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Sweet Inspiration

Paul Belker sees the beauty--or at least the humor--in art that few could love.

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On a wall opposite the front door in Paul Belker's north-side home hangs a painting of a girl sliding backward down a banister. But maybe sliding isn't quite right. "Impaled, sliding, you tell me," Belker says.

Clearly the painting is the work of an amateur: the perspective is skewed, mistakes are sloppily covered over. But that's beside the point to the 39-year-old Belker, who bought it at the Ark thrift store on Lincoln Avenue for $10. What matters to him, more than an artist's skill, is whether a painting is interesting to look at. What grabs him--what he has a genuine affection for--is "weird subject matter." He considers it a good thing if while viewing a painting he's compelled to wonder why someone ever would have created it.

That's something a visitor touring Belker's house may repeatedly wonder. Among the works on proud display are paintings of a naked pregnant woman floating on her back through a magenta sky, a multicultural troika of children riding a porpoise, and cavemen feasting on a bloody boar. "My wife is very tolerant," says Belker, who owns 187 works that have been rescued--most for under $25--from flea markets, garage sales, and secondhand shops. An accountant and computer network administrator for a local CPA firm, Belker also peddles antiques on eBay, though he's never sold any of his paintings. "Nobody would offer me enough money to part with them," he explains.

A self-described pack rat, Belker grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, collecting at various times bumper stickers, buttons, and beer cans. As a teenager he frequented thrift stores, often gravitating toward the knickknack section. In the late 80s, after graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in psychology, Belker moved to Chicago, lured--"more than I would care to admit"--by the quantity and quality of the thrift stores.

He already owned about ten paintings other people had seen fit to discard when his passion for collecting was ignited by a 1992 exhibit of thrift-store art at the now defunct World Tattoo Gallery. Impressed by the quality and variety of the work in the show and believing that more masterpieces were out there just waiting to be stumbled upon, "I immediately got very focused," he says. He began rummaging more often and started holding "art acquisition parties," at which the price of admission was a piece of thrift-store art and prizes were doled out for the top three finds. On a recent invitation he asked friends to join him "for an evening of good food, good drink, good company, and bad art."

When Belker ran out of wall space he began storing his paintings in his basement. Initially he thought he'd rotate them, but now he prefers to keep his favorite 20 or so on permanent display. His entire collection, however, can be seen on his Web site, thriftstoreart.com, which he started six years ago so he could "share them with the world."

In doing so he tapped into a community of like-minded aficionados all too ready to discuss the merits of his paintings and consider such perplexing questions as whether that's a brain or an atomic explosion the artist intended to depict. A painting of a turtle crossing a road as a car approaches from the distance sparked an impassioned back-channel debate about the fate of the turtle. One couple E-mailed him asking permission to reproduce his painting of a bride and groom on their wedding invitation.

The feedback isn't all good. "I get a lot of people saying 'Oh, this image is modeled after a Winslow Homer painting' or 'This is from a Delacroix painting.'" That usually diminishes his enthusiasm for the piece. "I really appreciate an artist who stretches out and tries to create something new and different that no one else has painted before," he says.

While the provenance of most of his art remains a mystery, Belker recently heard from the relatives of a Skokie artist named Harry Duberchin. Duberchin, who died in the late 90s at the age of 84, made his living as a typesetter and sold his artwork at garage sales. His 1986 painting of an explorer in a coonskin cap and boots found its way into Belker's collection several years ago.

"Clearly the guy had no idea what he was doing," says Belker, who likes the painting well enough to hang it on the wall. But his comments about it on thriftstoreart.com apparently struck a nerve. "I don't know if I described it as 'bad art' or said why in the world did somebody paint this," but he received an E-mail from one of Duberchin's nephews in his uncle's defense, saying the artist had come from a family of "poor immigrants" and "could not afford to develop his talents." Other Duberchin relatives got in touch as well. One even sent him a couple pieces of art made by Harry's brother Jack: a Lucite pen holder carved with a floral design and a "pretty boring" still life of flowers that's never made it out of Belker's basement.

In recent years he has found it more difficult to find paintings worth including in his collection. He blames the dearth of good bad art on competition inspired in part by the "shabby chic" movement in interior design. "Distressed chairs and old portraits with character are part of that," he says. But he has the general sense that "a lot more people are into the offbeat" than used to be. "There's a larger alternative--for lack of a better word--culture now. And it's cheap. If you can find a great painting for ten dollars, why go to Around the Coyote?"

Because pickings are slim and he can't visit every thrift store in the country, Belker encourages "budding philanthropists" to donate paintings--either electronically, if they don't want to let go of their finds, or by sending the actual painting, which of course he prefers. But there's no guarantee he'll accept the donations. "I'm really picky," he says. "Really, really picky."

While he typically likes "anything old or weird"--and it helps if a piece is signed and dated--he tends to steer clear of paintings that have been sold on the commercial market or that look as though they were done by students, who are "forced to create," or by people who are aware of "how they fit into the art world" and are attempting to capitalize on a trend.

"A lot of people now have jumped on the outsider-art bandwagon," Belker says, "and they'll paint, like, Captain Crunch on top of the World Trade Center and try to sell it on eBay for 100 bucks. I prefer the stuff that someone who's unaware creates. It's the untrained and the unspoiled artist that I appreciate. It sounds really pretentious, but it's just somebody who feels compelled to create just because."

Last year someone made a virtual donation of an airbrushed painting called Pebbles and Friend, depicting the Flintstones character and a similarly dressed playmate with a photorealistic face. Belker thought the work was atrocious, and he rejected it. Offended, the donor accused him of "reverse snobbery" and insinuated that Belker had been reading the "poison" in the New York Times art section. After the donor implored him to let the public decide if Pebbles and Friend fit his collection, Belker posted it on his Web site and solicited votes for or against. So far 64 people have registered their opinions; the nos have a two-vote lead. Belker says he plans to close the poll when one side reaches 100 votes. "But that may change," he says. "I love hearing people's thoughts on the piece."

The vote has generated discussions about the subjectivity of taste and the distinction between high and low art--categories that, as Belker points out, can be fluid and don't necessarily hinge on an artist's skill. "Go back 40 years and a lot of people didn't define Pollock as great." Of the artist's famous paint-splashed canvases, he says, "Clearly that's crappy painting."

Beyond a fondness for the old and weird, Belker admits that his aesthetic is hard to define. And sometimes when he tries, he sounds like Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart discussing pornography: "When you see it you know it."

He knew instantly that the girl on the banister was a keeper. Though he bought it a year or two before he set up his Web site, he was still high from the score when he posted it for the world to see, writing, "This is the shit, man...the bees' knees...pure, raw, unadulterated, creative genius. Life is GOOD, baby!"

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

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