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The Made-Up Life and Real Death of Clyde Angel

The identity of a popular but mysterious outsider artist is revealed. Or so it seems.


[Read Jeff Huebner's 2000 story, Has Anyone Seen Clyde Angel?]

The artist known as Clyde Angel had been dead for about two years when Barry Marcus found out about it last fall, through the Judy Saslow Gallery in Chicago. A folk-art enthusiast who had only recently discovered the internationally exhibited outsider artist and Iowa "highway wanderer" but quickly became obsessed with him, Marcus was stunned by the news. It was a moment, he told me in January, "where your conventional frame of reference is gone, and you get a sense of this crack in reality, this gap."

Since then Marcus has come as close as anyone to solving the mysteries surrounding the allegedly homeless and mentally ill Angel—mysteries that only start with the question of whether a man by that name actually existed at all. It was a cold call from him that reignited my interest in the Clyde Angel saga, which I first reported on for the Reader nine years ago.

A 62-year-old Chicago native who describes himself as an arts-and-healing consultant and creativity coach, Marcus worked at facilities for emotionally disturbed adolescents in California before moving to Starkville, Mississippi, early last summer. (His wife is deputy commander of the 14th Medical Group, stationed at the nearby Columbus Air Force Base.) As a practicing Buddhist, he'd long been interested in what he calls "natural states of mind" and the "primal authenticity of artistic expression" and collects Native American and primitive art. In Mississippi he's started exploring "southern vernacular culture," getting to know local folk and self-taught artists and buying their work.

In November 2008, online research led Marcus to a Connecticut gallery that specializes in outsider artists—people whose idiosyncratic work betrays little or no influence from the mainstream art world. He liked what he saw and called the dealer, Beverly Kaye. They got to talking, Marcus says, about "this fascination with the freedom of the artist, with the artist as a free spirit," and Kaye asked him if he'd heard about Clyde Angel. He hadn't. "So she tells me the story . . . "

The story she told him had initially seen print as part of an article about Iowa City folklorist and folk-art dealer Sherry Pardee that appeared in the summer 1994 issue of The Iowan magazine. But it was elaborated on at length in the winter 1995 issue of In'tuit (now The Outsider), an in-house publication of the Chicago-based nonprofit Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. Written by Edward Husar—a moonlighting staff reporter for the Quincy Herald-Whig, hired by Pardee for the job—the 2,000-word feature, "Clyde Angel: After All This Time Still Free," has Pardee describing how the formerly institutionalized artist developed a trusting relationship with an unnamed welder in an unnamed small town over a period of months. According to the story, Angel lived alone in a forest but would show up at the welder's workshop with a sack full of metal scraps, tin cans, bottle caps, and other rusted objects. He'd use the welder's equipment to fashion the junk into wall sculptures—images of people and animals, often decorated with torch-cut poetic writing and mystical symbols. The welder contacted Pardee, who visited the studio and was amazed by what she called Angel's "wonderfully pure" work.

Although it's not stated outright in the In'tuit story, Pardee never met Angel. He communicated with her either through the "welder"—later revealed to be Vernon "Skip" Willits Jr., an Iowa firefighter and metal sculptor—or in shakily written letters on paper scraps and torn grocery sacks, often including childlike drawings. One note, reproduced in the article, read, "If I am seen, the magic will leave. If I am seen, people will want more than I am. Gets in the way of the art. The artist would die . . . From before too many things bad and I won't let them happen again. You don't need to see me to know exactly what's inside of me. Hear this and know it. My art will go out there. I am my art."

As Pardee told In'tuit, collectors in New York, Chicago, and Atlanta "were immediately intrigued and hooked."

Pardee didn't return calls for my 2000 Reader story, but this past May she was more forthcoming. She confirms that Willits first told her in late 1993 that he was teaching a vagrant how to weld and make art at his workshop in Camanche, Iowa, a suburb of Clinton 35 miles up the Mississippi from Davenport. She didn't think the story was that strange: in all her years of traveling midwestern back roads in search of undiscovered artists, Pardee says, "I had seen a lot of Clyde-like itinerant men walking the highway." And Britt, in north central Iowa, is home of the annual National Hobo Convention. Once, seeing a likely candidate ambling along a road in Iowa, she rolled down her car window and asked if his name was Clyde. It wasn't.

The relationship "evolved in a very natural and credible way," says Pardee. "Skip was getting to know Clyde at the same time and would relay messages to me. He always acted as the representative in the contract [and] payments, and in the delivery of the artwork. Everything I knew about Clyde was relayed to me via Skip or through letters from Clyde." One letter said Angel was born on Beaver Island, just off the bank of the Mississippi in Clinton, and other sources claim he was born in 1957. That information has become part of his biography, circulated in museum and gallery publications as well as several folk- and outsider-art guidebooks.

Ghost of the Moon by Clyde Angel

After showing Angel's work at venues such as the New York Outsider Art Fair, the Atlanta Folk Fest, and Aarne Anton's American Primitive Gallery in Manhattan, Pardee says, she wanted to get to know him better. "I no longer felt comfortable promoting an artist that wouldn't meet me," she explains. "Clyde wouldn't agree to it and our relationship became strained." So she "dissolved the contract, terminating the relationship," which she says angered Willits. Aarne Anton, who had to forgo a hoped-for show of Pardee's Clyde Angel works in 1995, has spoken of "extreme ill will" between Pardee and Willits over money, but Pardee says she sent all the work back to Willits and settled payments.

Aron Packer of Chicago's Packer Schopf Gallery recalls that Willits approached him about representing Angel in the mid-1990s. But Packer says he found the story "fishy," the pieces "contrived."

"I don't want to have moral and ethical issues about the work I sell," he adds.

Judy Saslow, a prominent Chicago folk and outsider art gallerist, gave Angel his first one-man show in 1996 and another in 1999, with works running between about $300 and $1,500. He was also included in big outsider-art survey exhibitions at the Halle Saint Pierre in Paris and Chicago's now-defunct Terra Museum of American Art.

In 2000, Saslow told me that many collectors were drawn to the work's rough charm and clever use of discarded materials, and that it was selling "very well." She also noted that preserving Angel's privacy was "part of the deal" with Willits, who periodically brought her pieces in his pickup truck.

Saslow still represents Angel. This past February she reiterated, "I was told Clyde refused to work with any dealer who poked around and asked too many questions, so I didn't. When I make an agreement with somebody, I keep it. Anybody should buy work based on the work. Period. End of report. They should buy work that they love."

Saslow said in the 2000 story that she made checks out to Clyde Angel. Pardee says she made them out to Willits.

I lit out for eastern Iowa in March 2000, to see what I could learn about Clyde Angel. I spent several days in Clinton and Davenport, scouring city, county, school, and cemetery records and directories and interviewing residents. According to local historians, Beaver Island had once been inhabited, and even had a school. But the school closed in 1945, and all of the island's permanent residents had moved out by 1970 because of flooding. Onetime resident Kathy Flippo, the author of Beaver Island Remembered and Back to Beaver Island, told me in 2000 that three families and a bachelor were the last to leave. "I went there daily up until 1960," she said. "I knew everything and everybody. Nobody was born on Beaver Island in 1957. I would've known about that."

I concluded that "Clyde Angel" was almost certainly a pseudonym. I also discovered that Skip Willits—born 1956—shared the middle name "Clyde" with his father, a retired shop welder who lived catty-corner from each other in Camanche. And his grandfather, who'd come to Clinton from Minnesota around 1900, had been Clyde E. Willits.

Skip Willits and I exchanged letters and had a brief phone conversation in the late 1990s, but he wouldn't make himself available for an interview. Neither he nor his father was home when I knocked on their doors in Camanche in 2000. Skip's wife at the time, Terri, an attorney, told me outside their house that he was at his studio, but that he didn't want anyone to know where it was.

Untitled sculpture by Clyde Angel
  • Courtesy of American Primitive Gallery
  • Untitled sculpture by Clyde Angel

My first Reader story, "Has Anyone Seen Clyde Angel?," appeared April 13, 2000. It suggested that Angel's biography might be a performance-art-like ploy calculated to capitalize on folk-art collectors' quest to discover—and possess—the purest, most authentic artwork possible, and that outsider art was made more interesting and marketable by a compelling backstory. It also suggested that Skip Willits and/or members of his family might know something about such a scheme.

The story sparked widespread discussion in the outsider-art scene. Some damned Clyde Angel as a hoax, while others didn't think it mattered if he were. As "geo" wrote to a Yahoo outsider-art group in response to the article, "[I]t wouldn't surprise me if it was a made up story and who cares anyway if the work speaks for itself is all that really interests me."

Days after the Reader story ran, Saslow received an envelope at her gallery, postmarked April 18 at Chicago's Irving Park post office, with no return address. Inside was a note on a small sheet of paper that read, "Angel delaer [sic], I am mad at you. I quit art forever. That writer hurt me. The road poem is dead and the angel that lived in me is gone away forever. I will die now."

The handwriting matched the handwriting on previous notes purported to be from Angel. There was no punctuation, and some words were written around the border of the page. The note was illustrated with a childlike drawing of a man pointing a blood-dripping knife at himself.

The following year—almost simultaneously with its inclusion in a yearlong survey exhibition, "Treasures of the Soul: Who Is Rich," at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore—Angel's work was banned from the prestigious New York Outsider Art Fair because of questions raised by my story regarding the artist's self-taught status, identity, and use of welding equipment.

Anton compares the Reader story to a political campaign smear, and claims it had "a tremendous negative effect." Previously enthusiastic collectors stopped buying Angel's work, he says. "I couldn't substantiate the rumors that had been created. I was not able to refute it, even though I didn't believe it. . . . You ruined the art market, as far as Clyde Angel is concerned."

Anton returned his consigned Angel pieces to Willits, though he kept about a half dozen that were part of his personal collection.

Of Saslow, Anton says, "She—bless her soul—was willing to show [Angel's work] without any questions. She accepted it for what it was based on the quality of the art, and presented it wherever she could."

Angel's angel didn't go away forever after all. New works continued to appear alongside old ones in five subsequent Saslow gallery shows featuring him and one or more other artists, through the summer of 2007. As Angel's mystique rose—also arguably as a result of my story—so did his prices: The torch-cut and welded-steel pieces are now priced between $1,350 and $6,000, though Saslow has declined to provide recent sales information. Says Bill Swislow, a past Intuit president, "The most irritating thing was seeing the work still turning up as authentically outsider after you showed it to be almost certainly a hoax."

Barry Marcus says he was "invigorated" when he discovered Clyde Angel last fall. "It's about what I've been doing all my life," says Marcus, who works with a number of regional artists in his coaching practice. He speaks in rapid, enthusiastic bursts. "It's about where creativity comes from, and how culture tries to put everything in containers. I felt a real connection with Clyde, and the idea of letting art speak for itself. It was a poetic primal voice speaking truth. It really renewed me.

"I said, 'We have to find and free Clyde Angel—like, Free Clyde!'—from the burden of cultural constraints and distorted story lines that obscure the pure art."

Marcus tracked down all the information he could find on the artist and the myth, including the 2000 Reader story. One day in November he was browsing the Saslow's gallery site with the idea that he might buy a piece. He clicked on the icon for Angel, scrolled down, and, he says, just about fell out of his chair. "There it is," he reports. "'Born 1920, died 2006.' And there's one of the sculptures he made, [dated] 2007. I thought, 'You can't make art if you're dead.'"

Not long after, Marcus says, the dates were removed from all the Clyde Angel works pictured on the site. Saslow gallery director Will Odom says any posthumous dates were a "mistake" by the webmaster. In a subsequent conversation, Saslow said she didn't know when any of the works were made.

Marcus tracked my number down and called me with the news of Angel's demise. Saslow's brief obit began, "Clyde Angel worked in a solitary manner in a welder's shop in Comanche [sic], Iowa. He was fearful of meeting people, preferring instead for people to see him through his art." It made no references to him living alone in the forest, having paranoid schizophrenia, or being homeless, as most of the Angel literature does.

If you believed in the story of Angel's hard life, you couldn't really be surprised at his death. But there were some curious circumstances. Saslow's site gave his birth year as 1920—far earlier than 1957, which is when most sources stated he was born on Beaver Island. And Marcus had dug up an obituary online that was published in the Clinton Herald newspaper on September 28, 2006. It was for Vernon Clyde Willits Sr.—Skip's dad—who was born in 1920. It said he'd worked as a welder at Climax Engine Works in Clinton for 41 years. "After his retirement," the obit read, "he continued to use his welding talent to create metal art alongside his son in their studio."

Saslow acknowledges that Skip Willits called her in spring 2008—a year and a half after the Herald obituary ran—with news of the artist's true identity and death. "I wasn't shocked," she says. "I was surprised when I learned this person working next to Vern was actually his father." She adds, "They weren't trying to sham anybody. They just wanted anonymity. The man had a right to privacy. I never made up a story about who Clyde was. . . . I never make up lies. If I'm saying something that later turns out to be a little shady or a little untrue, it's because it's something that I was told and believed in."

Asked why she didn't just put the whole story on the Web site, Saslow replies that she's planning a show featuring Angel, "Band of Outsiders," for October; a public announcement that "can settle the issue" will be made prior to the October 16 opening. "We're not trying to be cute or secretive," she says. "Our objective is, as always, to sell the art."

Anton says Skip Willits visited his booth at the Intuit Show of Folk and Outsider Art in Chicago in late April 2008 and told him that Angel had died. He asked Willits if it was "possible to get the real story of who [Angel] was. He said he would try to put something together." But it wasn't until earlier this year—while Marcus and I were looking into the story—that Willits called Anton and told him that Angel was his father. "All of a sudden, everything made sense," says Anton.

Or did it?

According to sources including the Figge Art Museum, the River Cities Reader alt-biweekly, and Art Scene Iowa magazine, Skip Willits learned about metals and torch- and arc-welding techniques from his father starting at age ten. He earned an art degree from Western Illinois University in 1978, and then went to work as a fireman in Davenport. He installed his first public sculpture in 1983, in downtown Clinton. Several commissions in Davenport followed, and by 1999 he'd quit the fire department and moved to Camanche to be near his father, who'd retired around 1980.

Willits's profile as an artist began to rise in the early 2000s. His nature-based or masklike sculptures in welded steel and aluminum adorn many public spaces and schoolyards in the Quad Cities and are regularly included in midwestern outdoor exhibits (last summer, for instance, at Washburn University in Topeka). His Wanderlust won the 2007 people's choice award at an annual public sculpture show sponsored by the city of Rock Island and Quad City Arts, and it now sits outside a Rock Island parking garage. Since 2001 Willits has been collaborating with his current wife, Kristin Garnant, on small metal pieces that are sold at Quad City Arts gallery store in Rock Island for $75-$125. Their 2004 abstract found-metal work New American Nomad, made of three hunks of rusty scrap, is on long-term loan to Davenport's Figge Art Museum.

"Skip is well-known, he's well-received," says Bruce Carter, longtime host of "Art Talks" on WVIK 90.3 FM, Rock Island's NPR affiliate and an art critic who wrote a long review of Willits and Garnant's work for the River Cities Reader in 2007.

Carter adds that Willits did a slide lecture at his Scott Community College art-appreciation class in December. The sculptor showed images of both his and his father's work, identifying Angel as Vernon Willits Sr. "I was wondering why he was showing his father's work," recalls Carter. "It immediately brought up the question, Was it really Clyde's work or is it Skip's work with a pseudonym?"

Others have wondered the same thing. Angel's pieces had never been sold in the Quad Cities area, and hardly anyone in the local art world knew the elder Willits made art. "Eight years or so ago, you heard people saying, 'Is [Skip] pulling a fast one? Is he marketing his work under another name?'" says a Quad Cities acquaintance of Skip's who didn't want to be named. "I've gone online, looking at Clyde Angel's work, and I can see. . . where it evolved from the same place, with a little bit of a different style. Skip has taken it to another level. It's not near as mysterious as it sounds."

Sherry Pardee may be the only art-world person who's been inside the Camanche workshop and seen pieces by Clyde Angel and Skip Willits side by side. That would've been circa 1995. "They were night and day," she says. "Clyde's early work was very raw and expressive, while Skip's work was very contemporary and lacked the emotional intensity of Clyde's."

Pardee doesn't think Willits was capable of going "from being an average contemporary artist to somebody a lot of people were talking about, like in New York."

Willits didn't respond to calls for this story. But Saslow, Anton, and Marcus all say that over the last year and a half he has told them that he was protecting his father at his father's request. A World War II vet and the product of a hardscrabble youth, Vernon Willits Sr. didn't want friends, former coworkers, or anyone else in the close-knit town to know that he was creating scrap-metal art and writing poetry. He was "embarrassed" by it—that's the word everybody uses. He was afflicted with Parkinson's disease, arthritis, and later lung cancer and didn't want to be bothered in such a state. Still, he could weld; up until when is a matter of conjecture.

In her gallery, Saslow searches through a file and finds several small sheets of paper that she identifies as notes she took in spring 2008. "I'm quoting what [Skip] told me over a phone conversation," says Saslow. "It was obvious to the family that continuing work was critically important to [Vernon's] health, his mental attitude, his well-being, and they wanted him to be able to continue to work. . . . So he stayed at home or in the workshop and was a happy camper when nobody interrupted him, nobody questioned him, sat and interviewed him." (Several sources, including the Clinton Herald obituary—paid for by the family, according to the newspaper and the funeral home—noted that he also rode around on his bicycle, picking up metal along the road.)

According to a different source who didn't want to be named, Willits is "struggling with the burden . . . of what's the right thing to do by his dad," realizing he'd honored him "in a costly way. Whatever the full truth of this story is, I could feel that much of this has been an ordeal for him."

Initially, this person says, the father was "thrilled" and found it "funny" that the work was selling. He would "get a kick" out of how the Clyde Angel narrative kept changing when he "was just the same guy doing the same work" in the shop. "But then it got out of hand," the source says. The Willitses never expected the increased attention and media scrutiny, and didn't know how to handle it. "'So,'" the source quotes Skip saying, "'I just kept saying the truth—the truth from our point of view.'"

None of these revelations troubled Barry Marcus. In fact, they made him want to own a Clyde Angel even more. By March, after viewing e-mailed images, Marcus sent $2,000 to Anton at American Primitive, and Anton shipped three Angel works from his own collection to Mississippi. (Marcus later e-mailed me pictures of the pieces, whose masklike faces resemble those in at least two Willits public sculptures, in Davenport and Rock Island.)

"It was like [Anton] wanted to pass it on to another generation interested in the story," says Marcus, who displays the pieces in his music room. "The story is magnetic—it's amazing art with a myth around it. Like, where did it come from? 'My name is Clyde Angel. Don't ask me where I come from, I come from darkness and the force of mystery.' And then to see myself a part of the story. . . . I wanted to have something tangible that represented my journey. They're the real deal. An artist created this, this authenticity."

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