The worldwide fascination for celebrity has never been moe intense than it is today. Fueled by television, magazines, and social media, the world has a voracious appetite to see, read, and in some cases touch or contact the object of their obsession. I can remember touring the home of Elvis Presley some years ago and being surprised by all the fan-painted portraits of Elvis that had been sent to the singer.
Artists both trained and self-taught have often used the visages of celebrity as the motifs of their work. The top of the art world is more and more about the artist as celebrity. In the 1960s and '70s, artist Andy Warhol (1928–1987) used his paintings of celebrities as his stock in trade. Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and Chairman Mao were favorites of the artist. There were many others who created works about celebrities, two that come to mind immediately are Red Grooms and ceramic artist Robert Arneson who focused now and again on celebrity in their work.
In the self-taught world, artist Howard Finster (1916–2001), a southern evangelical preacher who also called himself a “stranger from another world,” often painted Elvis, Hank Williams, and popular American presidents as a vehicle to carry his Christian messages of redemption. Other self-taught artists such as Ulysses Davis, Elijah Pierce, Justin McCarthy, and Stephen Warde Anderson are also fascinated by the famous.
Swiss self-taught artist Guy Brunet was just sixteen when he began filling school notebooks with screenplays (over 350 in all). Gradually, he took up drawing, at first using colored pencils to create his storyboards. Today, he continues his work making his own style of film posters, as well as using the discards of old televisions with cardboard cut outs to recreate the nostalgic fantasy world of his youth.
Stephen Warde Anderson, who lives in northern Illinois has painted hundreds of obscure film stars of the twentieth century, mainly B-movie stars who have faded into oblivion. His paintings are a quirky blend of realism that gives his work a signature style collector’s love.
Self-taught artist Gene Merritt (1936–2015) was born to working class parents in Columbia, South Carolina, and though he was never officially diagnosed, relatives said Gene was born with cognitive disabilities. He never finished high school and grew up to work a series of odd jobs for most of his life. When his last parent died, he became a ward of the state and lived most of the rest of his life at several adult foster care facilities in South Carolina. Having grown into adulthood having never left the state of South Carolina, daily television was his passport to the larger world.
Sometime around 1992, Gene began to draw. He filled notebook after notebook with drawings of holiday scenes, automobiles, animals, and portraits. His biographer, the artist Tom Stanley and Chairman of the Fine Arts Department at Winthrop College, recalls in his recent self-published book that Merritt possessed an uncanny memory of the people he saw on television. These celebrities he drew from memory mostly, or while watching an old movie on TV.
Merritt’s drawing style is truly original—seriously odd to say the least—and includes hand-written words identifying the particular celebrity and date on the paper. His celebrity portraits are usually out of this world profiles of the person in a seemingly endless flow of the pen, almost like X-ray drawings.
Merritt was recently added to the prestigious Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the ABCD Collection of Outsider Art in Paris, and is included in numerous other private collections worldwide.
Full Disclosure: The book Paperwork: The Drawings of Gene Merritt, by Tom Stanley was designed by this author and is available for purchase on Blurb.