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Outsider Artist, Clyde Angel: The Elusive Truths

Jeff Huebner

Clyde Angel’s last exhibition in Chicago, in October 2009, coincided with revelations about the identity of the mysterious outsider artist whom no one had ever talked to or seen. Some thought he didn’t exist—that he was a hoax, a fraud. My recent meeting with Angel’s elusive agent–several years after the folk artist’s announced death—and the discovery of a bizarre, literally made-for-TV episode in the life of the agent’s ex-wife, as well as a new, small exhibit at Judy Saslow Gallery, continue to raise questions about Angel’s life and art, truth and fiction.

Angel had been promoted by art dealers for 15 years as a homeless, mentally ill, and formerly institutionalized vagrant who wandered the byways and back roads of Iowa collecting scrap metal, which he torch-cut and welded (with the help of “Skip,” a fireman and welder, according to early literature) into rusted, whimsical figurative sculptures. They sold for thousands of dollars at folk-art galleries and fairs in Chicago, New York, Atlanta, and Iowa City, and had been in museum exhibits as far away as Paris, France.

Angel’s agent—the man who arranged for his work to be sold at galleries—was a Quad Cities-area metal sculptor named Vernon “Skip” Willits, Jr. In folk-art circles, there had been speculation that Willits was the alter ego of Angel; one theory was he created a fake persona to cash in on folk-art collectors’ quest for authentic art made by untrained folks with a compelling life-story. Peoples’ attempts to know more about or meet Angel long met with Willits’s evasion. “If you want to know me, know me by my art,” Angel wrote in one of his many childlike, scrawled notes to dealers and collectors. Judy Saslow—who has sold Angel’s work at her Chicago gallery since the mid-1990s—said that if you liked the work, an artist’s identity and biography shouldn’t matter.

Yet some thought it was a matter of deception, if not outright fraud. In 2000, the Chicago Reader sent me to Iowa to find Angel, and based on numerous interviews and records searches, I found strong evidence that the biography had been fabricated and that a Willits family member was likely involved. (For one thing, it was impossible that anyone could have been born on Beaver Island—a Mississippi River island near Clinton, Iowa—in 1957.) The story, “Has Anyone Seen Clyde Angel?”, prompted a note from Angel, sent from Chicago to Saslow, proclaiming “I quit art forever” and threatening suicide.

Saslow—who’d made a deal with Willits not to pry into Angel’s life–continued to deny knowing anything. As she told me: “I was told Clyde refused to work with any dealer who poked around…When I make an agreement with somebody, I keep it. Anybody should buy work based on the work…They should buy work that they love.”

Still, Angel’s work kept appearing on the market. Willits continued to bring it in his pickup truck to Saslow’s, and it also continued to be sold at American Primitive Gallery in New York City, as controversy swirled, mystique deepened, and prices escalated. In 2001, Angel’s work was banned from New York’s prestigious Outsider Art Fair because of his questionable identity, according to Chicago outsider-art dealer Carl Hammer, who sat on the fair’s selection committee.

Then, in late 2008, Saslow’s website announced that Angel had died—two years earlier. Moreover, he wasn’t born in 1957, as biographical materials stated, but in 1920, according to the gallery’s vaguely worded obituary. My October 1, 2009 Chicago Reader article, revealed–with the help of Mississippi art collector Barry Marcus, now in Germany–that Angel was Vernon Clyde Willits, Sr., Skip’s father. Or so it seemed.

The exhibit “Clyde Angel: Exposed,” which opened Oct. 16, 2009 included new and old artwork, some dated after Angel’s death (erroneously, according to Saslow). It also included a wall display of text written by Willits months earlier, explaining why he covered up for his father, who adamantly insisted on anonymity. He was a product of the Great Depression, a World War II vet, a 40-year factory welder, “a man of tools and reality” who at first secretly began making “uniquely strange and powerful artworks out of found objects” in the early 1990s a few years after he retired. The work, Willits wrote, made his father “uncomfortable” and he was “embarrassed” by it. “He felt that he would be ridiculed or perhaps considered an eccentric if he showed it to anyone.”

In fact, while Angel’s art had been exhibited as far away as museums in Paris in 1998-2000, it had never been shown near his Clinton, Iowa area home. No one I talked to in the Quad Cities art world, in 2000 and 2009, could ever recall seeing his work there. However, in December 2010, Jane Austin, a niece, wrote to the Reader and to Beverly Farber Kaye, a private Connecticut outsider-art dealer.

“I cannot say definitely that Uncle Vern was Claude (sic) Angel. But I do know he tinkered with metal,” Austin wrote the Reader, adding that the senior Willits gave her an “enchanting cross made of square pegged nails” not long before he died. She wrote to Kaye’s blog, “Uncle Vern didn’t share…information with us. I just don’t know who the artist is for sure.” She added that her uncle “was mentally sound.” Kaye, who collects and deals Angel’s art, has been a strong defender of Saslow, maintaining (along with American Primitive owner Aarne Anton) that a faked bio shouldn’t be an issue. In an article she contributed to the Detour Art website, Kaye called my investigation “a public execution.”

Willits had long eluded my phone calls and a 2000 visit to his Camanche, Iowa compound, where I talked with his then-wife Terri. (They would divorce a year later.) But Willits and I met and had an intermittent two-hour conversation at the 2009 opening. Wiry, whiskery, bespectacled, balding, he is a moderately known sculptor, who was taught welding techniques by his father. He has a number of permanent works in Iowa and Illinois river communities, participates in outdoor exhibits, and sells his small metal pieces at shops in Davenport and Rock Island. (His mostly abstract, welded-steel work does not resembleAngel’s.)

Willits would not agree to a formal interview, but he repeatedly denied fabricating any details of Angel’s biography, claiming it was Sherry Pardee, the Iowa City folk art dealer who first represented Angel and promulgated his story in various publications, including The Iowan and In’tuit. (He did not mention her name, but it was clear who he meant.) Pardee—who said she parted ways with Willits in the mid-1990s when he refused to introduce Angel to her—also denies making up anything about Angel’s life. Willits then offered the work to Saslow in 1996.

Where could the “Clyde Angel” idea have come from? There seems to be an ur-myth.

The gist of it is this: After Terri Willits’s strange, one-month, headline-grabbing disappearance in 1989—the 31-year-old lawyer turned up in Las Vegas, claiming she’d suffered amnesia during an attack in her Davenport office parking lot, and then made her way west by bus, settling in an apartment in a poor part of town under an assumed name, until a nightmare jogged her memory and she called her husband Skip, a saga that prompted bafflement and skepticism in the Quad Cities, including by the police and the press—she cultivated newfound literary aspirations.

In October 1991, a drama she penned called Self-Portrait played at the Bettendorf Public Library. “It’s the story of Bernard, an artist who meets a mentally ill man, Jimmy, and discovers that Jimmy, too, has artistic talent,” according to a plug in the Sept. 25, 1991 Quad-City Times. (A later plug in the paper calls it “the symmetrical story of an artist and a mentally ill man who change places.”)

Soon, Terri was hired as a consultant for a made-for-TV movie partly based on her Las Vegas experience; The Disappearance of Nora, starring Veronica Hamel as the amnesiac attorney, aired on CBS in 1993. (Terri Armintha Wiebenga, whose last known address was Barnegat, New Jersey, declined to comment through e-mail.)

Nearly two years ago at the gallery, Willits told me that his father made artwork almost to the end of his life. They often worked side by side in the studio they shared, sometimes collaborating, or as he put it (paraphrasing), collaborating as much as you’d expect if you worked alongside someone. Willits also told me that dozens of Angel’s works still hadn’t been seen and were just sitting in the studio. He has offered to show the new pieces at Saslow in the future, but in the meantime, the gallery is exhibiting a selection from previous shows, with prices ranging up to $3,500.

As Willits told me, “You can still believe it’s a hoax all you want, and I wouldn’t blame you.”

The three-person show “Inspired” closed at Judy Saslow Gallery on September 3. 300 W. Superior St. #103. 312-943-0530.