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.

It was around that time when Cecile Burns stepped into Ezekiel Gibbs's life.
"She promoted herself to his champion," Hickman says.

Despite their many obvious differences, Cecile Burns and Ezekiel Gibbs had one slender thread in common: Both had roots in Fort Bend County. Burns is the daughter and namesake of Dr. Cecil Greer, a wealthy ophthalmologist and one of the founders of the Fort Bend County Fair. She graduated from Kincaid, an exclusive private school in Houston, in 1960, and married Dick Burns nine years later.

Burns later attended Glassell, a notorious haven for bored housewives, and simultaneously earned a bachelor's degree in art from St. Thomas University. In Houston's art world, she was a peripheral figure with few, if any, close friends. "She wasn't an artist," says painter Joanne Brigham, who rented a studio space to Burns. "She meant to be." She says Burns used the space only to store boxes. She had trouble paying the rent and was upset when Brigham finally asked her to vacate. "It was always some terrible sob story," Brigham recalls.

One of Burns's worst setbacks was the dissolution of her marriage in 1981, when her husband filed for divorce. The breakup traumatized Burns, says her former instructor Ben Woitena and other acquaintances. "She began collecting dogs," Woitena remembers, adding that there were ten to 15 dogs of assorted breeds in Burns's new apartment on Banks Street. "The dogs completely owned that environment."

The same year her marriage ended, Burns enrolled in the University of Houston's graduate program in sculpture. But she rarely appeared in her studio and never completed the program. To support herself, she taught school and got a job with a real estate agency.

Throughout that period Burns spent nearly every day with Gibbs, interviewing him about each of his drawings. She confided in Gibbs, treating him as a counselor. "She was crazy about the man," says art dealer Betty Moody, who knew Burns at the time. "There's some people that grab hold of and become obsessed with things. I think Ezekiel Gibbs was one of the obsessions with her."

In 1983, Burns arranged a small exhibit of Gibbs's work at the Museum of Fine Arts and another at an alternative gallery on West Gray. But beyond that, she failed to deliver. All told, Young says, Burns sold fewer than ten of Gibbs's paintings, including one to the Museum of Fine Arts for $765.

Burns refused requests for an interview, and she did not answer her door when the Press paid her a visit in Lubbock. But she did fax a response to a list of questions mailed to her. In the fax, she claims that it was the Gibbs family who put a stop to sales of Ezekiel's work because they were concerned that the income would threaten his SSI benefits.

Not true, counters Mattie Young. "It wouldn't have been any loss to him," she says.

After 1983, Burns arranged only one additional exhibit of Gibbs's work. It was staged in the library at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, shortly after she enrolled there in 1987.

Once in Lubbock, Burns lost touch with the Gibbs family -- Young says she wasn't even notified of the move. However, Burns returned to Houston in 1989 to attend Ezekiel's 100th birthday party.

The next time the family heard from her, Young says, was in 1994, when she wrote a five-page letter to Young. In it, she referred to Ezekiel as her "grandfather/advisor" and said she thought of him as "a member of my family." Yet she claimed -- nearly two years after the death of a man whose obituary was published in newspapers and art journals across the country -- not to have known of Gibbs's passing. "I am devastated," she wrote, chiding the family for failing to notify her.

She goes on to detail her attempts to get the "Lubbock Museum" (there is no institution by that name) to exhibit Ezekiel's work, her plans for an exhibit at Lubbock's new cultural center (the show was never mounted, and the center is now closed) and her attempts to start a senior outreach program similar to Glassell's (her grant application, in which she claimed to have been "instrumental in implementing" Glassell's program, was denied).

Burns also wrote that her Ph.D. was "almost complete!" But in a recent interview, her advisor, Texas Tech professor John Stinespring, said she has yet to complete her qualifying exams or submit her dissertation proposal, a prerequisite for doctoral candidacy. Stinespring said Burns's research is related to the "care and handling" of "outsider" -- or untrained -- artists and is based on Gibbs. Stinespring is aware that his student is being sued by Gibbs's family, but said "she has assured me on numerous occasions that her lawyer has everything in hand."

As for the book about Ezekiel, Cecile claimed in the 1994 letter to have delivered the manuscript and slides to the University of Texas Press "personally in accordance with our deadline." She goes on to say "UT Press was most enthusiastic about both Mr. Gibbs art and publishing the book. They, as you know, needed $10,000 to publish .... As you recall, we agreed to put the book on hold."

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