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.

But Young says she never discussed the matter with Cecile, adding the letter is full of implied conversations that never took place.

Executive editor Theresa May, who has been with UT Press for 16 years, says that while at one time the publisher had a file on Ezekiel Gibbs, the project didn't go through the review process and there was no contract drawn up. As for the $10,000, she says an author might be asked to help raise money for a project, but "we're not a vanity press." She added that the editor Burns claimed to have worked with had left the press in 1986.

Young's lawyers got a look at Burns's manuscript during the recent mediation session. They say it consisted of headings, blank pages and a few paragraphs. "There wasn't a lot of text in it," estate attorney Mary Galligan says.

The Press asked Cecile to describe the manuscript, including the length of the text she has written. Her faxed response: "I can hardly wait for the book to be published so you can read it!"

The book, it turns out, is just one of many projects Burns has yet to complete.

One Glassell instructor, Philip Renteria, remembers filling out a questionnaire for a database of Houston artists that never materialized. Woitena recalls talking into a tape recorder for hours for a book Cecile planned to write (in addition to the book about Ezekiel, her resume lists two weighty titles "in progress": Houston Art and Artists, 1836-1989 and The History of Women Artists in Texas).

In 1984, Burns hatched her most elaborate plan to date. She chartered a nonprofit organization called the Houston Artists Foundation (later the Texas Artists Foundation). The Foundation complex, she wrote Young, was to include a "museum, theater, music building, communications center, council house [and] publishing building," as well as 25 studio/townhouses for visiting artists. Apparently, Burns still intends to build the complex, on property left by her father. (Cecil Greer's legacy, according to divorce-related financial statements, was $10 million -- a figure Dick Burns says contains "a lot of air.")

In the 1994 letter, Burns enthused about the Richmond-Rosenberg community's alleged support for the project, claiming "many people have volunteered to help when we break ground." That groundbreaking ceremony probably won't happen soon. The state forfeited the foundation's charter ten years ago for failure to pay franchise taxes.

"Cecile was great coming out of the gate," says her ex-husband. "She had lots of starts, a few middles and very few ends."

Mattie Gibbs Young may live to be as old as her father -- at 70, she looks 55, and she's still in private practice as a psychotherapist. When she reminisces about her father, her long pauses tend to bottom out in a low giggle, as if she realizes belatedly that what she's said is funny. Yet other times, she is closely guarded. At rest, her face is inscrutable, and she is ponderously slow to answer questions. She rarely cracks a smile.

Burns's disappearance has been difficult for Young, one of Gibbs's three surviving children. "I have not really been able to grieve completely," Mattie says. "This part of papa is somewhere, and he depended on me to try to get it back before he passed."

To her father, she says, Burns represented a "different era" in which the divide between blacks and whites had narrowed. "He was thinking, wow. She'd become like his daughter .... It was a surprise for him that she would appreciate him as a black man. But then as time went on -- I don't know because I didn't ask him -- it probably revisited him that no, times have not changed .... The way I see it, it was like teaching a person to mistreat you, you telling them about how you had been mistreated."

Early on in Gibbs's career, Young appointed herself the overseer of his artistic enterprise -- a job made difficult by her father's staunch independence. To hear her tell it, she looked on while the visitors Gibbs loved to entertain took advantage of his vulnerability. Still, she doesn't regret letting him live alone. "In spite of them coming and going and taking his paintings, he was happy in his own home," she says. "Or, we could have put him in a home, and he would have died a lot sooner."

After it became clear that Burns had no intention of returning the paintings, the pleasure of Gibbs's success "sort of soured" for Young. She says collectors would come by when they knew no family member was around, pay Gibbs $20 or $25 for some drawings, and outright steal others. Those she asked to make appointments didn't, she says.

Young says, emphatically, that none of the people Ezekiel called "friends" were really his friends. "These people are inconsiderate vultures because they saw his very weakened condition. But I guess they said, 'Well, he's gonna die, and I guess we better get what we can while we can.' Because once an artist dies, then his paintings become more valuable."

Considering the stories of other "self-taught," "outsider" or "naive" artists, as artists who have little knowledge of art history or the art market are variously described, it's easy to believe that Gibbs was taken advantage of. In recent years, the fantastic upswing in the market for outsider art has given rise to a spate of unsavory tales in which collectors or dealers have violated the fine line between support and exploitation.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Houston Concert Tickets