornell that was let out of the box and grew to life size. It is yarn, beads, false hair, snapshots, hearts, a crucifix with door knobs on top, a table with decorated candles, plates, badges, toys . . . and everything has a spiritual meaning.
Says Burwell: "He feels that everything that happens to him is a sign of spiritual life. A rope on a cushion reminds him of how his mother held the family together. And this wall is only part of it. His whole house is this way, it's all an expression of his life."
Self-taught Maceo Jeffries, the only professional artist in the group, is represented here, as are fabric artists Frances Gaskins and Margaret Barbee; Charles Johnson, a guard at the National Portrait Gallery who does still lifes in oil; the late sculptor James Spicer; and C.B. Taylor, a painter of "primitive" landscapes who used to work for the Kennedys and Mellons but now turns out the forests and seashores and snow scenes that have led his neighbors to call him Grandpa Moses.
And Joseph Wilson. He loves birds, but he also loves his cat Sylvester, and Sylvester has a problem with birds. So Wilson builds bird houses. Bird mansions. Bird hotels. He is a handyman, and he finds scraps in alleys, things like cable spools, chicken wire and brass tubes, and he creates his dream castles from them.
When he first saw his work on pedestals at the gallery at 10th and Rhode Island NW, he gasped, "My goodness, I never thought . . ."
All these artists live in or around the Shaw community, Burwell says. They're as local as you can get. "And this," she says, her glance sweeping the room, "is only the tip of the iceberg."