The Connoisseur

BY Marimar McNaughton

Folk art is an acquired taste. Cultivating a palate for its mysterious meanings and its ephemeral merits has sparked debate for decades. Carving out a niche in major art institutions and private collections for the raw unschooled talent of folk artists has been an inspired uphill battle. Leading the charge locally is folk art connoisseur Christian Daniel.

“There’s really nothing I don’t collect ” he says. “If I see something I like I’ll get it; and if it fits it works.”

In the Landfall home he shares with his wife Michelle and their two school-age children Daniel a doctor specializing in family medicine collects outsider art folk art and visionary art — from hand-painted advertising signs to campaign flags to the largest collection of Minnie Evans original drawings and paintings in the world. Daniel is curating his own private stash of iconic East Coast American vernacular art that rivals any found in a major art institution from New York to New Orleans.

Outsider art is created beyond the boundaries of what is generally regarded as fine art. It embraces folk art — derived from folk traditions and social customs handed down from one generation to the next — and visionary art — colored with mystical mythical and spiritual imagery and experiences. No art has contributed more to this genre of modern art for which no rules apply than the visionary art of Minnie Evans.

Daniel could barely contain his unbridled passion for Evans’ work when he recently acquired a rare oil painting and a rare collage “Finally … some of her masterpieces!”

His obsession began innocently enough 22 years ago when he was an 18-year-old college student attending Wake Forest University. On weekends the Pinehurst native attended auctions and flea markets buying lots hoarding the best two or three pieces and selling the rest. By Sunday evening he had usually turned a profit.

“It just kind of went from collecting old Coca-Cola signs to getting the early turn-of-the-century lithographs that were more artistic. From that I went on to collecting hand-painted advertising signs. That led to hanging around and going to the shows and seeing other types of folk art and then it just kind of progressed.”

Daniel’s tastes belong to an eclectic realm of esoteric extremes. He describes his style as the proverbial hodge-podge a mix of high formal and low country furnishings and decorative pieces. In the dining room there is a down-home North Carolina jelly cupboard and a Federal sideboard. On the walls a primitive Williamstown Pennsylvania homestead painting a 19th century portrait of a little boy and a theorem made in a Unionville Boarding School in 1846 which is the only known example of the stippled style of painting made from stenciled cut-outs created by a boy.

The copper weathervane has its own story. Stolen from a North Carolina barn bought by a guy in Asheville sold to another in Massachusetts it was brought back home by Daniel.

It is displayed with two earthenware jugs beside a diminutive canvas rendered by William Aiken Walker probably one of the most famous Southern painters of vernacular Southern rural Negro scenes — especially the lives of emancipated slaves in the post-Reconstruction American South — some of which were adopted by early Currier and Ives. Both the weathervane and the Aiken painting sit on top of a penny rug a hand-stitched appliquéd felt throw that represents an East Coast drawing room fad that emerged toward the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s.

How all of this fits so eloquently throughout the Daniel home is finessed by Michelle Daniel the governess of her husband’s collection. His philosophy “You’ve got to give up some things to get some things ” is a polite way of saying that Michelle will not permit him to invest in something new without divesting something old.

I always promised myself I wouldn’t borrow money to buy things. Any extra I I would save I would buy something with. People that I know all over the country they buy and sell and trade everything. Certain things have come and stayed. The fun is trying to find it ” Daniel says.

In their foyer an elegant assemblage of stars and bars decorates the accent wall covering an almost 100-year period represented by an 1844 Henry Clay Knickerbocker Clay Club Presidential campaign flag; a 1901 campaign ribbon flag from a Wilmington delegate and a 1938 Gettysburg Memorial flag commemorating the 75th anniversary of the battle.

There is a flag from the Ulysses S. Grant and Schuyler Colfax campaign circa 1868 waved at a political rally and flags commemorating the first of Grover Cleveland’s presidential campaigns [he was the 22nd (1885-1889) and 24th (1893-1897) President of the United States] as well as the 74th New York volunteer infantry flag commemorating a post Civil War reunion. This is by far the rarest flag noted for the unusual star pattern and has been featured in several books and on the back of a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box.

“Probably one of the neatest historically is a little silk flag — one of the best in existence ” Daniel says. “This was actually sewn by Betsy Ross’s great-granddaughter and it’s signed: ‘made by Sarah M. Wilson great-granddaughter of Betsy Ross.’ On the other side it says that she sewed it sitting in Independence Hall in Philadelphia trying to raise money to restore the Betsy Ross house.”

Along with some prized pieces by folk artist and street preacher Howard Finster the star attraction in the Daniel collection is still the many Minnie Evans drawings that hang up the staircase spanning the breadth of the visionary artist’s 50-year career which began in 1935 including one from 1962 that resembles the face of a young Elizabeth Taylor and one other Evans did when she was 88 years old for which Daniel says she went back to her cryptic doodles.

Others were acquired from Jo Kallenborn’s collection. Kallenborn was one of Minnie’s closest friends and remains one of the most passionate about Evans. She was drawn into Daniel’s world in October 2007 when the Wilmington Art Association exhibited Daniel’s Minnie Evans collection during a one-day-only showing.

Daniel says “Kallenborn picked up art supplies for Minnie picked up paper and paints and ran errands. When her daughter was 11 or 12 years old she made a deal with Minnie to buy this painting with her allowance she saved up. When she (Kallenborn’s daughter) found out what I was trying to do revitalize Minnie and share her collection she sold me these two including one that her mother allowed her to pick out for herself before she donated the rest of her collection — at least 25 original drawings — to the Ogden.”

The Ogden is the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans which owns Evans’ originals along with the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston the Louise Wells Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C.; the American Folk Art Museum in New York City and the Whitney Museum of American Art which owns her first two drawings.

Evans the gatekeeper of Airlie Gardens started drawing on Good Friday in 1935. She was discovered in 1962 by Nina Howell Starr who she called “the president of my pictures in New York City.” Starr helped her gain her first exhibit in New York at the Church of the Epiphany in 1966 followed by exhibits at the North Carolina Museum of Art in 1986 and East Carolina University in 1993.

“I was at an auction in Georgia. One of her simplistic little pieces was one of the hottest items in the auction and brought almost $5 000. Minnie Evans’ … story is so unbelievable. She was an inspired visionary artist. She wasn’t trying to be an artist. She was doing this as a calling from God ” Christian Daniel says. Perhaps the connoisseur might be called the president of her second coming. 

Close Encounters

Oral histories enhance Minnie Evans archive

With a cache of original drawings; a library of documents publications and photographs and the prospect of collecting oral histories the Cameron Art Museum is committing plans to paper for the creation of a Minnie Evans Study Center a destination for scholars and a repository of information relating to the art and life of this important North Carolina self-taught visionary artist and gatekeeper of Airlie Gardens for 25 years.

The center’s mission is to deepen an understanding of and appreciation for Evans’ unique contribution to American art and culture. “We felt that the establishment of this study center would honor the artist’s importance best by furthering future scholarship and research of her work and life ” museum director Deborah Velders says.

With a recent $5 000 gift from the Piedmont Natural Gas Foundation the museum intends to conduct and capture oral history interviews with those who knew Evans including her family members. The histories will enliven the archives relating to the artist’s work with documentary voice recorded or videotaped firsthand accounts. 

At the core of the study center’s archive are 30 works of art by Evans — stored in the museum’s vault when not exhibited — 12 of which may be seen in the current exhibition “Measure of All Things: The Human Scale ” on view through April 6.

Minnie Evans (1892-1987) was an African-American self-taught artist whose work has been exhibited at and collected by such institutions as the American Folk Art Museum the Whitney Museum of American Art The Museum of Modern Art the Smithsonian Institution and other major fine art and folk art museums throughout the country.

Velders says “Evans joins the ranks of many wonderful artists whose work expresses extraordinary aesthetic freedom innovation and beauty — all derived from spiritual or visionary impulse. Her lack of formal academic training in art only adds to her work’s unselfconscious power.” — Marimar McNaughton