I’ll take my stand. There are a lot of topics around—collapsing savings and loans, collapsing universes, donkey basketball—on which I have skillfully walked the rail or else mumbled “no comment” while hiding my face behind a raised lapel. There is one subject, though, that I’m willing to stand up and be counted on. I like folk art. Correction. It’s officially called “outsider art” now, but I like it all the same and so do a lot of other red-blooded Americans. I seem to remember Dwight Eisenhower chuckling the praises of Grandma Moses, a saintly woman whose life and art were relatively typical (or used to be) of the genre. She started painting late in life and was self-taught. She had no sense of perspective, used bright colors, and celebrated a nostalgic or naive or at least pleasant view of her surroundings.

I realize such generalizations are dangerous, but I’m taking my stand so I’ll live dangerously. Grandma Moses was a typical folk artist (or used to be? maybe? many say? for her time?). Times change, of course. I still like Ike and assume most other people do too, but folk art is no longer a matter to be left in the hands of benign Sunday painter Presidents. It’s big business, and it’s social statement, and still some of it’s being painted right down the road by elderly grandparents. The medium is the message, and the message is . . . well.

My wife and I live in a small Southern rural town, and we grew up knowing personally a half-dozen such artists. Their paintings were the butt of some familiar jokes—as in the blazing sunset that was interpreted, “My God! Aunt May, you’ve painted the bomb!” But by and large this body of work of not-quite-right sailboats, magnolia blossoms, and whatever was praised, appreciated, and hung on the wall. It was the product of people who were known and loved—i.e., folks.

My wife and I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. We’ve been riding along on it now for a goodly number of years, knee deep in turnips, and peering out through the slats at a world we didn’t make and have no desire to remake. Still and all, we’re cosmopolitan enough to know the difference between Jasper Johns and Casper the Friendly Ghost. Plus our son, a generation further removed from the Scottish stone age, is completing a degree in fine arts, and when he passed through his “folk art” phase it was necessary as doting parents to flip through a handful Captain Joe Cumbee, of folk art paperbacks. We picked up a few points here and there, but even without this continuing education, we’d have stopped. In our travels in the greater realm of turnip truckdom, we’d never run away from a folk art exhibit, and weren’t about to start now. Which brings us to Clayton, Georgia, and last summer.

We’d just spent a week in the Blue Ridge Mountains and after enjoying a leisurely, white-knuckled, seven-hour drive along the parkway, we were fortunate enough to arrive in Clayton. Fortunate just to arrive anywhere, actually. And where did we find ourselves but in the midst of a month-long folk art exhibit spread out over three galleries. Before dark we reached the first of these and met a genial Atlanta art dealer, who sold us a crude little painting done by the daughter of a famous Florida “root carver.” Just four slabs of white paint with pink blobs for heads, yellow smudged halos, and some Christmas tree-like decorations for the borders, this little icon hangs in our living room now. And small world. Paying with a check we discovered that the dealer’s ninety-six-year-old grandmother had been born and raised at the lighthouse just oE from our home and had been very close to my wife’s family. Surely a good omen. We took heart and checked into the Clayton Hotel. In the morning we’d visit the other galleries to see the “Finsters.”

Finster, of course, is Howard Finster, certainly the most famous folk artist alive. A former north Georgia evangelist, he has painted album covers for a rock group and taken commissions from the Coca-Cola Company. A Finster recently sold sight unseen for twenty-five thousand dollars. He doesn’t do it for the money though (he really doesn’t). He paints to spread God’s word, and every painting is packed with the north Georgia equivalent of John Bunyan imagery and often lengthy hand-lettered morals, admonitions, and Scripture.

The next morning we were waiting when the Main Street Gallery opened. No Finsters in immediate sight, but the window was filled with the whimsical work of A.E. Miller. Painted on sheet metal, these showed Indians fighting dinosaurs and other such oddities. What’s more, unlike the few Finsters inside, these were affordable. At least they, would have been, except the proprietor told us they were hording Millers in Atlanta so they’d decided not to sell theirs. I asked her what the difference was between hording in Atlanta and not selling in Clayton? She said if it was up to her we could have one but her partners said no.

The last gallery was several miles out of town on the grounds of an artists’ and writers’ retreat. Here we were to find the bulk of the. Finsters and could probably get a Miller sold to us. Maybe. The grounds were covered with curious Miller whirly-gigs—dinosaur weather vanes with propellers—but the gallery was closed. I wandered around back and into a second floor music room where a man sat at a desk writing. He kindly offered to let us in. Walking back I asked if he was a musician, and he said he was a philosopher from a university in Virginia. He’d been writing philosophy. I told him I’d just spent the week in the mountains with my friend Jack. Jack was also a philosopher but he hadn’t written any in at least twenty years. In fact, he rarely mentioned philosophy. The Virginia philosopher asked me what Jack said when he did mention it, and I told him that once Jack had said, “Under certain circumstances anyone is capable of killing his wife.” The Virginia philosopher thought about this a good thirty seconds and then agreed. He said, “He’s right. Under certain circumstances anyone is capable of killing anyone else.”

Now, I’m not including this bit of conversation to suggest the sad permissiveness to which Southern philosophy studies have sunk. Nor am I including it because it gave my wife (overhearing it from the far side of the still locked door) a few curious if not downright anxious moments. I’m including it because this was all it took to distract me from the fact that we’d entered through the back door and just walked through the entire exhibit. The art wasn’t commanding our attention. It wasn’t jumping off the wall screaming “admire me” or “buy me” or anything else.

We let my wife in, and though I could tell the Virginia philosopher wasn’t a fan, he was good-natured enough to hang around while we browsed. Howard Finster predominated, God’s words made flesh, so to speak. Familiar. I’d managed to visit an early Gothic cathedral once, and the enthusiasm of its earlier paintings and stained glass didn’t seem so far removed from what the Georgia evangelist was attempting. Indeed, the angular, one-dimensional disciples and saints could even pass as distant cousins. Still, architecture aside, the cathedral art was so much more compelling—the promises so much more promising— that you wondered if the message was the same. No matter how clever and joyous the work of Howard Finster is (and it’s both), the idea that a glimpse of Elvis and a Coca-Cola are among the primary rewards of both this world and the next did little to comfort this poor sinner.

Another artist represented, Mose Tolliver, was also known to me, at least from books. One of his paintings, “Man on Scooter,” I’d seen reproduced. Here was the original for a few hundred dollars. You could see the man and you could see the scooter. Maybe a dozen dabs of paint in all. It was a strange, funny little muddle, but I couldn’t help recalling a visit to the Tate Gallery. Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings may be overpublicized and overpriced but they are capable of dominating an entire gallery wall. “Man on Scooter” was barely holding down a few square inches. On the other hand, the artist wasn’t charging thirty-something million either. In the rapidly escalating folk art market Tolliver is still considered a very good buy.

But we were looking for a real bargain and got one. Yes, an unhorded A.E. Miller for a very modest sum. It’s a squat sheet metal Uncle Sam with the words “Oscar Blows” on top of his head. Miller has a friend Oscar who drives into his yard and blows the horn—an act that’s inspired dozens of these “Blow, Oscar, Blow” creations.

That was it. Goodbye, Clayton, Georgia. Hello, McGlellanville, South Carolina. I’m told “Oscar Blows” is now worth three times what we paid so in another year we’ll have salvaged the price of the hotel room. Good. That’s about as far as I want to get involved in the business end of folk art. And “Oscar Blows” is about as much social commentary as I’m up to. In fact, though we were happy with him and the four little angels, I still feel a bit guilty about carrying them across state lines. This may be celebrating the rural Southern experience, but my wife and I are not directly connected to the lives of these painters. Their community is not ours, nor is their adventure. While these paintings certainly didn’t depend on this level of intimacy to succeed, I couldn’t help thinking we were buying (at a cut rate) what should be a very personal form of expression.

And that brings us to Captain Joe Cumbee. I’d gotten this far in this essay and then set it aside for a month waiting for the white heat of inspiration to spur me to a conclusion. None came, but then a friend called from the state museum to tell me that my old buddy Captain Joe had received South Carolina’s Heritage Award. Only four “craftsmen” are selected each year, and far as she knew Joe was the first folk artist ever to win. My museum friend was excited about this and so was I, for we both recognize that Captain Joe is the real thing.

My first job out of graduate school (many years ago) was to work with this retired tugboat captain as a “ship’s carpenter”—a rather exacting discipline Joe administered almost completely with a yard axe. Widowed sometime before, he’d recently remarried, an occasion happy enough to renew his interest in painting, and he showed me several works. Since I’d just been studying the Surrealists for a year and a half and’ had a degree, I felt qualified enough to tell him he was a very good artist and could probably even make a living at it. He shrugged off this compliment, went shrimping next, and then back to running an ocean-going tug. He’d made his last trip while well into his 70’s—a barge load of Christmas trees to Venezuela. A premonition told him the aging tug wouldn’t survive another such voyage. It didn’t, but by then he was home for good—puttering and drinking black coffee.

I’d been told to give the state a week to notify him of the award and then I could go out and congratulate him myself Short trip. He only lives five miles away, but to my shame, I haven’t seen him in two years. At his trailer, I find little has changed. He’s seated in a living room piled high with clutter, watching TV, drinking black coffee. “Old Billy Baldwin,” he keeps repeating. “Where you been?” Good question. The walls are lined with paintings, at least half of them his. I remember most. The houses of his make-believe seaside communities shrink from the canvas in curious cubist distortions, but the boats are always perfectly proportioned. He’s laughed many times about his failure to make the transition from sea to land. There are only two new works, drawings in colored pencil of a local landmark, the Deer Head Oak. He’s drawn from memory. The tree limbs climb to the sky in thick green intertwining arms. Not limbs or even antlers. Not a live oak. Maybe an exotic boab growing at least two continents away. He tells me the first tree wasn’t right because there were no children playing in it. The second drawing corrected that. In the corner the TV still runs. A talk show where the topic for the day is nudity in the home. Naked parents wandering around in front of naked children in suburban America. Joe has drawn clothes on the tree children.

I sip my coffee and congratulate him on being one of the state’s Heritage winners. He hasn’t heard the news and asks what it means. I say that I guess it means he’s one of the best folk artists in South Carolina. For this year, at least, one of the very best. He smiles and says “I’ll be dog gone.”

That’s his response in total. He hasn’t painted or even drawn in months. “I’m eighty-three years old,” he says. “My eyes don’t see. My hands don’t go where I tell them.” But even as he says this his thick fingers cut the air between us—an act of pure expression I’ve been observing for a quarter of a century and one I assume is far older. Joe told me once that he’d started painting on sail canvas with white lead for a gesso. That puts his career back to the age of sail when he was a fourteen-year-old cabin boy on a rum-running schooner. On this visit, though, I ask just how long he has been painting. He answers, “All my life.”

“Old lady Peacock. She told me I could draw. She meant well but I didn’t know it then. Wouldn’t let go of me. I quit school just to escape old lady Peacock.” He’s talking about the fourth grade.

On the TV a game show flashes on. Blinking lights and the promise of a life far away filled with chrome-plated mechanical garbage. We only stop to watch when this frenzy is occasionally interrupted by a stern-faced reporter announcing the latest on Iraq’s sadly belated attempts to surrender. The captain and I are catching up. We discuss old times and new times, everything, in fact, but art. Finally that too. He says, “All my grandchildren want to draw. My great-granddaughter drew this one.” He slides the paper toward me. “Said ‘It’s a boat, granddad. It’s a boat.'”

Indeed, it is a boat. A high-bowed craft with a narrow two-story cabin well forward. One round window and one square. Centered on the deck a squiggly mast flying a single lopsided pennant. It’s a bit too sketchy to identify the exact boat depicted, but the impulse to create is familiar enough. And a child’s unsteady hand has printed across the bottom, “I LOVE YOU.” So, that’s that. Or to quote the master, “I’ll be dog gone.”