As this is the fifth anniversary of the Dull Tool Dim Bulb Blog I thought I might revisit the very first post, from 2008, and a piece which still sits in my office. I love it, of course, but that isn't the only reason it still sits next to me as I write this. It sits here because the person I obtained it from told me to keep it.
Howard Campbell was one of the most interesting men I ever knew. I'm not quite sure how to describe Howard, and those of you also fortunate enough to have known him will readily agree with me. Let's see…a shock of white hair higher than a mountain? Bare feet? Bib Overalls, even in the most formal of places? (Howard didn't go many formal places, if he could avoid it) He didn't go to many places he couldn't be barefoot either…including his back yard covered in snow, which I myself saw him do several times without even a slight grimace.
Howard was a folk art collector in the mountains of North Carolina. A good one. His house, precariously placed atop a mountain, was for him a refuge, but for me a museum. I cherish my visits there still.
When Howard was a young boy, he visited a wonderland of small woodcarvings created by Earl Eyman of Oklahoma. Eyman carved hundreds of tiny figures…you can see a few here I used to own, but Howard never owned any. The house was a miniature museum of circus figures, baseball games, patriotic scenes and more. He charged a dime to get in. The Eyman environment was dispersed, and over the years I would find them at shows and such, love them for a while, and then trade them to Howard. He loved them even more than I. For me, an Earl Eyman carving was as good as cold cash at the Howard Campbell mountain museum, and I squeezed a few things out of it by dangling the little carvings in Howard's face over the years. I got good at picking them out at folk art shows and such, and I did it for Howard. No small feat, as the figures were tiny and their provenance was lost, having been dispersed and eventually tossed into boxes with more important things. Two I found are here. I found an astounding little carving of a woman holding a flag once, and Howard got that one too.
When I met Howard for the first time, we shared another interest. I had just quit drinking, and he was trying to. I told Howard, who would mask his vodka in bottles of Mountain Dew soda, that I would always be there to help him if he wanted to chat. I succeeded in quitting and have been sober a long, long time. Howard didn't. I don't think that is a secret either of us kept to ourselves really, so I can share it here. It was appropriate a decade or so after I met Howard, that many of the 22 boxes holding his collection of books on Southern folk art were sold out of cartoons which once held vodka and whisky bottles. I don't know if it killed him, but it couldn't have helped. My offer to help keep him sober may have ultimately allowed me to purchase the piece you see above. It was one of Howard's favorites too, and he had a standing offer from me to purchase it whenever he was ready to sell it. For YEARS. And every time I visited and saw it there, the offer went up a bit, but he would wave me off. To this day, although I never asked him, I believe he allowed it me to finally purchase it out of his own regret for failing to conquer the bottle. After five years of my offers, he had two requirements. One was the price, which was fair, and the other was that I never sell it. People say that, but he meant it. I won't ever sell it, and I have already moved it 800 miles once.
The piece is a handmade desk, dresser, chest, whatever with an attempted decorative scroll and the original mirror. It dates to the late 1800's and was likely made by an African-American man who was a former slave who ended up in Tennessee, which is where Howard found it, and he told me so. There is a name in pencil on the inside I have never even tried to research.
Howard Campbell was a brilliant man. That is an overused term. It applies here. Amy and Steve Slotin, auctioneers north of Atlanta who sold a large chunk of Howard's collection while he was living (to benefit the American Museum of Folk Art, as he wished) asked him to write his autobiography for their auction catalog. A portion follows:
"I was always a collector. As a small child on our chicken farm in N.W. Arkansas, I dragged a horse skeleton out of the woods and tried to re-assemble it. The time was WWII. Mom and Dad were getting white rocks from hatchlings to broilers in seven weeks. I was dragging stuff out of the woods. I was an only; a self-absorbed/contained little kid. The parents (God keep them!) would ask me what I wanted for Christmas, birthday, whatever, and I would answer, “A little brother!” Because they had different rhesus factors it was 1947 before advancing medical technology gave it a chance. My little brother was born on Valentine’s Day in 1948. He and my sister-in-law don’t want any of this stuff! Being of sound mind and judgment, but realizing that a tree could fall on my head tomorrow...
But enough about me. Amy and Steve asked me to write some kind of bio-sketch that would emphasize my philosophy of collecting.
Philosophy, Schmilosophy! If it made me laugh, or chuckle, or snort, and it wasn’t too expensive, I dragged it home, where it was immediately lost amid the other junk...If it should affect others likewise, please bid and keep bidding! My poor widowed mother needs new shoes. That last sentence was a lie... My mother went to Heaven over five years ago. Like me, she hated shoes. Imelda Marcos she wasn’t.
Mom came close to being a Zen Master. She begged her children, grandchildren, etc. NOT to buy her ANYTHING for Christmas, birthday, whatever. And she meant it! I understand more and more what she was saying. Who wants to spend his last years dusting the bust of the deceased Duke?
It’s simply the thrill of the chase, or of the find, gentle readers. The money’s worth less (one Euro = $1.30) as I write. So keep bidding...
An English gentleman (Thomas Rowlandson - borrowed from Hippocrates) wrote “Life is short, but art is long...”* Remember that and keep your paddles in the air. Your kids don’t need expensive Nikes, Converses, etc. either. They’re better off barefooted. Watching out for broken glass or dog doo will serve to sharpen their perceptions. Believe me, I know."
Well, that's Howard, and he talked like that too. He was funny. He was hilarious. He could paint too, and while I can only find one online, it's a good one, a one-eyed dog and a young boy I believe is Howard. I wanted one of his paintings too, but he never delivered.
Portions of the Howard Campbell collection of American Folk Art was exhibited at the William King collection in Virginia and the Hickory Museum of Art in North Carolina. Once in a while, he would truck down some smalls and put them in an antique booth in Banner Elk, North Carolina. He served in the Navy. His bathtub was hand built of stones from around his house, and he listened to the radio, bluegrass usually, from a space taller than the towers which broadcast it.
Books and affordable ebooks ($5.99) by Jim Linderman are available HERE