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.

Despite the infighting and lack of communication among the family, Young insists she's working on behalf of all the Gibbses.

"It's a family heritage," Young says. "It's not really seen by the whole family as a heritage thing. That's too abstract. But I keep after it. Somebody has to keep after it."

About that, Young is right -- especially where Cecile Greer Burns is concerned. Just ask Gary Newburn, a deputy constable in Lubbock who in 1994 was charged with serving notice of Mattie Young's lawsuit on Burns.

Newburn first tried to reach Burns at the Texas Tech art department. After being told she had no fixed schedule, he spent months casing the modest house where Burns lives with her 81-year-old mother and her sister, a mentally incapacitated woman for whom Burns has legal guardianship. Newburn says he visited the house at least 50 times -- in uniform and in plainclothes -- but never saw Burns. "It became a game to catch her," Newburn says. "Every time mama would be out in the yard and see me drive up, she would run in the house."

The constable finally received permission from the judge to serve any adult on the premises. One day in March 1995, he found three ladies standing on the small porch. Two, including the mother, immediately ran inside and refused to answer the door. The third identified herself as Pam Curry, the health-care attendant for Burns's mother. Newburn, who had seen Curry's car parked at the house several times previously, served her the papers.

Two months later, Curry deposited the papers at the Lubbock County Sheriff's office, claiming not to know Cecile Burns. Newburn had to wait another three months before he received permission to serve the papers by taping them to Burns's front door.

Newburn was not the first person Burns has avoided. Young says she first learned of Burns's 1987 move to Lubbock from Burns's mother, who then lived in Houston. Young's attempts to contact Burns via letter and phone were unanswered. She didn't hear from Burns again until 1989, when Ezekiel was celebrating his 100th birthday. Burns called "as if nothing had happened" and asked to attend the festivities. Mattie agreed.

At the gathering, Young says, her father asked Burns to return the drawings so he could sell them, and Burns assured him that she would soon be finished with her Ph.D. and would return the works then. Young was skeptical, but Ezekiel still trusted the woman who had brought him garden supplies and listened to his stories day after day. "Let's be calm and easy, she'll probably bring 'em," Young says he told her. But it wasn't long before he began asking his daughter to get the works back. Again, Young says, her calls and messages went unanswered. William Steen, a framer for the Menil Collection who took an interest in Gibbs's wall paintings, says he also tried to help Young by phoning Burns at home and school, and was unable to reach her.

But Burns has a different story. In her fax, she writes that she talked to Young "many times" after her move to Lubbock, adding that it was Gibbs who contacted her about the 100th birthday celebration. She also says she maintained contact with Gibbs by phone until he became too deaf. "Please be advised," Burns wrote, "that you are being manipulated by Mattie Gibbs Young." Young, for her part, says her father loved the telephone and used it until he died, often phoning her in the middle of the night when he got up to draw.

With Steen's help, Young obtained a pro bono lawyer, David Crawford, through Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts, and filed suit against Burns for breach of contract. Burns's first response was that Young did not represent the family, so Young had herself appointed administrator of the Gibbs estate.

Burns next filed a cross-action that accuses the Gibbs family of breach of contract, claiming that Gibbs's work has been sold without her knowledge. The cross-action names Leslie Muth Gallery. Muth says she did represent Gibbs for a time in the 1980s, but only after the family told her they were unable to contact Burns. Muth also says she could never obtain many works from the family, which severely limited her ability to represent him. "He could be a superstar," she adds.

According to Young, she never had a contract with Muth, who bought work outright rather than taking it on consignment. In fact, Young says she never sold any paintings, though several collectors, including Minar, recall purchasing works from her. As for the paintings Gibbs himself sold, Young says her father did so with Burns's permission.

Burns's contract as Gibbs's "exclusive agent" had a three-year term, which Young says she never renewed. Burns's attorney, Turner Pope, says he will present testimony in court that the contract was renewed "at Ezekiel's insistence and request, if not in writing." If Ezekiel did renew the contract, it would have expired no later than 1995, three years after his death.

Before the matter can be settled in court, however, Young must gather the estate's assets, which consist of the house, a vacant lot and the paintings. After that task is completed, Burns's claim against the estate will have to be addressed by the courts. Crawford and Galligan now plan to require Cecile to appear before the probate court judge who is handling the disbursement of the estate and defend her possession of the paintings.

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