By Jim Linderman
The first post I wrote for DULL TOOL DIM BULB was about a piece of furniture I obtained from Howard Campbell. Howard Campbell was one of the most interesting men I ever knew, and I barely scratched his surface. This month a new book about Howard and his paintings done under the pseudonym Woodrow Hill is published, and a retrospective of his work is mounted at the Art Cellar Gallery in Banner Elk, North Carolina. Both are fantastic.
It is hard to describe Howard Campbell, as those fortunate enough to have known him will readily agree. He had a shock of white hair higher than a mountain. Bare feet and Bib Overalls. (Howard didn’t go many formal places, if he could avoid it) He didn’t go to many places he couldn’t be barefoot either… including his back yard covered in snow, which I myself saw him do several times without a grimace. Howard Campbell usually had a goal in mind, and he would speed towards it without thinking much about his feet. His feet were tools to achieve a goal.
Howard was a painter and folk art collector in the mountains of North Carolina. A good one of both. His house, precariously placed atop a mountain, was for him a refuge. For me it was a museum with a great docent. I am not sure if the house is occupied now, but I hope so. We have allowed an increasingly facile world to be built around us. Howard’s house was way up there, but real.
I am also not sure if Reader’s Digest is still around, but they used to have a series called “Most Unforgettable Character” or something like that. It was a form of participatory journalism with a prize. The local barber who found a baby on his doorstep and raised him as his own (despite having no wife) and the little fellow grew up to be a doctor who treated sick children even if their family had no money to pay for care. Unforgettable persons were flawless role models who earned the amateur writer a trip to the mailbox every day for months hoping for a check from Mr. Luce and his publishing empire. I don’t have to say Howard was an unforgettable character.
When Howard was a young boy in Oklahoma, he visited a wonderland of small woodcarvings created by Earl Eyman of Oklahoma. Eyman carved hundreds of tiny figures. His house was a tableau of miniature circus figures, baseball games, marching bands and more. Each figure intricately whittled and and painted by Mr. Eyman. Having only an eighth grade education, Earl didn’t read in his spare time. Instead he created an entire town with a thousand inhabitants and charged a dime to see it. It certainly impressed young Howard.
The Eyman environment was dispersed, and over the years I would find them at antique shows and such, love them for a while, and then trade them to Howard. He loved them even more than I. For me, an Earl Eyman carving was as good as cold cash at the Howard Campbell mountain museum, and I squeezed a few things out of it by dangling the figures in Howard’s face over the years. I got good at picking them out, and I did it for Howard. No small feat, as the figures were only several inches tall and their provenance was lost, having been removed from their home and eventually tossed into boxes with more important things. One I found is here. A sweet little carving of a woman holding a flag. Howard got that one too. While he would trade me good things for them, I collected them for admission to Howard’s place.
When I met Howard for the first time, we shared another interest. I had just quit drinking, and he was trying to. I told Howard, who would mask his vodka in bottles of Mountain Dew soda, that I would always be there to help him if he wanted to chat. I succeeded in quitting and have been sober a long, long time. Howard didn’t. I don’t think that is a secret either of us kept to ourselves really, so I can share it here. It was appropriate a decade or so after I met Howard, that many of the 22 boxes holding his collection of books on Southern folk art were sold out of cartoons which once held vodka and whiskey bottles. I don’t know if it killed him, but it couldn’t have helped. My offer to help keep him sober may have ultimately allowed me to purchase the piece of furniture I mentioned. It was one of Howard’s favorites too, and he had a standing offer from me to purchase it whenever he was ready to sell it. For YEARS. And every time I visited and saw it there, the offer went up a bit, but he would wave me off. To this day, although I never asked him, I believe he allowed it me to finally purchase it out of his own regret for failing to conquer the bottle. After five years of my offers, he had two requirements. One was the price, which was fair, and the other was that I never sell it. People say that all the time but he meant it. I won’t ever sell it, and I have already moved it 800 miles twice.
The piece is handmade of southern yellow pine with an attempted decorative scroll and the original mirror. It dates to the late 1800s and was likely made by an African-American man and former slave who ended up in Tennessee. Which is where Howard found it, and he told me so. There is a name in pencil on the inside I have never even tried to research. I don’t need to. Art dealer’s frequently lie. Pickers usually do not. Howard was flawed but particularly honest and he was a picker.
There is not much space between tribute and rumination. Howard is on my mind every time I glance at a cupboard next to me in the room I use for ruminating.
Howard and a good friend once dismantled and carried an entire house up his mountain. Which brings us to another of Howard’s eccentric heroes, Cedar Creek Charlie, who painted his entire home like a demented American Flag. Dots and dashes in red, white and blue, surrounded by wind toys and primitive patriotic detritus. Charlie Field’s house became famous in 1975 when it appeared on the cover of a book. As it began to crumble, the pair of rural preservationists pulled it down and reconstructed huge portions of it in Howard’s bedroom in 1990, when yet another book included Charlie’s house but mistakenly said the front door was in the Smithsonian, Howard took out an ad in a national magazine to say no, the door is not in a museum. It is in my bedroom and I will thank you to be accurate, for he was, as I said, particular.
Howard Campbell was a brilliant, learned man. Neither is an exaggeration. A auctioneer north of Atlanta who sold a chunk of Howard’s collection (while he was still living) asked him to write his autobiography for the auction catalog. A portion follows:
“I was always a collector. As a small child on our chicken farm in N.W. Arkansas, I dragged a horse skeleton out of the woods and tried to re-assemble it. The time was WWII. Mom and Dad were getting white rocks from hatchlings to broilers in seven weeks. I was dragging stuff out of the woods. I was an only; a self-absorbed/contained little kid. The parents (God keep them!) would ask me what I wanted for Christmas, birthday, whatever, and I would answer, “A little brother!” Because they had different rhesus factors it was 1947 before advancing medical technology gave it a chance. My little brother was born on Valentine’s Day in 1948. He and my sister-in-law don’t want any of this stuff! Being of sound mind and judgment, but realizing that a tree could fall on my head tomorrow…
But enough about me. Amy and Steve asked me to write some kind of bio-sketch that would emphasize my philosophy of collecting.
Philosophy, Schmilosophy! If it made me laugh, or chuckle, or snort, and it wasn’t too expensive, I dragged it home, where it was immediately lost amid the other junk… If it should affect others likewise, please bid and keep bidding! My poor widowed mother needs new shoes. That last sentence was a lie… My mother went to Heaven over five years ago. Like me, she hated shoes. Imelda Marcos she wasn’t.
Mom came close to being a Zen Master. She begged her children, grandchildren, etc. NOT to buy her ANYTHING for Christmas, birthday, whatever. And she meant it! I understand more and more what she was saying. Who wants to spend his last years dusting the bust of the deceased Duke?
It’s simply the thrill of the chase, or of the find, gentle readers. The money’s worth less (one Euro = $1.30) as I write. So keep bidding…
An English gentleman (Thomas Rowlandson – borrowed from Hippocrates) wrote “Life is short, but art is long…” *Remember that and keep your paddles in the air. Your kids don’t need expensive Nikes, Converses, etc. either. They’re better off barefooted. Watching out for broken glass or dog doo will serve to sharpen their perceptions. Believe me, I know.”
Howard talked like that too. He was funny. He could paint too, but he never bragged on it. Every time I visited Howard, he had a canvas in progress. I wanted one of his paintings too, but he never delivered. It was a different part of him, and one he did not really share with me, though I hinted over the years I’d love one. I never took the time to find out how many he painted. It turns out quite a few, and for years.
I am thrilled to know an exhibition of Mr. Campbell’s paintings is to be on exhibit starting August 27 at the Art Cellar Gallery in Banner Elk, North Carolina in conjunction with what looks to be a fascinating and remarkable biography written by his brother, Howard Campbell and the art of Woodrow Hill. There is a free preview of the book HERE. I eagerly await both. In a perfect example of consistency, Howard’s meticulous paintings mirror both his interest in the authentic material culture of his world and his love of quirky things. I have purchased a copy of the book, as I am a collector and collectors spend money if they have any. Howard told me that once. I happen to have just the amount needed, and while it is pricey my only regret is that he can’t sign it. It would give me an excuse to see him. That the show is in Banner Elk is appropriate, as once in a while, Howard would truck down some smalls and put them in an antique booth there.
He served in the Navy. His bathtub was hand built of stones from the mountain below his house, and he listened to the radio, bluegrass usually, from a space taller than the towers which broadcast it.
The Art Cellar Gallery, which is exhibiting the paintings of Woodrow Hill August 27 to September 27, 2014 is HERE. A book of drawings done in 1974 titled Campell the Barbarian published in conjunction with Howard Campbell and the art of Woodrow Hill is HERE. Howard Campell and the art of Woodrow Hill is available HERE.
Jim Linderman is a Grammy-nominated collector, popular culture historian and author. His network of blogs is approaching 4 million page views, and his VINTAGE SLEAZE BLOG which tells a true story from the golden age of smut every day has over 500,000 Facebook followers. For several years he has been working on TIMES SQUARE SMUT which will tell the story of several long forgotten writers, illustrators and mob-connected publishers from the 1950s who ultimately influenced contemporary culture.