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Remembering Gregory Warmack

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Gregory Warmack died May 30 of an infection in an Atlanta, Ga. hospital.
He was 64 on the outside and 24 on the inside.

We could all use a little more of his childlike views.
My friend and artist Tony Fitzpatrick recalls Warmack as one of the kindest people he has ever met.

"Greg was an absolute shaman when it came to marrying materials, taking things that normal people throw out and making it reborn," Fitzpatrick said on Thursday. "His work echoed his experience in Chicago, his life, a descendant from Africa. Those idioms became clear. It was magical and humane. I learned from Greg. When I started using matchbooks, scraps and wrappers, I owe the idea of seeing possibility in those objects to Gregory......

"......His endless quest to give a second definition to common objects."

A beautiful metaphor for life.

Here are two Sun-Times dispatches from hanging with Gregory in the summer of 1996.
Warmack moved to Bethlehem, Pa. in 2002. He lost most of his artwork and his dog Pharaoh in a 2008 house fire and settled in Atlanta in 2009.

July 14, 1996--

The eyes have it.

That is clearly the conclusion after a visit to the cluttered North Side apartment/studio of folk artist Gregory Warmack. Known to friends as "Mr. Imagination," nothing escapes the childlike eyes of Warmack, a 48-year-old Maywood native..........

.......His kinetic digs are filled with vintage signage, bottle caps, a cash register from the old Hamburger King restaurant, black velvet Elvis art and even a dusty wagon wheel. Warmack has found most of this stuff in the city's alleys.

All visitors to Warmack's apartment are adorned with a black "Mr. I." necklace, featuring a singular wide eye that Warmack has carved out of sandstone.

Even a telephone repairman walked out of Warmack's apartment last week sporting a new sandstone necklace.

Warmack is just one of three American artists who have been selected by the Museum of American Folk Art in New York to create a three-dimensional bottle for the Coca-Cola Olympic Salute to Folk Art. The exhibit, featuring the work of folk artists from 53 countries, opens this weekend at the Georgia Freight Depot in downtown Atlanta.

The soft-spoken Warmack has created the exhibit's largest piece, a 12-foot-tall bottle made of plywood, meshed wire and a few thousand hand-pounded Coca-Cola Classic bottle caps. The bottle was nearing completion on the Fourth of July weekend.

"Never in my life did I know I would be part of anything this big," said a proud Warmack, who spent two months working on the bottle. "I don't have a car, so my next door neighbor helped me get the wood. I don't use measuring tapes. I just look at the wood and say, `This is how it's going to be.' I named it the Universal Bottle, which stands for everyone in the world. On the top, I will put in a flag for every country that is in the Olympic games."

Warmack looked downward at a bucket filled with more than 150 miniature flags.

He then glanced toward the bottle's apex, which replicates a tin cap top. "A friend of mine came by the other day," Warmack recalled. "He said, `That's nice, Mr. Imagination - but can it fit out the door?' Oh, my, I forgot! I was working on it more and more, especially making it curved on the bottom and high on top. I tried it the other day, and it just fit out the door. It was a very tight squeeze."

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Most people in the art community know Warmack for his work with bottle caps. Once a clothing designer, Warmack has made suitcoats consisting of 40 pounds of bottle caps. He has made royal crowns consisting of old bottle caps. Hidden deep in his basement are roly-poly bottle cap characters made out of old bowling pins. And one of his favorite pieces is a small bottle capped mannequin he affixed to a bottle capped skateboard.

Warmack got the idea for bottle cap art from kitschy bottle cap figurines of the 1940s.

"But I wanted to do wild things with bottle caps," Warmack said. "Cut them in half. And working with bottle caps is recycling, too."

Warmack meditates as he methodically flattens each bottle cap with a hammer on his apartment floor. (He has a compassionate landlord.) "I can't explain it, but it's like a rhythm thing I do," he said, as Kitty, one of his four cats, snoozed on a nearby sofa. "I'll just sit here for hours, pounding away. It's almost like music."

And Warmack is a certified hit, one of the hottest artists in the folk art movement. The Smithsonian Institution has three pieces of Warmack's sandstone work. Next month he is conducting a sandstone workshop as part of the Smithsonian's 150th anniversary celebration. He was featured in "Black Art - Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African-American Art," a traveling exhibition that originated at the Dallas Museum of Art in 1989. Warmack is represented by the Carl Hammer Gallery in Chicago.

"Mr. Imagination has had no formal art training," Hammer said. "Yet his vision of art includes everything from the sublime to the discarded, from haunting sandstone carvings to self-portrait scriptures made from bottle caps he collects in the streets. To him, every piece of artwork speaks of the dignity he has for himself and what he also visualizes being handed down to him from many generations of ancient ancestors. That is what makes his work so important."

That is why Warmack bristles at the notion that because he is self-taught, he is considered an "outsider" artist.

"To me, it is like if someone called my house and asked for me," Warmack explained. "And my brother would say, `No, he's not here, he's outside.' It's almost as if I wanted to move into this neighborhood, I couldn't, because I am an outsider.
"I don't like the term, but it's actually building things up for self-taught artists."

Warmack traces his vision back to 1978, when he was living on the South Side. He had been a hair dresser and a clothes designer, but Warmack had never been an artist. "I used to give this guy nickels and dimes for wine," Warmack recalled. "One day he turned me around and said, `I want all your money.' I had like 40 cents. I heard what sounded like two huge cannons going off. I saw spark, I saw fire. I realized this guy had just shot me.

"It felt like someone opened up my stomach and poured in hot coals. I ran into a bar and told someone I had just gotten shot. My eyes went dim and I was in a coma for six weeks."

Warmack said that while in the coma, he traveled back into the past through a tunnel of light.

"All of these faces here," he said, pointing to rows and rows of Aztec-tinged sandstone faces, "I saw them while I was in my coma. I saw myself as Mr. Imagination, an African king. But I have no idea how far I went back."

Has he since found a confine to the imagination?

"If there was a limit to using your imagination, when they built the first buildings they would have all looked the same," Warmack answered, as an elevated train rolled by his window.

"Architects had to use their imagination. Fashion is based on imagination. The whole world was built on imagination."


July 26, 1996----

Last year, in the small hours of a September morning, local artist Gregory Warmack, put the finishing touches on a grotto just south of the Elliott Donnelley Youth Center, 39th and Michigan.

Founded in 1924 as the South Side Boys Club, the center was rebuilt and renamed in 1959. Olympic track and field star Jesse Owens attended the center, as did Harlem Globetrotters Sweetwater Clifton and Goose Tatum. Singer Nat King Cole was part of the South Side Boys Club, and author Richard Wright based one of his Native Son characters on a youth center member.

"What made the grotto work is that kids and everybody from the neighborhood actually got involved," Warmack said in an interview at his North Side studio. "My hope is that other neighborhoods would see something like this. Empty lots are everywhere. If people can get the neighborhood involved, the same thing can happen throughout the city."

All it takes is some imagination.

And a little cash. The project received about $20,000 in seed money donated by Mr. and Mrs. Laurin Healy of Chicago.

Warmack first built a small concrete model of the grotto. Working from Warmack's model, local carpenters built a 12-foot-tall frame with 2-by-4s, plastic foam and cement.

Then, over an eight-month period, mostly in the heat of last summer, Warmack and neighborhood children mounted rocks, seashells, bottle caps (Mr. I's trademark) and sculptures from his studio. The children's handprints are all over the grotto. Forever.

The grotto is now the showpiece of the Chicago Youth Centers' three-year-old Bronzeville Youth Park, adjacent to the youth center.

Leslie Clark, the Elliott Donnelley Youth Center's program coordinator of parks and gardens, said area residents were eager to help with even minor details of the park project. "When it got close to the end, people were here every day going, `We want to help finish the park,' " she said. "They have come to have complete ownership and as a result of that, we've never had any vandalism, and I don't anticipate we ever will."

Inside the grotto, Mr. Imagination inscribed the names of two of his preparatory work helpers: Sean Coleman and Santonio Woods. They died two summers ago.

Coleman, 14, lived a block away on Indiana Avenue. He was struck by a stray bullet from a gang shootout. Woods, 5, accidentally drowned. "Innocent kids die every day, and you don't hear about them," Warmack explained. "They deserved this."

"Once, this was not the best area," Warmack said of the Grand Boulevard neighborhood. "I used to ride by on the L. I would see the (park's) mural and think about how it needed to be fixed up. But now, different nationalities are going out there. They have bus tours. People come from the North Side."

The grotto is warmed by the presence of several gold angels.

Warmack said, "It seems that artists who have died were working on it with me. That's how I got all the ideas." A guardian angel stands on top of the grotto, overlooking the park.

And inscribed toward the inside bottom of the grotto is "Peace and Love."

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4 Comments

Thanks. Mr. I was a beautiful soul and we'll miss him.

This is a nice piece about my dear friend. He used to say that he was one in a million. No, he was much more special than that. Rest in peace Mr. I.

Great story about the shooting! I was able to visit him four or five times in Atlanta at Grady and the nursing home before his passing. Never met a more gracious and talented man. He had a true gift at vision, creativity and marketing. He kept up with people with an incredible skill and moved people to join in where ever he went.

What a great artist! I teach his niece and nephew in my senior English class in Santa Clara, CA. She told me a great story today about finding a piece of his art in a gallery one day while visiting a coastal town. I am sure he would be very proud of the people they have become--- a wonderful young man and woman I am so happy to know!

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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