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.

Still, such artists do need help bringing their work to an often appreciative public. And there are professionals who, sensitive to accusations of exploitation, do their utmost to keep their noses clean. Collectors and curators who wanted to work with Gibbs say his daughter was difficult even when they tried to respect her wishes.

Rena Minar, who co-curated a one-person show of Gibbs's work in 1992, says Young eventually forbade her to visit Gibbs. After that, Minar says, she went by one last time to say good-bye.

Minar says that she got verbal permission from Young to videotape the artist, with a family member present, for the exhibit. She then tried for three weeks to arrange a time to tape, but says her phone calls were not returned. So she went ahead with the project.

When Young's daughter, Judy Earls, discovered the video crew at work, she asked them to leave. Young later forbade them to show the footage, which depicts Ezekiel drawing a picture of a hog and telling stories. Young says she never gave her permission for the video to be taken, pointing out that her father was ill and died during the run of the show. "I still get a little angry when I think about that."

Still, a letter from Earls to Minar indicates that "my mother agreed to the project" as long as a family member was present at the taping.

One of the video crew members was artist Jack Massing, half of the Houston Art Guys duo and a friend of Gibbs's. Massing says he tried several times, unsuccessfully, to make an appointment with Young to purchase Gibbs's work. "She was mean -- she was so mean," he says.

"Mattie was never the easiest person to work with," says folk art dealer Leslie Muth, who had a gallery in Houston in the '80s. Muth remembers arranging for a journalist to interview Young. After he flew in to Houston, Young decided she didn't want to cooperate, Muth says.

According to Young, the reporter didn't show up on time. "These people think I have amnesia," she adds, a bit agitated by the accusations. "I don't know what these people ...." She pauses. "I would hate if I would say something, and it was like a racist statement."

One collector who did not want to be named says he met Gibbs through a granddaughter and paid "a couple hundred dollars" for two pieces. "His family wasn't that fond of him selling anything," he says. "In fact, they weren't that fond of him working. I think that was out of concern for his safety."

Young says she cracked down on visitors and hid the art supplies they brought to protect her father's health. "He really should have just been relaxing instead of doing any painting. His heart was very weak, and I'd say just sit and watch TV, and enjoy family members when they come by."

As administrator of the estate, Young leads the effort to retrieve Gibbs's "Early Collection," as Burns calls the paintings in her possession. But what of the later works, the ones Gibbs made after Cecile left? If Gibbs made one drawing a day -- some observers say he made more -- there could be as many as 2,000 drawings unaccounted for. Did collectors snap up every one?

Linda Faye Gibbs, who owns a video production company and plans to make a documentary of her grandfather, says she herself has had difficulty figuring out which family members, if any, have the bulk of the work she'd like to record.

"It's either my aunt or my uncle," she speculates, referring to Young and her older brother Lloyd Gibbs. Young says she has but a few drawings. Lloyd Gibbs says he and his wife Velma have none. Beyond that, he had little comment on Burns or the paintings, saying, "It's been so long I don't want to have nothing to do with it." Judy Earls, Young's daughter and the only family member to loan work to the 1992 exhibit, would not comment.

If the family's lines of communication aren't flowing -- Velma Gibbs says she was not aware that Burns had been located in Lubbock, and several grandchildren said they did not know of the lawsuit -- part of the problem could be a simmering feud between Mattie Young and Lloyd Gibbs. After the death of their childless sister Victoria, each of them produced a will that was contested by the other. Ezekiel had two 100th birthday parties -- one thrown by Lloyd and one by Young.

For her part, Young envisions her father's work being enjoyed by Houston's African-American community, either in the form of a book or by converting Gibbs's Sunnyside house into a museum featuring the murals he painted on the walls there. But Young recently learned that a section of the murals, as well as some of the drawings that Gibbs had pasted to the walls of the house, had been sold to folk art dealers Julie and Bruce Webb. It's not clear who sold the drawings to the Webbs -- and they wouldn't say -- but last week Young took steps to evict her granddaughter, Mytoia Moss, who is living in the house with her family.

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