Naples Collector's Grassroots Archive Tells Tale of American Art History
Written by Harriet Howard Heithaus for the Naples Daily News
James "Son Ford" Thomas, an outsider artist and musician, with Hedges. Thomas' unfired sculptures were made of clay dug out of the banks of the Yazoo River in Mississippi.
James "Jimmy" Hedges III appears largely in Naples in the family name on the star-roofed nature center in a midtown preserve. He appears in American art, however, as a prophet.
Hedges was a passionate, persistent patron of African-American "outsider" art — that is, work created by artists with little or no training, formal shows or mentorship. (Florida's Highwaymen art, recently featured in a major exhibition at the von Liebig Art Center, is part of that American grass roots movement.)
Hedges, who died in 2014 at age 71, didn't just collect art made by the Highwaymen and other outsiders. He sold it, befriended its artists and championed them to galleries and museums.
Even better for history, he cataloged everything he saw. He photographed artists, their work spaces and families; he held onto bills of sale, letters and exhibition agreements along with their art — an outsider archivist of sorts.
In March, his son, part-time Naples resident James Hedges IV, donated to the Smithsonian Archives of American Art what its representative called "a treasure trove" — 35 boxes of his father's papers, photographs and records.
"I thought, 'My God, this is amazing," declared Annette Leddy, New York collector for the Smithsonian Archives, when his son showed it to her. Her comments likened it to finding a good handful of pieces to complete the puzzle of American art history.
Kate Haw, director of the Archives, issued a statement calling it "the largest collection on outsider art in the Archives' holdings."
For James Hedges IV, it's his father's gift to the world.
Outsider artist Charles Simmons' "Moses with the Commandments." (1996)
Legacy of words, photos
"He had two women who helped him with his stuff," James Hedges IV said in a recent phone interview. "And one of these women told me, 'You know, he knew this archive was going to be his greatest legacy.'"
The son went through his holdings, seven buildings' worth on his father's 500-acre estate on Lookout Mountain, Georgia. His father didn't spend much time there, his son said.
"He was voracious, unbendingly committed to travel," said the younger Hedges. His father's real home may have been his Chevrolet Suburban. "We used to laugh because all his cars had over 200,000 miles on them.
"He drove everywhere. Everywhere. And what he would do is he created all these travelogues, these address books, these journals — all this data documenting who he was seeing. He'd photograph the artists, their artwork, their working environment, them in the process of making art."
And then, he said, his father "loved to build bridges connecting people."
"He produced fliers on hundreds of artists. He would create materials to promote them. He would bring artists to New York to the Outsider Art Fair." Jimmy Hedges, his son continued, would talk to galleries on the East Coast to pique their interest, and negotiate to sell them art. To get their names out, he would even buy the art and give it to nonprofit centers and folk art museums: "He'd say 'You need to have this in your collection.' And he'd give it away."
"Jimmy Hedges probably never made a profit in his entire art career," he reflected during a recent phone conversation. "He would buy a work and then sell it for 5 cents more." His mission was to get these artists' work before buyers.
He was a dealer only "accidentally," James Hedges IV said. "First and foremost, my father was an artist. Being an artist allowed him to go out as an individual who was interested in getting together with other artists, unlike a curator or a gallery owner or a collector who have a very different agenda."
Artist Lonnie Holly at the well-known landmark of another outsider artist, Finster's Paradise Garden, in Summerville, Georgia.
An art world bridge
The son of one of Tennessee's original industrialist families, Hedges had the privilege to follow his heart's pursuits as a woodcarver. And when he talked to artists like Lonnie Holley, it was with an understanding and a hope to learn from their frustrations, inspirations and philosophies.
Among the archive photos are a number of Jimmy Hedges with artists like Mose Tolliver and James "Son Ford" Thomas. The senior Hedges is in what his son remembers as his uniform: an art-printed white tee and khaki shorts. He was often shod in hiking boots.
"My dad was like an old shoe. He was super low-key," his son said. "But he could spend the afternoon in Overtown, hanging out with Purvis (artist Purvis Young), then go get himself showered and have dinner in Hobe Sound or Port Royal.
"He had a charm and a sweetness that just made everybody crazy about him."
"Jimmy's sense of humor, his generosity, his compassion for the artist and their art, his own sculpture is amazing," agreed fellow outsider artist Alison Spiesman. "He was a consummate southern gentleman and gracious host, classy — a great story teller."
Hedges took a special interest in Young, who was on dialysis: "My dad bought out his studio probably three times — probably hundreds of works — because he wanted to help him financially"
James Hedges IV also remembers reading in this father's archives the letter he fired off to the chairman of Hilton when Young was ordered out of one of the Hilton's Atlanta restaurants.
"First of all none of this should happen in your hotel," he read from the letter. "Secondly, this is somebody of very important national substance, accomplishment and recognition, and you have treated him like a vagrant Negro …. in a way that simply is not done today."
Jimmy Hedges opened the guesthouses at his mountain home for respites and artist sabbaticals. Hedges' son remembers his father's friendship with Holley, whose name has become a known commodity in contemporary art. Holley's children, all 13 of them, spent a summer at the Hedges retreat, he recalled.
"He was that kind of guy. You would go out to his farm and there would be six kids, from 5 to 15, in the swimming pool and you're like 'Who the hell are these people?'" he recalled, laughing.
But he respects his late father's choices.
"He used his privilege to help educate, and uplift and support and grow people's appreciation of these artists and how they lived their lives," he concluded.
Outsider potter Marie Rogers in her Georgia studio in 1991.
A world archive
Jimmy Hedges died, unfortunately, in a drowning accident. The outsider art he was holding at the time of his death has been moved to storage, and its disposition still hasn't been determined by the family. That would doubtlessly include much of his own inventory, from the small birds he once carved to the large, chain saw wood statuary of figures famous, humorous or intriguing.
But his photos, letters and materials are eventually going to be open to the world under a program of digitization by the Smithsonian Archive of American Art. Belying the old movie joke of the priceless lost Ark of the Covenant being lost in an institutional warehouse, the Smithsonian plans to puts all its archival holdings online. Every page — front and back — is being scanned.
"There are people in India who are doing their dissertations on the (totally digitized) Betty Parsons gallery and they've never been there," Leddy said. (To see those archives, go to www.aaa.si.edu/collections/online.)
There are two obstacles.
"We have a very efficient staff," Leddy said. "It's mainly a question of financial resources."
Further, there's a queue of archives yet to be digitized. If someone steps forward to pay for digitizing of a particular archive, it will get priority.
But either way, "the hope is they'll eventually be digitized, " Leddy emphasized. "It's our mission to make this available to anyone who wants to do research on these outsider artists."
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