By Jeff Balke
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Rena Minar paid her last visit to Ezekiel Gibbs in 1992. She found the 103-year-old artist alone in his living room, seated at the work table where he did most of his drawings. Gibbs had no art supplies -- no crayons, no markers, no sketch paper. "When I asked why, he said that his daughter had taken everything away because she didn't want people visiting him," recalls Minar, a curator who had just mounted an exhibit of Gibbs's work.
Somewhere, Gibbs had scrounged up a couple of sheets of ruled, spiral-bound notebook paper and a blue ballpoint pen. And for days he had drawn his pictures, one on top of the other, until they were almost impossible to make out. "It was ink on top of ink on top of ink," says Minar, who bought the drawings. "You could see a face peering out here and there. They were absolutely beautiful, but very haunting."
The scene was a far cry from the hubbub that usually surrounded Gibbs, whose chief pastimes were gardening and attending an art class for senior citizens. In the latter part of his life, a steady stream of friends, curators and folk art collectors visited his small, tidy house in the Sunnyside area. They taped him, videotaped him, planned exhibits and made purchases of his art. Happy for an audience, Gibbs would draw pictures and tell the rambling, autobiographical stories that went along with them -- about the time he pulled two white women from a burning car, or the two strong mules "who could pull Christ off the cross," or the Brahma bull he bought for $1 and sold for $100. Visitors might leave with a generous heap of collard greens or a boll of cotton from the patch in the yard. Or they might leave with Ezekiel's art.
In 1980, a River Oaks woman named Cecile Greer Burns became Gibbs's exclusive agent. The Gibbs family, including Ezekiel, signed contracts allowing her to sell his work and write a book that would feature many of his images. She kept hundreds of drawings in her possession.
And then, around 1987, Burns left Houston for Lubbock. Gibbs never saw the book, and he never saw his drawings again.
Now Gibbs's daughter, Mattie Young, is suing Burns to retrieve the drawings she says rightfully belong to the Gibbs family. Young's lawyers say Burns has admitted to the possession of 649 of Ezekiel's drawings. During Gibbs's life, his drawings sold for $400 to $1,500, so a collection the size of Burns's could be worth more than half a million dollars. And though Burns doesn't own them, she's not ready to give them back -- a court-ordered mediation session in January yielded no agreement. "With any other person, it would have been successful," says attorney David Crawford, who represents Young.
Meanwhile, five years after his death -- the point at which many artists gain recognition -- Ezekiel Gibbs's artistic reputation is eroding. Though he produced new drawings almost daily, his work is largely unavailable to curators and dealers. Even Dallas's African-American Museum at Fair Park has been unable to acquire a Gibbs for their collection.
"We find it very sad that his work isn't seen," says folk art dealer Julie Webb, who has received many requests for his drawings. "He's going to be a forgotten Texas artist."
Cecile Burns probably first met Ezekiel Gibbs in the late 1970s, when she taught an art class at the senior citizens center Ezekiel traveled to every day by bus. The class was part of an outreach program sponsored by the Glassell School of Art, a division of the Museum of Fine Arts. (According to Burns's resume, she was an instructor with the program from 1975 to 1983; museum records list her only in 1979).
Ezekiel's previous instructors had already recognized his talent, and program coordinator Linda Graetz had even gone so far as to warn the Gibbs family to expect professional interest in his work. Ezekiel, nearing 90, had become a sort of poster child for the Older Adult Art Program, as it was called, and he was eventually written up in the bible of the folk art field, The Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century American Folk Art and Artists.
Gibbs's new hobby brought him more business than his famous homemade barbecue sauce ever had. To folk art enthusiasts, who would venture to remote rural areas in search of artists with untainted vision, he was a fresh and accessible find. Collectors from as far away as New York and Mexico dropped by the house to purchase paintings. The daily papers and local television stations were charmed, producing numerous features on "Texas's oldest living artist."
Yet of the many who took an interest in Gibbs's work, Burns was the most aggressive. In 1980, she presented the family with a contract that gave her 18 months to write a book about Gibbs. He or his heirs would receive 60 percent of the proceeds. Gibbs and his six surviving children signed the contract. Two years later, Gibbs signed another contract with Burns that made her his exclusive agent -- despite the fact that she had no gallery and no particular expertise in folk art. Again, Gibbs or his heirs would receive 60 percent of the profits (most galleries give artists 50 percent).