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Sam Mackey: "grandpa Speaks"

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I he faces are beaming or scowllng, earL to-ear, lots of teeth. Bodles rubbery and swaying, shlmmylng or hoveringsmack In front of you, staring dlrectly lnto you. Most of these creatures seem to be female. There are almost always breasts and often a vulva breathlng or talklng or maybe even slnglng at the bottom of the torso. Some of us are remlnded of Sheela-NaGlg, anclent protectlon and blrthlng goddess, often found over church doorways Ín Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Sheela-NaGlggrlns, squats and seems ready to dellver herself of chlld or menses. No palé salnts gazlng heavenward Ín those doorways. Nor do these ladles drawn Ín crayon cop any wanna-be sanctlfled poses. They Ve got thelr own sanctlty happening. Some have legs apart, blood between. Slgns of llfe. We are In the presence of the drawings of Grandpa Sam Mackey. born near St. Louls, Missouri Ín 1897, and resident of Detroit slnce 1918. Grandpa left hls body In June of 1992, but can be met In person lfyou vlslt hls drawings whlch are on display at Galerie Jacques through the end of February. Sam Is very much allve there, ready to meet you through the faces of the people he drew. Frlday and Saturday January 12th & 13th there was a very well-attended openIng In memory of Grandpa, wlth Detroit poets Sharon Smlth-Knlght and Ron Allen heatlng lt up on the fïrst nlght. Jacques tells me hls place was Jammed wlth good people. My hamster-on-a-wheel schedule kept me away until Saturday nlght, when the Galerie was cozlly packed wlth more of those good people. They had come not to be seen, not to play any dopey games wlth each other, but to be for awhlle In a space dedlcated to sincerlty and honest expression. Tyree Guyton, grandson of the artlst, stood humble and sweet as he told us about Grandpa, hls llfe and artworks. He asked for some of Thelonlous Monk's muslc for background, and I shall never forget the way hls volee moved alongslde the Jazz. Many times he stopped and gave the floor to Monk as lf to finish the Idea. These are some of the thlngs he shared wlth us: "Grandpa was a professional house palnter. He gave me my flrst palnt brush when I was nlne. It was magie. Flreworks went off In my head. My hand feit like lt was on fire. I never forgot that. Later, he told me to go to art school and palnt. I went to art school for six years. But goin' to school doesn't make lt happen. It's got to happen lnslde." Hls real lnstructlon ended up taking place In Grandpa's house at 3658 Heldelberg St. In Detroit. After hls wlfe dled, Grandpa was feellng lonely. One day, In 1986, Tyree gave hlm a sheet of paper and asked hlm to draw somethlng. The results were so amazlng that he brought In more paper wlth lots of crayons and pens. Grandpa became a fulltime visual artlst, seated at the kltchen table, drawlng for hours on end. He had many vlsltors, "lots and lots of women" (we see them deplcted In the drawings), and lt seems he was sexually active rlght up untll hls very last days. Grandpa "loved to party." "Grandpa lnsptred me, gave me llfe, gave me hope. Hls work, those pleces, Is what he wanted to say. Grandpa Is why ['m here. He gave me thls magie. And when he was 88 years of age I gave hlm back what he gave me when I was nlne. Lots of times we would drive around the city, was fasclnatlng; I wanted to play wlth lt." And play wlth lt they dld. Today the Detroit nelghborhood Is lntematlonally famous as The Heldelberg Project, where entlre houses have been covered wlth found objects and lots of palnt. Polka dots have appeared on the houses, sldewalks, even tree trunks. Hundreds of shoes line the pavement. Purses hang from trees. Grandpa was the force behlnd all of lt. Sam Mackey loved Thelonlous Monk, and played piano In a style not unllke Monk's. "Straight No Chaser" was among hls favorites, and the tltle Is serlously approprlate for the art he has left for us to get wlth. Reallty up front wlth no euphemlsms. Worldllness, maturity, lnnocence, rambunctlous ease. Coleman Young had the Heldelberg Project bulldozed In 1 99 1 , glvlng the artlsts almost no warnlng. It's lnterestlng to conslder how the government allowed a city to deteriórate lnto a wasteland, and then took palns to brutally counteract such creatlve attempts to revltallze one of the most trodden parts of the city. Grandpa, who'd moved lnto the netghborhood In 1947, was not to be stopped. "Plan B: Let's polka dot the house! You can't let the city get away wlth thls!" During hls final illness, Sam started drawing on the hospital walls. On belng asked about it he said "1 didn't do it." When he was told that other patients had seen him doing it, Grandpa replied: "I did not slgn my name." The doctor smiled and said "Just leave it up." One day a ten-foot glowing angel carne to Tyree and said "everythlng's gonna be all right." Three days later Grandpa made the transitlon. Once Grandpa had said "If I die beforeyou, polyurethane me and put me on a house." This didn't happen. Tyree did thlnk about polka-dotting the old man's body, and ended up polka-dottlng the casket. We were shown a photograph of the family in mournlng clothes (Tyree kneellng In an impressive suit) clustered around a coffin with large colorful dots painted all over it. As for the Heidelberg Project, lfs back and as happening as ever. Tyree says he saw it, they tore it down, he saw it again. "If they tore It down again I'd do It again and again. 111 do the whole city next time. The government's gonna have to listen to the artists." With the help of tireless spokeswoman and activist Jennene Whitfield, the future of the Project is quite promising. Meanwhile, Grandpa Sam Mackey's drawlngs are on display at Galerie Jacques In Ann Arbor, at a gallery in Paris as part of an eight-month International Art Brut exhlbit, and, with some of Jacques Karamanouklan's own works in a group exhibit in Swltzerland. I could end by saylng "Join The International Art Brut Conspiracy," but lnstead I leave you with Jacques' own statement about Grandpa Sam Mackey's artworks: "It is the purest gesture of a mature man who doesn't have anything to lose and who expresses himself in the most total freedom." You can see Sam Mackey's art through the month ofFeb. at Galerie Jacques, 665-9889.


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