Cruising the city, ruminating on the grid of life Uptown and downtown, he did not like what he saw. Too many crackhouses, burn-heads, broken glass littering the scarred streets over which he drove. "The pain and the shame behind all that gain," he says. "You're not gonna sell me some bad picture! I am not no local product carrying drugs. I came here deep."
Deep, meaning money in the bank.
Smith neutralized his vehicle at the corner of Patterson and LeBoeuf -- which happened to be two blocks from where he was born. To his left ran the levee of old Algiers and across the Mississippi lay the French Quarter. "I don't buy French Quarter," Smith huffed.
He turned his back on the levee and gazed at the yard behind the fence, fixating on totemic stick figures carved out of wood. Jesus on the cross. A snake. An old lady sitting at a piano. A brass band player with trumpet aloft. All that arrayed across the grass as if they had come down from the sky in parachutes that evaporated in Algiers.
Charles Gillam, the artist, was in his yard, carving. Smith knew he was being sized up as a potential customer, and that was fine -- because he was merely at a starting point. He had a vision of creating folk art zones in communities "following the double-nickel, that's I-55. You march from New Orleans, up the double-nickel through Mississippi, clean on to Chicago, putting art everywhere you can."
Gillam invited Smith into the big yard on the corner, hoping to sell him some art. Gillam's house at 207 LeBouef St. had a big side yard facing the levee and Patterson; a smaller back yard connected to a second, smaller house of four rooms that he used for work space.
"Where are all the brothers?" said Smith. "I come back here and all I see is blighted property."
"Well," said the 54-year-old Gillam. "The crackheads left."
The corner had been a dump spot for the street trade, but day by day, week by week, Gillam had nudged them away. The crackheads knew he was doing something serious with the dark faces painted on wood that he hung along his fence facing the street. Kids in the area were gravitating toward Gillam's compound, and the art man was sending his own signal to the burnheads, who finally moved on, somewhere, away.
"You remind me of what I'm doing," said Smith.
Gillam, who had been selling his work to local collectors and through out-of-state galleries, looked at the man with Illinois license tags and a gleam in the eye. "Man, this is deep!" said Smith. "You got to expand into outer perimeters. Fill the yard, fill the streets if necessary! That's what brings collectors and people that have a desire to learn the history."
The doctor launched into a monologue about his years of carving African-influenced sculpted figures back in Aurora, Ill. He had worked for the state of Illinois as a rehab counselor with Vietnam veterans. He lost the job, but eventually qualified for a disability pension because of his exposure to Agent Orange and post-traumatic stress in Vietnam.
That's when he heard the voice from God: "Use art. I give you a weapon."
The pension gave him enough to live on. Smith used his weapon in workaholic days and weeks and months and, by 1986, had created 800 figurative pieces and statues in the big yard of a small frame house. This became the African-American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archive in Aurora.
Deanna Isaacs described the site in a Chicago Reader article: "Captives on slave ships chained 18 inches apart, plantation slaves carrying their infants into the fields ... the leaders are there too: Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Michael Jordan. There's a memorial to Eric Morse, the five-year old thrown to his death from the 14th floor of [Chicago's] Ida B. Wells housing project, another to whites who helped with the Underground Railroad, and another to the blacks who died in Vietnam. Faces are unique and expressive, bodies dynamic, limbs an apt marriage of woody origins and human gesture. And every piece has its own story."
Drivers and pedestrians stopped to see the village that resembled, in Smith's words, "a cemetery where people are not in the ground, but standing up, holding their obituaries and ready to be seen by you and you and you."
As unique and otherworldly as it seemed to the town of Aurora, Smith's art-site was part of a spontaneous movement springing up in the 1990s across America. In Birmingham, Ala., a folk artist named Lonnie Bradley Holley created an environmental village using spent kitchen appliances, car parts, castoff furniture, farm tools, Christmas lights, and yellow police tape with the ironic logo: "Crime scene. Keep out." Simi Valley, Calif., has the famous Grandma Prisbrey's Preserve Bottle Village. In Chicago, an artist known as Mr. Magic has an installation similar to those of Dr. Smith. Reverend H.D. Dennis' Margaret Grocery Store on Highway 61 outside of Vicksburg is renowned among folk art savants.
Gillam processed Smith's information as if it were a package from the Holy Ghost. With two houses and two yards of his own, Gillam had been thinking along similar lines. "Doctor Smith was a blessing, just popped up out of the blue," says Gillam.
Smith stirred Gillam to take another look at his own house, on the front of which he soon painted a mural of a second line parade. You don't do something like that on your house unless you have something serious to advertise.
In the 1990s, Gillam's work drew interest from private collectors. Among those who have purchased his work are Essence Magazine editor Susan Taylor; Dr. Kurt Gitter, who with his wife, New Orleans Museum of Art curator Alice Rae Yelen, donated a large collection of folk art to the Louisiana State Museum as a permanent exhibition at Madame John's Legacy; Jazz Fest executive director Quint Davis; and JoAnn Clevenger, who has two dozen of Gillam's pieces in the collection at her restaurant, the Upperline.
"His passion for New Orleans and the cultural icons is very strong," says Clevenger. "Art is different for each viewer. But Charles can get the essence of a person or an icon and communicate that to a wide variety of people. Most of the objects we have in the restaurant are carved heads of musicians. They appeal to people from out of town who ask, 'Where can I get one of those?' -- and they don't know that these are replicas of New Orleans musicians. Whereas locals know that's Booker with the eyepatch."
Gillam traveled his own rocky road to a plateau of self-sustaining artist. Born outside Alexandria, he grew up in the lower Ninth Ward, one of eight children. As a kid, he sang gospel music and got in fights with his father, "a real womanizer," he recalls. He was drawn to the music of bluesman Robert Johnson, whose haunting voice and guitar lines reminded him of his father. The bluesman, rumored to have sold his soul to the devil to play timeless music, died of poison from a jealous man in a Delta juke joint. "My father didn't die that way, but he kind of lived that way," Gillam says. "Before he died we made up. I was the black sheep of the family."
As a teenager, Charles gravitated to portrait painters in the French Quarter. At home, he tore apart old space heaters and used a hammer to twist pieces into copper bracelets, which he sold on street corners. He says an influential figure in those years was a Dutchman on Dryades Street with the improbable name of Johnny Cash, who worked with plaster of Paris molds and showed him techniques of sculpting. Another shaping influence was the late Willie White, a self-taught painter on Dryades Street who put out a stream of works well into his 90s.
After a stretch in the army, Gillam jumped into the Black Panthers, got out, became a Rastafarian, got out, got married, got out, and finally in his 40s remarried and settled down to years of struggle. As his sales improved, he bought two small adjoining houses on LeBoeuf Street. He painted and made things out of wire, metal, grating and a myriad of found objects, including driftwood and cypress branches along the levee of the Mississippi. By his late 40s, Gillam was painting on driftwood and using wooden doors to create bas-reliefs with bright colors and themes of jazz, blues and street life. Several of these have sold for $3,000 apiece; however, like most self-taught or outsider artists, Gillam's small and medium-size works range from $75 to $1,000.
"When you work on something," Dr. Charles Smith told Charles Gillam, "you need to immortalize it. Termites can eat wood. But they can't eat concrete."
That made sense to Gillam, who had worked with plaster. Gillam began casting figures in concrete. The doctor had another prescription for his new-found partner in art. "Take this house," he said of Gillam's workshop, "and make something permanent."
As Gillam went to work, transforming the front half of his working space into a blues museum, Smith paid $42,000 for a house three doors down on LeBoeuf, a double shotgun that had lost half of the back roof to a fire. Today, the front of Smith's house has a concrete bas-relief memorializing Crispus Attucks, the first American killed in defense of the breakaway colonies at the Boston Massacre in 1770.
Gillam, meanwhile, bought the house behind his own, which meant that four of the contiguous five buildings on south side of LeBoeuf Street were part of Smith's vision for a folk art zone at Algiers Point.
Step into Charles Gillam's House of Bluesmen and ghosts line the walls, all these faces in concrete. Robert Johnson, the haunted man from the Delta. Professor Longhair. Roosevelt Sykes, with his trademark cigar clenched between his teeth. The piano prince James Booker, one eye in a patch. W. C. Handy, father of the blues. Smiley Lewis. Another bust features Gatemouth Brown. Another, the cosmic Ernie K-Doe.
Painted walking sticks lean in one corner, and into the second room we step. The faces of painted concrete -- Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, Nat King Cole, Scott Joplin, George Benson -- gaze pacifically as Gillam explains: "I'm from New Orleans, and all this music is inside me, so what I'm doing here is putting culture in a situation where people can come across the river and get the experience of folk art and music all at once."
Vintage covers of vinyl recordings hang from another wall and along the ceiling of the House of Bluesmen. The red floor has silver letters memorializing names like Bessie Smith, and there is a guitar made of Mardi Gras beads.
"He is a man on a mission, and he will not be stopped," says Smith. "You do not have Charles Gillam on the other side of the Mississippi because the vision and the line of glory, it's over here on Algiers Point. Don't sell me on some folk art zone across that river. The Mississippi is big, but it cannot divide us. You got a bridge, right? People drive over that bridge. You got a ferry five blocks from here, you hip to what I'm sayin'? Make the art. The people will come. Black people, white people, the young, the old."
Behind Dr. Smith lies an amalgam of economic pragmatism and the notion that people uplift themselves by discovering their history. In 1999, Smith and his museum were recognized by the Chicago Art Institute as a Millennium Site, a place of culture with historical significance. In 2001, the Kane County Board, where Aurora is located, provided $100,000 to help improve and maintain the folk art museum Charles Smith made.
In the 15 years after he created the Aurora site, Smith worked days into nights on "the equivalent of five tractor trailers stretched out down around what equals more than a city block to, like, a country road filled with the art I made. You understand what I'm saying, brother? This was my product. History. Culture. Who we black folks are, years of what I done. How much? I would not say 500 pieces. No, I can't say that. Six hundred? I can't say that. I'd say closer to 800."
The exact sum paid to Dr. Charles Smith from the Kohler Foundation, which is part of the Kohler Museum in Kohler, Wisc., has not been revealed. But the raison d'etre of the transaction was to provide pieces from his body of work to prominent museums around the country.
With the funds from that mega-sale, Smith began traveling, meeting others in the field, fusing himself into an emerging network of folk artists whose spontaneous site-formations have drawn the gaze of art collectors, museum curators and legions of ordinary people in those neighborhoods in Birmingham, Chicago, Simi Valley and elsewhere.
"I am talking about putting history like clay in the hands of young people!" declares Smith. "We need pictures to understand our history. Now you can put a picture on a wall, and people will look. But you put Crispus Attucks in concrete and people will stop. They will think about this brother who died for our freedom before he got free, and that is history. I am talking deep."
We are standing now inside of Smith's house at 231 LeBoeuf St., an outsized work-in-progress. Figures in plaster and concrete are crowded together in the front rooms like fans at a boxing match. There is barely room to walk. The doctor points to a mesh wall with a line of twelve faces.
"That will be the Last Supper."
We step into another room, sheened with dust on the replicas of human forms carved, cast and congregated at waist-high level. "Look at Michael Jackson," Smith says, gesturing to a figure with a reddish brown body and a white face, holding a mask. "Michael forgot he was black. The mask represents what happened when he sold his soul. He's got his face in his hand. Ain't that a shame?"
Across a wall hangs the shape of a fish set against a net. "The fish represents the slaves who died in the Middle Passage," continues Smith. "Some jumped overboard into the Atlantic Ocean. We don't forget them."
"And here is Ray Nagin," exults Smith, gesturing at a figure with hands in prayer. "Remember when the mayor asked the preachers to pray against crime? Folk art fights crime. We want the mayor and the preachers coming by here to see how we make history. We are making trails that tourists will follow. We are going deep. Preachers need to go deep. Nagin can take the city deep."
"Deep" is the doctor's elastic term for money, integrity, vision and revitalization. Underlying Smith's focus on historical figures and themes, and Charles Gillam's celebration of music and the city, is the groundwork for a folk art zone on the West Bank.
"You need a package for economic development," explains Smith, locking the door to his museum-in-embryo. Bright sunlight floods the yard. Gillam points to the yard behind the house, a riot of floribunda, and explains: "After we clear the yard we put in the sculpture garden."
"You run the sculpture garden one yard to another," adds Smith.
"We need a bed-and-breakfast in the middle," Gillam says. He rattles off the names of a politician and a prominent businessman who say they support these efforts.
"OK," says Smith, a hardened realist. "Now cash that."
Smith and Gillam estimate they have invested $90,000 in purchase and improvements to the properties. That does not include the thousands of man-hours in sweat equity. The result is a zone of calm on a street that, just a few blocks down, shows the ravages of neglect.
Smith, meanwhile, has also purchased a house in Hammond where he has plans for an installation that will be the next point north from New Orleans. From there, folk art devotees will someday head north on the double-nickel to installations on up to Chicago.
As children wander along the sidewalk, gazing into Gillam's yard and trooping into the House of Bluesmen, Smith says: "I wrote to Morial when he was mayor and he wrote back, thank you very much. But he did not go deep. You look at a city on the edge, hanging between shame and gain, and there is only choice: you got to go deep. We are at Algiers Point and it's time to go deep."