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Losing Our Imagination

A beloved artist heads for greener pastures.



In the front room of Mr. Imagin-ation's supremely cluttered second-floor Wrigleyville apartment, piles of flea market bric-a-brac and stacks of newspapers and half-filled packing boxes fight for space with a dozen or so wooden sculptures. Mostly about three feet high, they're similar to the works Mr. I has been exhibiting since the early 1980s: totemic human figures festooned with bottle caps, painted plaster, discarded paintbrushes, and other scavenged materials. Their dark-skinned faces are bearded and bright eyed, making them look like a procession of African princes.

"These are pieces that nobody's ever seen," says the artist, whose real name is Gregory Warmack. "Not only that, but these are the last pieces that are being made here." They'll be on display at Carl Hammer Gallery from February 15 until March 16. But Mr. I's not sticking around that long. After the opening, he's leaving town.

He's not retiring; he's resettling in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. "I'm still gonna be with Carl, but I need to branch out and show my work--New York, Pittsburgh," he says. "There's so much going on in Bethlehem right now, people have no clue." Warmack will be affiliated with the Banana Factory, a former produce warehouse turned community arts and cultural center in south Bethlehem, near Lehigh University.

"Chicago is known to lose its best artists," says Hammer, who's represented Warmack for nearly 20 years. "It's not an uncommon thing. Even though he became a legend, very social, popular, and visible, I'm not sure he felt he arrived at a certain point he wanted to here. I think that's part of it."

He wonders whether Warmack will be able to sell as much art living in Bethlehem. But, he says, "he's been living in less than a satisfactory situation, and I realize he has a better deal there. I wish him the best."

In the years he's maintained his self-styled salon on Clark Street, Warmack has graciously received hundreds of artists, collectors, curiosity seekers, and students, most of whom leave with a memento--a small sandstone sculpture, a painted wooden eye, a beaded necklace. "I always pass out gifts," he says. "It's important to share."

"It'll be strange when he leaves the scene," says Rachid Moussouni, a printmaker who's been dropping by Warmack's apartment for a decade. For the past two years Warmack has helped Moussouni organize "The Teepee Show," an outdoor exhibit of artist-made teepees that's part of Around the Coyote. In return Moussouni has chauffeured Warmack, who doesn't drive, to Bethlehem. "It's going to be different, for me at least. He has a unique energy. He's the only artist I know personally in Chicago who lives off his art, which I think is a big accomplishment."

Concrete sculptor Phil Schuster has worked with Warmack on outdoor installations in Chicago and Milwaukee--Warmack calls him the "best artist in Chicago nobody knows about." Charmed by Warmack's "divinity and sincerity," Schuster has brought students to Mr. I's place on field trips. "He encourages everyone to find their artistic niche," says Schuster. "There's a little bit of Mr. Imagination in me."

"I think it sucks," says K.C. Welch, a collage artist who met Warmack four years ago during a show at Uncle Fun on Belmont. "He's had a huge influence on me--he's such an open, friendly guy. He's an institution in the art world, and everybody knows him. I never ever thought he'd leave, ever."

In recent years plenty of artists--mostly from New York and Philadelphia, both less than an hour and a half away--have been moving to Bethlehem to escape high rents and other big-city problems. "I just fell in love with it," says Warmack. "You can still see the stars, the birds. It's half an hour from the Poconos. And I can walk right across this old bridge [to a park] and sit underneath this bridge, just sit and listen to the sound of water. And you can see ducks." Warmack has already rented a "very wonderful place, a ten-room house for $685 a month," which is less than what he's been paying for his deteriorating five-room apartment at Clark and Roscoe. It has a backyard where he can exercise his two dogs, grow vegetables, and build sculptures.

The Banana Factory, which opened in late 1997, provides studios for two dozen artists, stages exhibits in its gallery, sponsors artist-in-residence programs, and works with local schools and nonprofit agencies. "The whole area is being lifted up," says Warmack. "The Banana Factory is so organized. They sit down, they have meetings, they have disagreements, they talk about it. They go over to each other's homes. Every first Friday they have a wonderful art opening. They have all these artists that come from all over the world to do workshops. I'm going to be working with the community, with the Banana Factory, with Lehigh University."

"The artists love having him here," says Diane LaBelle, director of the Banana Factory. "He brings a certain magic to art that nobody's ever thought about before. Everybody knows when he comes back to Bethlehem now. They say, 'Oh, Mr. I is home.' It's amazing."

This isn't Warmack's first turning point. In the summer of 1978, at the age of 30, he was shot by robbers near 63rd and May, a few blocks from his apartment. He arrived at Saint Bernard Hospital in critical condition and fell into a six-week coma. One bullet was removed, but another is still lodged close to his spine. A story persists that the comatose Warmack had a vision of his previous lives--as several African kings, including an Egyptian pharaoh--and that when he regained consciousness he started making art, incorporating images from those lives. Warmack says he did have such a vision, but it was before the shooting. And he'd been collecting things and making art from an early age.

The third of nine kids born on the west side to a devout Baptist mother, Warmack can't remember his father, who died a few years before the family moved to the south side in the early 60s. His mother led a gospel group with her children, the Warmack Singers, that performed at neighborhood churches in the late 1950s. Gregory suffered seizures as a child--perhaps because he was born prematurely--which forced him to leave Englewood High School in his early teens. In the late 60s and 70s he worked a variety of jobs while peddling his handmade jewelry and crafts at art fairs and in bars and restaurants. He was leaving a tavern when he got shot. After learning to walk and write again, he decided to become a "minister and a messenger" of art.

Around 1980 he came across a load of industrial sandstone, a by-product of steel production, that had been dumped in a vacant lot. He began sculpting the easily carved chunks into faces and other images; someone saw them and gave him the name Mr. Imagination. His activities captured the attention of neighborhood kids, and he started teaching them how to carve too.

It was another tragedy--a fire at his apartment near 58th and Union in 1982--that put him in touch with the Chicago art scene. At the urging of an antiques dealer he knew on the north side, he contacted Hammer, who was drawn to the charred salvaged sandstone heads. Hammer gave Mr. I his first show a year later. "Greg's work really epitomizes the urban aesthetic--the production of art from thrown-away materials," Hammer says. "Mr. I is an artist who could intuitively take that stuff and give it beauty and meaning."

In the late 80s he began using bottle caps to decorate masks, staffs, clothes, and furniture, and later he started making totems and figures out of things like paintbrushes, broomsticks, and Ping-Pong paddles. These days his work forms part of countless private and public collections, including those of the Smithsonian Institution and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.

A 1994 exhibit at the Terra Museum, "Reclamation and Transformation: Three Self-Taught Chicago Artists," launched another facet of Warmack's career: large-scale public commissions. The following year he and the show's other two exhibitors, David Philpot and Kevin Orth, along with several other artists, worked with kids to transform a vacant lot adjacent to the Elliott Donnelley Youth Center at 39th and Michigan into a community art park. Warmack's contribution, Meditation Grotto, was a concrete shrine embedded with stones, fossils, and other cast-off articles. Since then he's created installations at House of Blues clubs in Chicago, Las Vegas, and Orlando, at Walt Disney World, and in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympic Games. "It's too bad I never got a chance to build something in downtown Chicago," he says.

Chicago dealer Judy Saslow, who helped organize the 1998-'99 exhibit "Art Outsider et Folk Art des Collections de Chicago" in Paris, brought Warmack, whose works appeared in the show, overseas with her. "It opened doors for him," she says. "He's been invited back to do shows around the world."

Even as Warmack's profile has risen, he's continued to help children find the artists within themselves, leading dozens of workshops a year at schools, community centers, and other venues throughout the U.S. and as far away as Africa. Commissions and residencies have increasingly kept him away from home for long periods of time. As he points out, he's been to the Lehigh valley more than anyplace else.

It was Norman Girardot, a professor of religion studies at Lehigh University who teaches a class in outsider art, who first brought Warmack to Bethlehem. He met the artist in the early 90s during an Folk Art Society of America convention in Chicago, and in 1998 he invited Warmack, outsider visionary Howard Finster (who died last October), and Orth to "ritually baptize" the university's Zoellner Arts Center. Warmack kept coming back. In the spring of 2000 he worked with Girardot's students and local residents to build Millennial Folk Arch, a concrete structure decorated with recycled debris, in a sculpture garden there. That fall and winter Warmack did residencies at the Banana Factory and the university, culminating in an exhibit at the Zoellner curated by Girardot that also featured the work of outsiders Lonnie Holley, Charlie Lucas, and Norbert Kox.

"That's when the community fell in love with Mr. I," says Girardot. "I think it was in the fall [of 2000] that he finally made up his mind to live and work here with the community and college students." Girardot doesn't think he's exaggerating when he says, "It's a pivotal moment in the outsider art world. There was the death of Howard Finster, and now Mr. I moving to the east. I think we all have to step back and go, 'What does this mean?'"

Given the glut of art--his own and other people's--and detritus he's amassed over 17 years at Clark and Roscoe, relocating has posed a logistical challenge; Warmack has moved several truckloads since November and has put a lot of stuff in storage. But he can cite a litany of reasons why it was time for a change. He feels he's outgrown his train-rattled building, which hasn't been maintained very well despite the rising rent. He was starting to worry about crime. "Last year somebody had kicked in my door and they stole my bike. Where I'm moving to, there's no crime." And in 1998 his younger brother William, an artist who made objects out of braided gum wrappers and cigarette packs, was killed when a window came down on his neck as he was trying to crawl into Mr. I's apartment. Warmack believes his brother's spirit still haunts the place. "I really don't know if people believe in spirits, but spirits are real," he says. "We were very close. Of course, he was in trouble, but once he had got out of jail, he kind of stayed with me for years. I was taking care of him. He was in the Vietnam war, and it really messed him up."

Most of all, Warmack didn't want to be subject to the whims of the Chicago rental market anymore. "Artists are being forced out all the time," he says. "What if I was to move all this stuff someplace else and then the rent would go up and it forced me out of there? No, it's not gonna happen. I said to myself, I refuse to move to an area where I'm gonna have to move out."

Not that he'll be settling down right away. In coming months he'll be doing projects in Houston and Detroit. He has a show up now in Queens and another planned for fall at the Society for Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh. "He's always had a wanderlust," says Hammer, who speculates that the artist might end up in New York. "I've got a feeling that Bethlehem is a stepping-stone."

But Warmack's got other ideas. "I have been a serious collector for many years," he says. "I got lots of rocking horses, I collect dolls, I got religious pieces from 18-something--I mean many, many things, things from all over the world. My plan is to open a museum....I just want to have a section where it's my earlier work, lots of my older sandstone pieces, and then all the work I have collected from the many artists I have met over the years.

"And then my plan later is to buy myself a nice house with some property and turn it into an artists' retreat. It'd be right near the mountains, not far from New York....I know it's gonna be very nice. I've spoken to some of my artist friends, and they say they want to come and check it out."

He'd also like to find a small space to hold on to in his hometown. His friend Judy Saslow hopes that happens. "If those of us in Chicago can help find him a spot to perch for little or no rent, then we will. It's up to us to pick up that ball and do something with it."

Says Warmack, "I'm gonna look around later this summer, maybe on South Halsted, or maybe somebody might have something that's better. But it would have to be a place where I know I'm not gonna get kicked out. Not only could I turn it into my studio, but I would make the outside nice--I could make a nice outdoor grotto. And then as the years go on it would become a place, once again, for artists to gather."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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