In 1980 gallery owner Paul Waggoner was on his way to a brunch in Beverly when he made a wrong turn and happened upon a yard that looked like it had come from another planet. Brightly painted hand-carved wooden figures lined the fences, climbed the homemade trellises, and stuck out of planters alongside the house. A creature on a post spread its wings above five sticks of wood that stretched upward like fingers waving hello. Waggoner noted the address and drove on.
The house was on 97th Street and belonged to Derek Webster, who had made the decorative sculptures just so he'd have something to look at while he worked on the yard and waited for the flowers and vegetables to grow. When Waggoner returned to the house two days later, Webster wasn't particularly surprised at the sight of a strange car at the curb and a stranger ringing the bell. "People would stop by and congratulate me," he says. "They'd tie up the traffic a little bit." But none of the gapers had owned a gallery, and no one had suggested that his yard decorations ought to be in one.
Waggoner took the sculptures back to the gallery he owned at the time on Oak Street, where Webster's decorations were placed in a group show. After raves from critics and collectors, Webster began producing new sculptures for Waggoner's gallery at such a pace that Waggoner turned the place over to him the next month for a one-man show. Since then Webster has become a nationally recognized "outsider" artist--discovered because he put his works outside.
Webster immigrated to Chicago in 1964 from what was then called British Honduras and is now Belize. Though he's now well-known both here and there, the bills didn't stop coming after he was discovered, and he's never quit his night job. Now 62, he works five nights a week as a janitor at a near-north-side office building.
Webster has carved and painted a great deal of lumber in his basement workshop over the years, but Waggoner has a special affection for the early work. Webster was a pure original, he says, uninfluenced by other artists' traditions and fashions. Yet after 1985, Waggoner believes, Webster started playing to the galleries.
"From 1981 to 1984, I'd been very careful not to make any suggestions to Derek," Waggoner explains. But others did. "A lot of people would say to him, 'Well, you ought to do this--add some glass or something, make it funny.' He's a very sociable man, and I think the additions detracted from the purity of his visionary work."
For "Two Intuitives," a show opening next week at Waggoner's International Arts Club, Waggoner has assembled 11 figures that Webster made between 1981 and 1984. There will also be a figure of a woman that Webster carved in 1991. One of the early figures looks much like Webster's brightly painted abstract man currently on display in the "Outsider Art" show at the Chicago Cultural Center. Some of the others look like menacing little goblins with twisted wooden hands reaching out for the flesh of the living. A sawed-off broomstick penis protrudes from one; another has eyes on the side of his head; a third, chalk white, rests his crooked knee on what looks like a skull. Waggoner says the figures remind him of the Haitian art created by voodoo practitioners, and he's hung paintings by Haitian artist Antiliome Richard to point out the similarities.
Webster says he isn't always happy with his creations. "Some things I don't like and other people like them," he says with surprise. "But I like to satisfy other people more than myself." He has enjoyed the attention his work has brought him but says he still feels the same about it as he did when it was just another part of yard work. "I heard about some artists getting a swelled head, but I haven't changed."
Webster won't be able to attend the opening of the "Two Intuitives" show; it's Tuesday night, and he has to work. But it's also Shrove Tuesday, and Waggoner always throws a party to anticipate the beginning of Lent. The party starts at 6:30 this Tuesday, February 11, at the International Arts Club, 2362 S. Cottage Grove. Music will be performed by the Rafo International Combo with guest singer Osezua, and Caribbean food will be served. Admission is $10. The exhibit runs through March. For more information call 312-567-9899. --Jeffrey Felshman
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Paul Waggoner, Derek Webster photo by Randy Tunnell.