the orange show center for visionary art's
eyeopener tours:

The Carolinas, 2007

"Nothing Could be Finer"

tour report by Susanne Theis
founding director, The Orange Show Center for Visionary Art

...Than to be in Carolina with Larry Harris as our leader on the Orange Show’s 2007 out-of-state Eyeopener Tour. For five days, our gang of 30 did everything but rest as we covered 1,000 miles, visiting 6 artists, 9 museums/galleries, private collections, installations, restaurants and a basilica. We had fun, we learned, we were inspired and we made lasting connections with each other and the genuinely wonderful artists and stewards we met. Here’s a recap of the tour from my seat in the back of the bus.

On Wednesday May 23, we arrived in Asheville, NC at 11 pm and met Tony, our wonderful bus driver. On Thursday morning, after stocking up with junk food and refreshments, we set off at the civilized hour of 10 am. Don Inlay, our step on guide with a voice like Mel Torme’s, narrated our drive around the beautiful city of Asheville, telling us of the literary legacy of Thomas Wolfe, O Henry, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Carl Sandburg. He told stories of turkeys, driven like cattle from Tennessee with tiny hand-knitted booties to protect delicate turkey feet. Honest. He led us to The Grove Arcade, the first shopping mall in America. Built just before the Depression hit, this beautifully preserved mall serviced the extremely rich who built beautiful summer homes in Asheville. Now filled with antique and artisan shops, this stop solidified our impression of Asheville as a place that appreciates fine craft and artistic endeavors.

The Grove Arcade, Asheville, North Carolina

An amazing lunch was served on the terrace of the spectacular Grove Park Inn, a 1903 building made of native granite and an undulating red tile roof. The Basilica of St. Lawrence was our next stop. Notable for its enormous oval domed ceiling, the Basilica was built by Rafael Guastavino, who revived and patented a traditional Spanish technique using thin tile and mortar to create the curved surface. After visiting this beautiful church with our own St. Lawrence, it was on to Biltmore Estate.

top photo by Tom LaFaver

Lunch at The Grove Park Inn, Asheville

top & bottom photo by Tom LaFaver

The Basilica of St. Lawrence, Asheville

The Biltmore is the largest private house in America, built by George Washington Vanderbilt in the early 1890’s. Modeled after French chateaux in the Loire Valley, it is filled with astonishing furniture, art, textiles, books and rare objects. Frederick Law Olmstead designed the wonderful park and approach. There was plenty of time to think about the way life has changed while walking through the mind-boggling public rooms, the exquisite private rooms and the utility rooms, where the servants lived and worked.

bottom photo by Tom LaFaver

The Biltmore Estate, Asheville

The visionary portion of the tour started on Friday. We were dressed, packed, checked out and on the bus by 7:40 am, heading for Studio XI Gallery in Morganton. Now 14 years old, this non profit organization offers living space, studio/gallery and work opportunities for artistically gifted adults challenged by disabilities. Music and art filled the space as we were welcomed by the staff and 6 resident artists, to be nearly drowned out by the sound of competitive shopping as we opened our checkbooks and emptied the walls. It felt good to know that we were supporting some wonderful artists and an important program to empower people.

Studio XI, Morganton, NC

Running just a little late, we made our way to the home of Barry and Allen Huffman in Hickory. Knowing that the Huffman’s have given a large part of their storied folk art collection to the Hickory Museum, we were only a little surprised to find the house still bursting at the seams, full of amazing art. Some personal favorites – Raymond Coins carvings, Q. J. Stephenson’s prehistoric animals, McKendree Long's epic biblical paintings and the Vollis Simpson bicycle rider suspended in the middle of the house. Pleasure and treasures everywhere you looked. After bonding with the Huffmans and board and staff members of the Hickory Museum of Art over lunch, we headed to the Museum to view the Huffman Collection in a beautiful renovated high school gym now gallery. Founded in 1943, Hickory Museum is one of the oldest institutions devoted to American art. It will soon install the Huffman collection in open storage galleries to encourage public access and interest in folk/outsider art, now one of its primary areas of emphasis. The Huffmans and the Museum are to be congratulated for this powerful partnership that will establish the Hickory Museum as one of the most important centers of folk art scholarship in America.

bottom photo by Tom LaFaver

The Huffman Collection

top & bottom photo by Tom LaFaver

The Hickory Museum of Art

The studio of Hubert Walters was our next stop. Walters is a native of Jamaica who is most known for his replicas of boats, made of small pieces of brightly painted wood but also makes sculptures of animals, clocks and humans using the automotive molding product, Bondo, over armatures made of scrap materials. These sculptures are heavy, but that didn’t stop our crew of intrepid shoppers, so several hundred pounds heavier, our bus pressed on to our next stop, the garden environment and home of Benny Carter.

photos by Tom LaFaver

The Art of Hubert Walters, Troutman, NC

Hundreds of handmade road signs dot the front yard of Benny Carter’s home and studio, exhorting the viewer to buy art in acerbic and sometimes witty comments. Inside, Benny’s paintings covered the walls, floors and then some. He paints NY icons like the Statue of Liberty, taxicabs and the skyscrapers, and makes intricately painted clocks, among other things. Benny treated our group to his strong opinions on the art world and commerce.

bottom & middle right photos by Tom LaFaver

The Art of Benny Carter, Mayodan, NC

On Saturday we took off at 8:30 am to visit a public art project by our dear friend, Mr. Imagination. The Memory Wall of Peace and Love in downtown Winston Salem, commissioned by the Transit Center, incorporates found objects in a beautiful, grotto-like wall and bench. A few minutes later, we found ourselves at the Dot Man’s wonderful studio.

bottom photo by Tom LaFaver

Mr. Imagination's Memory Wall of Peace and Love
Winston-Salem, NC

Sam McMillian is one of the most charming artists you would ever meet. The “Dot Man” is true to form, nearly every surface of his house is covered with dots, and are the paintings, customized found objects and walking sticks. “We can’t fight if we’re all holding hands” several of his paintings plead. Imaginative metal sculptures assembled from found objects fill his yard, like the bench made of fuel tanks. Almost everyone walked away with a piece from the Dot Man, including his painted mail box.

top photo by Tom LaFaver

The Art of Sam "The Dot Man" McMillan

Next stop was the North Carolina Pottery Center in Seagrove, complete with a guided tour by director Denny Mecham. Here the history of pottery, styles and methods are on display, as well as the handiwork of some of the most prized potters in the area. In a beautiful modern building evocative of the old vernacular architecture, it was fun and informative. After making notes on potters like Mary and David Farrell, Hal and Eleanor Pugh, the group then walked a block to see the beautiful, refined pottery of Fred Johnston and Carol Gentithes. Of everything we saw, it might have been the most remarkable thing to learn that the beautiful and unspoilt town of Seagrove will apparently stay that way – there’s no wastewater in the area.

Jugtown was next. Wooden barns and structures built in the 20’s to house the pottery studio of the Owens family, Jugtown is preserved as a place to see the finest in North Carolina pottery and to see the kiln in which it was fired.

After a wonderful country lunch, we were able to make a quick unscheduled stop at Westmore Pottery, where Mary Ferrell works. Watching her embellish a wet platter with pigmented clay in a freeform design was really fun.

The North Carolina Pottery Center, Seagrove

The kiln at Johnston-Gentithes Studios, Seagrove

Jugtown Pottery, Seagrove

We then drove to Bynum, NC, to visit Clyde Jones at “Critter Crossing.” Before we arrive, we see dozens of life-sized animals carved of tree branches by Clyde’s chainsaw in the yards of his neighbors. It is obvious that Clyde is a local hero. He doesn’t sell his work, but gives it away to charity and yet his critters have found their way all over the world. It was fun for me to see how the work has changed in the 19 years since my first visit – he uses paint sometimes, now and even glitter. Baseball eyes and other found objects get incorporated.

Clyde comes with us to a local seafood restaurant, where his glitter covered fish paintings decorate the rooms. What a charmer.

A two hour drive follows – and thank God – what happens in North Carolina stays in North Carolina.

The Art of Clyde Jones, Bynum, NC

Captain John's Dockside Restaurant, Chapel Hill, NC

Sunday finds us at Richard Brown’s Flower Shop in Littleton – which looks unassuming. Past the flower showroom however, we enter a room filled with most ethereal sculptures hanging from the ceiling and installed on pedestals. Made of florist material, wire, Styrofoam, pearl-covered pins, glitter all shaped into military vehicles. Richard Brown was a tall, fairly young, strong man with large hands who seemed very quiet, even shy in the face of our interest in his work. The story emerged that he is a recovering alcoholic, these sculptures were started in a period of great mourning – during the final illness and death of his mother.

It has been many years since seeing a work of art made my hair stood up on end, and I wanted to jump up and down, but that’s just what happened at Richard Brown’s. His work is complex, multi-layered, rich with meaning, refined and yet authentic.

The Art of Richard Brown

We left Richard Brown to visit the Four Sisters Gallery on the campus of North Carolina Wesleyan University, where are small but powerful show of NC self-taught artists is on permanent display. Seeing Richard Brown’s work with enough space around it and proper lighting was a real treat. He called it “Louise” after his mother. So was seeing the work of others in this collection, including Leroy Persons, Herman Bridges, Ray Congleton and others. This was the private collection of Robert Lynch, and seeing it underscored again the invaluable role that collectors and institutions play in the preservation and the presentation of this work. (A huge thank you to director Everett Adelman, who arranged for the gallery to be opened for us on a Sunday.)

The Four Sister Gallery at
North Carolina Wesleyan College, Rocky Mount, NC

A wonderful lunch buffet at Bill’s BBQ and Chicken follows. Then we set off for one of the trip highlights, the sculpture garden of Vollis Simpson in Lucama.

Bill's BBQ and Chicken, Wilson, NC

A small clearing near a country stream is dotted with towering wind-powered sculptures, some reaching a height of 40’. The wind sets things in motion – horses gallup, propellers engage, intensely colored ferris-wheel spin madly. Vollis himself, now 89, a WWII veteran, comes out to welcome our group. He’s accustomed to public acclaim for these marvelous machines, and he’s very modest with us. He’s got a shop filled with small-scale brightly colored windmills and whirligigs. A few hundred pounds heavier our happy bus presses on to Florence, South Carolina, where we’ll spend the night.

The Art of Vollis Simpson, Lucama, NC

Pearl Fryar’s topiary garden is the highlight of the trip for many of us. Throughout the town of Bishopville and all along Broad Acres Road, trees and shrubs have been shaped into surprising shapes. Pearl’s Topiary Garden is the nexus of all this activity. A self-taught topiary artist who has worked on this garden for 18 years, Pearl Fryar is a 67 year old former civil rights worker and employee of American Can Company. Tall, powerful, a spell-binding speaker, he takes us through the garden and demonstrates his method of trimming and shaping the plants. We marvel at Golden Yupon shrubs and Live Oak trees like we’ve never imagined and Dogwood trained to grow in a giant ball. Over the past few years, Pearl has begun making garden sculptures, welded from found objects, each one illustrating his belief in self-empowerment. Inspired by the career of Jackie Robinson, Pearl Fryar is the subject of a new documentary “A Man Named Pearl” which we plan to bring to Houston.

bottom photo by Tom LaFaver

The Art of Pearl Fryar, Bishopville, South Carolina

Inspired and awed, we board the bus. One last visit with an old friend, the Button Man. Dalton Stephens rolled in the second Art Car Parade in 1989 with his button covered auto, his button-covered suit and his button-covered guitar. He suffers from insomnia, and made these objects during his many wakeful hours. It was delightful to see him looking so good all these years later, and his new museum, built next to his house. We saw his button-covered hearse, button-covered commode and finally, button-covered casket. Dalton plays videos of his old tv appearances, including the Johnny Carson show, that made us all laugh.

Dalton Stevens' Button Museum, Bishopville, South Carolina

On to one last meal – fittingly enough, at Cracker Barrel – and then on to the Charlotte Airport. Our flight to Houston is delayed by weather, so we all have a chance to relax together in the airport.

Writing about what we saw barely scratches the surface of the amazing thing about these trips. Larry has done such a superb job planning the route, selecting the sites, arranging every detail. The entire group pitches in – serving drinks, passing hors d’ouerve, buying supplies, schlepping heavy objects, entertaining with stories. It is an immersion experience in what the Orange Show mission is all about. An unforgettable trip.

Susanne Theis

And a very special thank you again to all of the artists, hosts, and everyone else that made this unforgettable:

Everett Adelman, Susan Anderson of American Charters, Richard Brown, Benny and Teressa Carter, John Dimos of Captain John's Dockside Restaurant, Pearl Fryar, Lynn Grabey and Don Inlay of Accents on Asheville, Sandra Homes of the Wilson NC Visitors Bureau, Brandy Honeycutt of the Grove Park Inn, Barry & Allen Huffman, Kay Irvin and the artists and staff of Studio XI, Fred Johnston & Carol Gentithes, Clyde Jones, Polly Lafitte, Kelly Ludwig of, Roger Manley, Randy Mason of KCPT-TV's Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations, Sam McMillan, Kenny McMillan, Denny Mecham of the North Carolina Pottery Center, Vollis Simpson, Dalton Stevens, Lise Swensson and Nikol Wuest of the Hickory Museum of Art, Hubert Walters, Diane Wright of the Basilica of St. Lawrence, and finally, the World's Best Bus Driver, Tony Sellers of American Charters.

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