Rena Minar paid her last visit to Ezekiel Gibbs in 1992. She found the 103-year-old artist alone in his living room, seated at the work table where he did most of his drawings. Gibbs had no art supplies -- no crayons, no markers, no sketch paper. "When I asked why, he said that his daughter had taken everything away because she didn't want people visiting him," recalls Minar, a curator who had just mounted an exhibit of Gibbs's work.
Somewhere, Gibbs had scrounged up a couple of sheets of ruled, spiral-bound notebook paper and a blue ballpoint pen. And for days he had drawn his pictures, one on top of the other, until they were almost impossible to make out. "It was ink on top of ink on top of ink," says Minar, who bought the drawings. "You could see a face peering out here and there. They were absolutely beautiful, but very haunting."
The scene was a far cry from the hubbub that usually surrounded Gibbs, whose chief pastimes were gardening and attending an art class for senior citizens. In the latter part of his life, a steady stream of friends, curators and folk art collectors visited his small, tidy house in the Sunnyside area. They taped him, videotaped him, planned exhibits and made purchases of his art. Happy for an audience, Gibbs would draw pictures and tell the rambling, autobiographical stories that went along with them -- about the time he pulled two white women from a burning car, or the two strong mules "who could pull Christ off the cross," or the Brahma bull he bought for $1 and sold for $100. Visitors might leave with a generous heap of collard greens or a boll of cotton from the patch in the yard. Or they might leave with Ezekiel's art.
In 1980, a River Oaks woman named Cecile Greer Burns became Gibbs's exclusive agent. The Gibbs family, including Ezekiel, signed contracts allowing her to sell his work and write a book that would feature many of his images. She kept hundreds of drawings in her possession.
And then, around 1987, Burns left Houston for Lubbock. Gibbs never saw the book, and he never saw his drawings again.
Now Gibbs's daughter, Mattie Young, is suing Burns to retrieve the drawings she says rightfully belong to the Gibbs family. Young's lawyers say Burns has admitted to the possession of 649 of Ezekiel's drawings. During Gibbs's life, his drawings sold for $400 to $1,500, so a collection the size of Burns's could be worth more than half a million dollars. And though Burns doesn't own them, she's not ready to give them back -- a court-ordered mediation session in January yielded no agreement. "With any other person, it would have been successful," says attorney David Crawford, who represents Young.
Meanwhile, five years after his death -- the point at which many artists gain recognition -- Ezekiel Gibbs's artistic reputation is eroding. Though he produced new drawings almost daily, his work is largely unavailable to curators and dealers. Even Dallas's African-American Museum at Fair Park has been unable to acquire a Gibbs for their collection.
"We find it very sad that his work isn't seen," says folk art dealer Julie Webb, who has received many requests for his drawings. "He's going to be a forgotten Texas artist."
Cecile Burns probably first met Ezekiel Gibbs in the late 1970s, when she taught an art class at the senior citizens center Ezekiel traveled to every day by bus. The class was part of an outreach program sponsored by the Glassell School of Art, a division of the Museum of Fine Arts. (According to Burns's resume, she was an instructor with the program from 1975 to 1983; museum records list her only in 1979).
Ezekiel's previous instructors had already recognized his talent, and program coordinator Linda Graetz had even gone so far as to warn the Gibbs family to expect professional interest in his work. Ezekiel, nearing 90, had become a sort of poster child for the Older Adult Art Program, as it was called, and he was eventually written up in the bible of the folk art field, The Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century American Folk Art and Artists.
Gibbs's new hobby brought him more business than his famous homemade barbecue sauce ever had. To folk art enthusiasts, who would venture to remote rural areas in search of artists with untainted vision, he was a fresh and accessible find. Collectors from as far away as New York and Mexico dropped by the house to purchase paintings. The daily papers and local television stations were charmed, producing numerous features on "Texas's oldest living artist."
Yet of the many who took an interest in Gibbs's work, Burns was the most aggressive. In 1980, she presented the family with a contract that gave her 18 months to write a book about Gibbs. He or his heirs would receive 60 percent of the proceeds. Gibbs and his six surviving children signed the contract. Two years later, Gibbs signed another contract with Burns that made her his exclusive agent -- despite the fact that she had no gallery and no particular expertise in folk art. Again, Gibbs or his heirs would receive 60 percent of the profits (most galleries give artists 50 percent).
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
Wade Esty, a Lubbock resident who sold Burns a couple of Great Dane puppies and has visited her home several times, says Burns told him of the lawsuit, explaining that she doesn't want to return the paintings because "the family doesn't want to sell them, and if she can't sell them she won't be compensated for all her work -- writing grants and arranging shows."
Young says she now realizes that Burns did nothing but take advantage of her father, who never aspired to the broad renown Burns envisioned for him. Gibbs, she says, just wanted people in Houston to be able to enjoy his work. "Yes, she did do something to promote his career," says Young. "If you do something to promote my career, and that's not necessarily my goal, then whose goal would it be?"
Something drove Ezekiel Gibbs to draw every day -- on his walls, on scraps of notebook paper, on paper place mats from restaurants. It wasn't money, and it wasn't fame. It wasn't even boredom, or the need to keep hands long accustomed to work from growing idle. Gibbs wanted his century-long life to be remembered. "I want to show my example of how I lived my life," he said. "And maybe, if people see that, then that can be a way to inspire them to do something for themselves."
There are many people who agree that Ezekiel Gibbs's was a life worth remembering. Seventeen years ago, Cecile Burns was one of those people, and she decided she would be the one to make it happen. Because of her, Gibbs believed, his distinctive visual memoirs would be seen and enjoyed, not squirreled away in one of the cardboard boxes that fill Burns's Lubbock home from floor to ceiling.
He never guessed that Cecile Burns would allow him to be forgotten.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.