Ezekiel's Trust

River Oaks resident Cecile Burns was obsessed by folk artist Ezekiel Gibbs and promoted herself as his champion. But five years after Gibbs's death, his work is all but forgotten -- thanks mostly to Cecile Burns.

Burns's ex-husband, attorney Dick Burns, says his profession, the couple's River Oaks address and their church-going ways convinced the Gibbs family that Burns could be trusted.

"It was the way it was presented that made an impression," Burns says.
At the time, Ezekiel Gibbs may not have been wise to the ways of the art market, but he certainly was no backwoods innocent when it came to doing business.

"Reason why I got like I did, is I got tangled up with white folks and caught ideas from them," Gibbs told an interviewer who recorded his oral history in 1980.

Born in Fort Bend County in 1889, Gibbs was orphaned before he was ten and taken in by a white farming family who treated him like one of their own. One Halloween night, he and his friends tore up the nearby town of Katy, turning over outhouses and hoisting wagons onto rooftops. When a townswoman blamed the mischief on "a bunch of Negroes," Ezekiel's adoptive parents feared for his life. They sent him to his grandmother's, where he slept on the floor or under a tree, catching crawfish and hunting to make a living. At 21, Gibbs married a farmer's daughter and became a sharecropper. The family -- which eventually included eight children -- ended up in Sunnyside "when it weren't nothing but a prairie," as Gibbs put it.

Whether he was rich -- at one point he owned his own land and a Model T Ford -- or poor, Ezekiel scrabbled for every nickel he could get. In addition to growing cotton, he peddled eggs, beef and pork, butchered animals for neighbors (many of his drawings are about butchering), bred horses and boarded livestock, and made cane syrup, sausage and a barbecue sauce that could draw a crowd. After he quit farming, he and his wife had a lean-to store in their front yard. Even in his nineties, he made his own soap on full moon nights and sold it to friends. He tilled the soil in his garden until a few months before his death at age 103 -- "Green Onions and Plants for Sale," read a sign in the yard. "You raise everything you can raise to take care of yourself," his adoptive father had taught him, "so you don't have to buy nothing but sugar and coffee."

Though he lived through times when children's Halloween devilment could incite a lynching and a black man who rode too fine a horse might wake to find it slaughtered, Ezekiel managed to avoid trouble. In addition to his adoptive family, he had many white protectors: the family who showed him how to brand his cattle and gave him his first garden patch; the lady who intervened when the Army wanted to draft him. "Whites would take more care than my own people," he said. "They would give me respects."

In 1972, Gibbs's wife died after 62 years of marriage. Gibbs fell ill for the first time in his life. His doctor suggested he combat his loneliness by visiting the senior citizen center in his neighborhood.

"He wasn't a dominoes player; he wasn't a cards player," says Mattie Young of her father. "He thought that was all sinful, because he was a deacon in the church. And he would be sitting there [at the center] talking bad about the people playing dominoes. So they said well, we just need to get him busy doing something." They gave him art supplies and paper. Ezekiel became a dedicated participant in Glassell's Older Adult Art Program.

For a man who never learned to read, the prospect of committing his life stories to paper proved compelling. Even before Ezekiel started painting, grandson Gary Gibbs remembers, "His constant message was, 'Somebody needs to write my story down; someone needs to tell my story.' " Soon, Ezekiel began taking his art supplies home with him. When he wasn't gardening, he sat at his work table and drew. "My art makes me feel good because my mind won't be rambling on trashy things," Gibbs once told the Houston Post.

Using crayons, markers, watercolors -- whatever he could get his hands on -- Gibbs re-created scenes from his memories of farm, family and church. Some revisit emotional moments: One documents his family's flight from a flood, another his wife's funeral. In others, people and farm animals float together in delicate, vegetal backgrounds created by tiny repeated marks. Toward the end of his life, he even painted the walls of his living room in a rain of colored marks.

Lynne Adele, who has borrowed several Gibbs drawings from collectors for an upcoming exhibit at the University of Texas's Huntington Gallery, calls the work "one of the finest examples of a blend of abstract and recognizable subject matter in self-taught art. People really respond to his work."

In 1978, Gibbs was included in his first traveling exhibit, "A Survey of Naive Texas Artists," which originated at San Antonio's Witte Memorial Museum and was accompanied by a hardcover book. "The Eyes of Texas," a 1980 exhibit curated by David Hickman and Gaye Hall, was in the works soon after.

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