By Brent Martin
I went down to the water but he left me in the mud; I wanted me some wine but he turned it into blood.
— from the Dean Williams painting, “Jesus gave me the blues”.
A little over two years ago, I began spending a significant amount of time in a drab and windowless little downtown Andrews storefront known only to its occupant and a handful of others as Static King Studio. The studio belonged to the late musical wizard Mark Linkous, aka Sparklehorse, who was producing my wife’s album, and though it contained world-class recording equipment, it had no bathroom. When I asked where he normally relieved himself, he pointed out the door and down the street to Dean’s Records and Outsider Art, and said “Just tell Dean you’re over here with me, and that you need to use his bathroom. You probably won’t be back for a while though; you’ll dig his art.”
That simple trip to the bathroom established a relationship for me with a self-taught painter who is producing some of the most interesting folk art west of Asheville.
Dean’s store is large, with high wooden walls and paintings hung salon style floor to ceiling. Vinyl records and CDs are arranged in perfectly organized rows down the main length of the floor, and bookshelves filled with used books make up the contents of one corner. The entrance is boldly colored with brightly lit windows filled with kitsch and other interesting objets d’arte. One’s first impression from the outside is this: something different is going on in here. It’s an unlikely find in this remote western corner of the state and well worth the trip.
Mark was right about my slow return, and I found myself spending more than an hour on that first bathroom excursion, lost in Dean’s diverse and expressive cast of phantasmagoric characters, painted upon old wood and beadboard which he finds and glues together in panels. With subject matter ranging across blues music, religion, fried chicken, cheap beer, and other things local, there seems to be something for everybody interested in the Southern folk art genre.
When asked about his influences — like most folk artists — he cites sources other than what fine artists traditionally call forth. “Most of the art that has made an impact on me came from sources other than the world of fine art. Album cover art, beer bottle labels, and matchbook ads were always fascinating,” he explains to me one late Friday afternoon over libations, after the store has closed and the Andrews Main Street has been rolled up for the evening. “As I became more obsessed with blues music, the subject matter of the black culture of the South set off a spark of creativity that had been planted by years of the heaven and hell religious dogma that had directed much of my childhood. Whether there was actually a God and a devil, or simply a struggle within each human being, blues music seemed to be a testament of this battle. I realized that art and music both possessed the same power to exorcise these forces.”
This answer is one I can relate to, and one that explains much of my own interest in folk art. When the rock band The Talking Heads released their hit album Little Creatures in 1985, I spent as much time studying the cover art as I did listening to the music. I was living in Georgia at the time, and when I learned that the artist whose painting adorned the cover, Howard Finster, was only an hour away, I soon began to make pilgrimages to explore his sprawling artscape known as Paradise Gardens in Summerville, Ga.
That was my first introduction to the genre known as folk art, which can be defined generally as art produced without formal training, often accomplished in isolation and reflecting the customs and traditions of a particular community, and free from the competitive world of academics and social promotion.
Finster’s work is emblematic of this form of creative expression, and to wander among his towers made of old bicycles, eccentric outbuildings constructed of Mason jars, coke bottles, and junk, along with his prolific collection of scripture laden paintings of Elvis and other pop culture icons confirms this widely held opinion.
Dean is of course familiar with Finster, as well as other great folk artists in our region, and it is perhaps no accident that his birth in Johnson City, Tenn., in 1962 was not far from the Museum of Appalachia, home to one of most representative collections of primitive folk art in the South. He drew all of the time as a child, and when his family moved to Andrews in 1968 he was sick a lot, which increased the amount of time he spent with this early passion, most of it drawing with simple felt tip markers.
“I never sought out art and lived in a household where neither art nor music were important. All of my work was inspired by imagination and was a way to escape the meaningless world around me. I drew in school and gradually declined academically. I quit school in the tenth grade in the middle of a math test. Music became an obsession by the time I was 16,” he tells me, taking another pull from the sweaty Budweiser and waving his hand towards his large vinyl collection. “My first records were Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and Pink Floyd. Most of my art from this time period was music inspired. I eventually became more connected to the American blues that had inspired these musicians.”
He began drawing more during the 1990s and reinvented a style that worked well with acrylic and wood in 2004. The last six years have been his most prolific, being divided between drawing and painting. Opening a music, book and art store in 2002 allowed him more time to manipulate his work schedule and market his work.
As the first of our many evenings together came to a close, I asked him about his current inspiration for art, as one can definitely see an evolution of style and subject matter over time. Dean, with his characteristic forthcoming style, explains: “Most of the subject matter of my work blurs the lines of fiction and non-fiction pretty evenly, probably having more to do with truth than fact. Much of the subject matter is music inspired, but much has been drawn from imagination and dreams. Many of the symbols that reappear in my work may be drawn from symbolism, but the lines that divide them are so muddy that they should not be overanalyzed. I don’t like explaining my own work and always find a way to avoid it.”
His daughter Christa and son-in-law Israel suddenly appear from the upstairs loft apartment that they live in, directly above the store. I say hello, and remember the hour-long drive home, up the Needmore Road and through the gorgeous desolation that inspires my own creative life, and realize I need to be going. As Christa and Israel leave the store, he tells me one last thing: “I draw a lot of inspiration from my wife and four children and the unique creativity of each member of my family. Most of my work is done with my family around. This seems more natural than working in solitude. I’m also inspired by surrounding myself with creative people. I’ve grown to hate the educational system in this country, which minimizes the importance of the arts and continually promotes competition and class structures. All of us draw as children, and most of us abandon creativity due to the guilt-ridden social forces at work in the hands of this country’s educators.”
This is plenty of food for thought on the long drive home.