Sometimes fire renews rather than destroys. Fire!: The Resurrection of Mr. Imagination chronicles the renewal of the late outsider artist, Mr. Imagination, following a devastating fire in 2008. The exhibition is on view at the African American Museum of Dallas at Fair Park through January 7.
Born Gregory Warmack, the self-taught Chicago artist was known for transforming the ordinary objects of life into art. His favorite materials included industrial sandstone and bottlecaps. In the 1970s, he sold his work at art fairs and had his first solo exhibition in 1983 at the Carl Hammer Galleries in Chicago.
Several of his pieces are in the collections of the Smithsonian Art Museum and Halle St. Pierre in Paris. He has been exhibited at the American Visionary Art Museum, the American Folk Museum, and the High Museum of Art. With exhibitions at the Dallas Museum of Art and the African American Museum of Dallas, his connection to North Texas is significant.
The artist was known for his warmth as much as his bottlecap creations, spontaneously giving away handmade trinkets to people he met casually. Phillip E. Collins, the curator of this exhibition and a longtime friend of the late artist, remembers him giving away a signed necklace to a cashier at Kroger.
“He is kind and generous. His generosity is the whole core of his being,” Collins said.
In 1978, the artist was on his way to his Chicago studio when he was mugged and shot. He was in a coma for three months. The near-death experience inspired a new identity and a recommitment to his art.
“While he was in that coma, he had visions of himself living in other times as gods, as kings, as royalty, and even as some animals as well,” Collins said. “That’s when he took the word imagination out of that coma and declared himself a prophet and named himself professionally Mr. Imagination.”
Collins was working in the education department at the Dallas Museum of Art when Mr. Imagination’s artwork was part of an exhibition at the museum. Collins created an educational program around the artist’s work. Mr. Imagination visited several public schools as well as Greenhill School, The Hockaday School, and St. Mark’s School of Texas.
“He became so popular in those schools, he was invited back on several other occasions to do workshops at those institutions,” Collins said. “Out of those workshops, there’s some of those students who became artists and even through his generosity, became philanthropists as adults.”
In 2000, he became an artist-in-residence at Banana Factory in Bethlehem, PA, establishing a home, a studio, and a significant presence in the local arts community. In 2008, a fire killed his pets and destroyed his studio, some of his artwork, memorabilia, and art collection.
“He lost almost everything that was dear to him, even his pet dog that been his faithful friend for many years,” Collins said.
He relocated to Atlanta and began to rebuild his life. The fire left its mark on Mr. Imagination.
“It did transform his work,” Collins said.
Fire!: The Resurrection of Mr. Imagination traces the arc of his career and examines his triumph over tragedy through approximately 80 works. At the heart of the exhibition is an altar made of pieces of art salvaged from the fire. Mr. Imagination created this altar for his home in Atlanta.
“In that altar, you can see his transformation. What he realized from that burnt work in that altar, that fire as a method, as an application to his work create new patina,” Collins said. “It became another layer to what he wanted to use to create his work. It brings another perspective to the work.”
After the fire, Mr. Imagination became more religious, creating works referencing the Biblical stories of feeding the multitude with five loaves and two fish and Salome’s execution of John the Baptist.
“The work he produced after the fire is a reflection of his childhood and his relationship to the church and his family. His work became figurative,” Collins said. “And these figurative pieces represented Christian values.”
His work reflects several world religions, from Native American traditions to Buddhism and Islam. He uses his own face in pieces of artwork, reflecting his visions during his coma and his expanding understanding of the spiritual world.
“What the fire did is it expanded his universal worldview from all of these different forms of spirituality,” Collins said.
Mr. Imagination died in 2012. Seeing the work in the exhibition as a collection has given Collins a fresh perspective on his friend.
“I understand more about the person and what this work is,” Collins said.
In this exhibition, Mr. Imagination conjures Greek mythology, encouraging others navigating tragedy and loss.
“It’s like a phoenix from the ashes,” Collins said. “You can rise above it.”
Learn more: African American Museum of Dallas
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