Tears are trickling from folk artist Sy Mohr's eyes.
"Ten years ago, I had a stroke," the Bronx native says, sitting comfortably in his Bowie home, dressed in a tie and button-down shirt. He is bejeweled with a turquoise ring, watch and matching belt. His thick, gray sideburns blend into a thin crown of hair.
"God said to me in the quietness, 'You gotta paint. . . .' All my life I painted. And now, at 76 years old . . . " He raises his hands in awe.
A curator from the Museum of American Folk Art in New York has written to him, he marvels. There is talk of permanently mounting his work at the National Museum of American Art in Washington. And now there is a major exhibit of his work at the Prince George's Arts Council.
After listening to her husband of 52 years ramble on in this vein for several minutes, "the redhead," as Mohr affectionately calls her, pipes in. She dryly asks their guests in Brooklynese, "Should I get you a pillow and blanket?"
So goes a morning in the home of folk artist Sy Mohr and his wife, Berenice. Mohr says it's their partnership--his lofty longings and her blunt pragmatism--that has brought them the flood of recognition they are enjoying after decades of struggling in obscurity.
The Mohrs have raised two daughters, earning a living by running a fabric store and a deli. That paid the bills. But nothing stirred Sy Mohr's soul like a canvas and paint brush. "This is my whole spirit of life. Money is important. Computers are important. But you have to have music, the arts," he says.
So when the couple took a trip to Haiti several years ago, he painted. While visiting American Indian reservations in New Mexico, he painted, too. He set up his easel and oils time and again over the years, on trips from Mexico to Baltimore and Alaska to Solomons Island, amassing a body of more than 140 oil-on-canvas works.
Despite this handsome output, he hasn't sold more than a dozen paintings or received recognition commensurate with his abilities.
"We recognized that he was a profound folk artist and had documented over 70 years of his life in murals," says Al Maitland, executive director of the Prince George's Arts Council and curator of the exhibit at the council's new offices.
"His work represents a kind of snapshot of society with multiple levels of people and time, very detailed and grand-scale works that capture cities and societies. . . . It also has a very nice, early 20th-century feel in terms of folk art and capturing the unconscious of people and their masks. I find a lot of irony and humor in his works," Maitland said.
Visitors to the gallery displaying Mohr's works, should expect to be confronted by a manic assault of color. Most of the colossal paintings, often 70 inches by 70 inches or larger, are panoramic views of scenes Mohr encountered in his travels.
"The Market in Haiti," which Mohr painted during his 1960 trip to the Caribbean island, exemplifies his mastery of color, space and composition. In this work, there are dozens of tiny vignettes featuring more than 150 characters. Farmers lead mules down dirt paths, women balance baskets full of food and vendors trade fruit, baskets and other wares against a backdrop of richly textured, mountainous countryside blending seamlessly into the center of a bustling city street market.
With the exception of his subjects' blank, brown faces, no detail is too small for Mohr. Visible are the red-and-pink flowers on an elderly woman's dress, a cow's spotted coat, the texture in a vendor's straw hat. A close look reveals "the redhead," in a cameo appearance, in the lower right-hand corner.
Each work is charged with energy and detail, stunning in its totality. But the paintings are not without wit. Their frenetic motion, exaggerated details and facial expressions also give his works what one observer described as a " 'Where's Waldo' quality."
Remarkably, Mohr produced his works without the benefit of any formal art instruction.
He was raised by his Russian mother and American father in the Bronx, N.Y. His father owned a dry-cleaning shop and pushed his son toward pursuits other than art. "We were Jewish and very poor. Jewish people say, 'Become a doctor or lawyer.' But I found that when you have the poverty or nothing around you, you have to have creativity."
After high school, Mohr went into the Army. But he lacked the stomach for violence and left after 1 1/2 years. Then, in 1947, he met Berenice at a camp where both were teaching young children arts and crafts.
From the start, Sy Mohr loved Berenice's feistiness. "Her hair was short. She wore pants. She was very aggressive," he recalls.
The couple soon married and left New York for Lancaster, Pa., where they raised their daughters, Lorie and Bonnie, in a restored Amish home. In Lancaster, they ran Mohr Fabrics, then a deli called Mohr's Gourmet.
Sy Mohr's days were dominated by the concerns of running a shop, so his life, on the surface, resembled the shopkeeper's life of his father. But in the evenings after closing time and on getaways to faraway places, he found time to indulge his love of art. "I always wanted to paint. So I said to the redhead, 'Let's go traveling.' I would paint it, and she would frame it." After the shop folded in 1981, the Mohrs moved to Gaithersburg, then eventually settled in their Bowie home.
Over the years, there have been flashes of recognition for his art. Former Maryland comptroller Louis L. Goldstein struck up a friendship with Mohr and exhibited his renderings of Maryland cities briefly at the State House in Annapolis. There were also occasional exhibits at the National Institutes of Health and the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives in Washington.
Yet he rarely sold any paintings. Berenice Mohr, who is an accomplished stained-glass artist, says she never lost faith in her husband's talent. "He paints like no one but himself," she says. "Nobody can understand how he can conceive of these things. His sense of design is unique." She says that since his stroke 10 years ago, his works have assumed more of a folk quality. "His style has become a little more 'folk art.' Before it was a little more sophisticated."
Mohr got his biggest break last year when he met Maitland. The arts administrator immediately exhibited his work at the federal courthouse in Greenbelt and commissioned him to do works for the county's Harlem Renaissance festival and other events.
The Greenbelt show caught the attention of curators at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York and the National Museum of American Art. Curators from both museums have written Mohr saying they would like to consider permanently mounting his work.
The realization that his life's passion may be immortalized on the walls of a museum is a dream come true. He is so elated at the prospect that, these days, he is frequently overcome with emotion.
Indeed, just the sight of the exhibit of more than 30 of his paintings at the Prince George's Arts Council building brought tears to his eyes.
Today, the Mohrs spend their days teaching art to students at several elementary schools in Prince George's County. And Sy Mohr continues to construct his massive, vibrant murals.
"Don't you see, color is life!" he says. "Color is hope and joy."
The works of Sy Mohr are on view through Feb. 28 at the Prince George's Arts Council, 6525 Belcrest Rd., Hyattsville. Admission is free. Call 301-277-1402.
CAPTION: Sy Mohr, 76, shown with some of his work, has received national attention for his folk paintings.