Three decades after hundreds of strange wire-bound oddities were saved from the trash heap, an art gallery eight blocks from where they were dumped at a curb is featuring a selection of works made by a mystery artist dubbed the Philadelphia Wireman.
"What was unique about this was the discovery, how it was found, and how many there were," said John Ollman, an expert in self-taught art whose Fleischer/Ollman Gallery has 29 Wireman works on view through Dec. 10. "They're like a Western interpretation of what you'd find in western Africa. They're personal power objects."
They were found in the late 1970s or early 1980s by Robert Leitch, an eagle-eyed passer-by who spotted them curbside in bags and cardboard boxes on a run-down block of homes and rooming houses. Leitch loaded up his car with what had been apparently set out as trash, and turned out to be 1,200 pieces of wire-wrapped cocoons containing broken reflectors, mirror shards, crumpled cigarette packs, junk jewelry, coins and nails.
Leitch — whose identity as finder of the Wireman's work was kept under wraps until his death — gave away some as gifts, thinking they had little value other than as urban curiosities until friends persuaded him to bring part of his trove to gallery curator Ollman. He purchased Leitch's collection in 1984 and presented the work for the first time the following year, long before the concept of "outsider" art by people on society's fringes was understood or accepted. Some accused Ollman of creating the pieces himself as part of an elaborate hoax; others condemned the aesthetic elevation of what they saw — literally and figuratively — as garbage.
"There was a great deal of hostility about presenting things like this as art — it didn't get press coverage, it wasn't shown in museums," he said. "It made lots of people very angry. They'd come in the gallery and you could just see they were just appalled."
That has all changed. A museum in Baltimore is devoted exclusively to "visionary artists," while esteemed institutions in the U.S. and abroad exhibit works by the self-taught from James Castle to Howard Finster and the Wireman himself (or herself).
A handful of fans snapped up Philadelphia Wireman pieces in those earliest days for $100, Ollman said. Now, the current show lists Wireman works from $2,200 to $9,000. Most are a size and shape that allow them to comfortably fit in your hand, like a talisman or relic. Some include several gauges of wire, tautly wrapped in very specific and painstaking ways that hide or highlight the items inside.
"There's a lot of energy in the Wireman works," said Cara Zimmerman, executive director of The Foundation for Self Taught Artists, a nonprofit group. "The things embedded in them ... speak to the city and to a life that's being teased out in these objects."
Among the assumptions about the artist: He was male (the heavy wire was bent by hand, requiring considerable strength) and African-American (they were found in one of the city's oldest historically black neighborhoods). It is also surmised that the Wireman either died and a landlord put out his possessions as trash, or he was evicted and left his belongings behind.
Those guesses have been subject to much debate, which will surely continue as long as the Wireman remains nameless and faceless. That is no small part of why the works are appealing.
"The mystery surrounding their creation enables people to consider them (apart) from any specific narrative. ... We can apply any number of stories to them because we don't know who made them," Zimmerman said "The fact is that the story, or lack thereof, becomes so integral to what they are."
Leitch's recollection vacillated over time regarding the exact year and location on the block where he found them, leaving few solid leads to pursue. To date, efforts to unmask the enigmatic artist have proven futile.
"There were many graduate students who came here determined to find the identity of the Wireman," Ollman said. "No one did."
Included in the show are West African spiritual objects called nkisi, many with striking similarities to the Philadelphia Wireman pieces, as well as several works by the late Emery Blagdon. A self-taught artist from Nebraska who lost both parents and three siblings to cancer, Blagdon created large and elaborate "healing machines" he believed generated electromagnetic energy that cured disease.
Ollman said he still marvels at the notion that had Leitch not beaten the trash collector to those boxes, the mystery artist's life's work would have been destroyed. He said many self-taught artists are known only thanks to similar timely interventions by a stranger or friend.
"The most amazing thing is that they survived," Ollman said. "You have to wonder whether for every piece that survives, there are 100 that are lost."