The Last Folk Hero

Those of you who either know me in person or through DFK know that outsider art is one of my very favorite things. I want to let you know about a book I’ve been reading that’s simply wonderful, whether this genre is of particular interest to you or whether you just enjoy a really good (nonfiction) story.

I just finished ‘The Last Folk Hero‘ last week – and it was wonderful. It was mostly centered around Bill Arnett, an Atlanta art collector/dealer, and his penchant for ‘outsider art’ – Thornton Dial (who he introduced to the world), Lonnie Holley, Gee’s Bend quilters (although they had been ‘discovered’ several times in the past, it was Bill Arnett who really gets the credit for bringing them mass attention through museum shows and the like), and others (i.e. my fave – Joe Minter, Jimmie Lee Sudduth, Charlie Lucas). BTW, my pics from visiting with Joe Minter are here in my Flickr set.

The really beautiful thing about the book is that the author, Andrew Dietz, doesn’t play sides…the reader is left to determine whether Bill Arnett is an art saviour or a devious and greedy paranoid self-promoter. Truth is, he’s seems to be all those things. His contracts with artists seem to be muddled and based on emotion, and not paper-based – and in return, he gets either unequivocal trust or (later) extreme hostility.

His ‘deals’ often (or maybe always?) include him getting first refusal on all his artists’ work: that is, he gets to see everything first and chooses for himself all their ‘best’ work. On certain levels, this seems…fair…but much of the work he purchases lingers in the dark recesses of an Atlanta warehouse rather than on museum or gallery, or even his dining room walls.

In other words, Thornton Dial’s best work is probably in a warehouse. Whatever you or I get to buy isn’t his best, because if it was, it would be in Atlanta right now.

Of course, if it weren’t for Bill Arnett, the world may never have learned of Thornton Dial. It may have been years before Gee’s Bend quilts were ever ‘rediscovered’. And so on. Do you thank him for promoting, or aim displeasure at him for hoarding what is America’s great art? Um, probably both.

…and I have to put my favorite two segments of the book here:
Arnett puts it like this, “I know how I feel about things. I know I can go to Arezzo, Italy, and look at Piero della Francesca’s frescos and melt. I mean, honestly, it’s like I’m in the presence of some kind of god. I’m a card-carrying athiest. I don’t know about what’s up in the sky guiding us, and if there is a G-d I don’t believe he gave his only begotten son to Christians, nor does the idea of Jews being the chosen people make any sense to me. But when I stand in front of Piero della Francesca’s fresco cycle of The Legend of the Cross I can’t dispute G-d…”

…and then later, he relates to Peter Marzio (and others) that:
“Alabama is America’s answer to Tuscany!”I’m hoping that whoever changed our state tourism motto from “Alabama the Beautiful” to “Alabama: State of Surprises” to “Share the Wonder” calls Bill Arnett and asks for the rights to that…hahaha!
The book is beautifully written, and it’s a great story. Not to miss in particular is the *very* interesting section about Jane Fonda (yes. Jane Fonda.), Bill Arnett, a cast and crew of family members, museum and media people, plus Lonnie Holley, Joe Minter, and Thornton Dial going to Gee’s Bend (Boykin) in a tour bus to have dinner with the quilters, having the preacher at the church there warn the congregation of the “outsiders”, Lonnie Holley in effect shutting him down, then driving on to Selma where they all walked across the Edmund Pettus bridge. Oh, and Lonnie had them all make something out of repurposed ‘stuff’ on way down, and Jane Fonda put together a…well, you can read the book for that part. But OH…my…goodness.

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