by Tim Gilmore, 10/19/2018
1. Van-Gogh-Janis, Barbarella-Big-House
Richard McMahan’s intensity does not waver. He’s telling me about the prison narratives he’s writing, how he’s gotten to know his main character, Tom Chadwick, and the ways Tom has changed since first entering prison, at 26 years old, for murder and armed robbery.
Richard’s passionate about the music Tom knows, the songs and rock bands from the time Chadwick last was free—the Doors, Janis Joplin, the beginnings of “the 27 Club.” Collector that Richard is, the soundtrack cassette for the 1968 Jane Fonda film Barbarella sits nearby. He’s been listening to it obsessively.
Collecting and curating thrive at the heart of all Richard’s art—whether the more than 1,000 miniatures of famous artworks he’s been creating for three decades, or his current prison project, for which he’s amassed a small collection of handcuffs, shackles and various prison uniforms.
His work is obsessive. He spends hours at a time working on an intricate miniature, no taller than my index finger, of a Matisse, a Van Gogh, an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus, and feels the need to understand the different criminal mindsets of each character in his 90-story collection Chronicles from the Big House.
His compulsive working methods often clash, however, with the circumstances life has presented him. To keep from fighting for space with family members who, he feels, don’t understand the urgency of his work, he wakes at two in the morning to labor meticulously at the kitchen counter. Over the years he’s had a hard time finding secure employment, though he’ll walk to a gig at the Bargain House of Fleas flea market, on the Westside’s Blanding Boulevard, five hours before other people wake, and is working on securing a driver’s license so he can apply to work with the Department of Corrections.
In the meantime, he’s exhibited at galleries from Charleston, South Carolina to New Orleans to the premier “Outsider Art” institution, the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.
Ultimately, he’d like to see his work gain a permanent home, here in his hometown of Jacksonville, his own established House of Miniatures, the “mini-museum,” complete with studio space, but he knows that’s a long shot.
Presently, artists James Hunter and Brett Waller have offered Richard residencies at Elysium Art Farm and I AM Residency, respectively. The Art Farm invites the public to a “costume-themed meet-and-greet” at OM Depot in San Marco on October 27th, from 5:30 to 8, to help fund its work with Richard and inspire the public, while I AM plans to sponsor a comprehensive mini-museum exhibit, with catalog, at Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in January 2020.
2. Life’s-Work / For This is My Body
Artist and Florida State College at Jacksonville Professor Mark Creegan first met Richard McMahan when co-running the downtown gallery Nullspace. He’d been hearing about this strange man who’d created miniatures of so many of the world’s great artworks.
In the past five years, Mark has come to know Richard well. In fact, the mini-museum resides largely in boxes in Mark’s Kent Campus office. Mark helped Richard coordinate with Olympia Stone on her short documentary The Original Richard McMahan and worked with Richard in applying for his 2014 Community Foundations grant.
Mark and I look over Richard’s version of the Lescaux cave paintings, of miniature Frida Kahlos and Van Goghs, of Velázquez and Manet odalisques. Here’s the Maori canoe, as long as my forearm (an ell), constructed over two months and made of small pieces of wood and papier-mâché constructed from eight layers of manila folders.
As I sift through Starry Nights and Self Portraits with Monkey, Mark says, “The Venus of Willendorf’s down there somewhere.”
While I’m holding the canoe, Mark gently, almost surreptitiously, reaches over to remove it from my grasp. “This is the one that really keeps me up at night,” he says. “It’s so intricate and so detailed and delicate.”
I’m looking at Richard’s miniature of surrealist Marcel duChamp’s The Small Glass, to Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour. Even duChamp’s splinterings in the glass are precisely represented.
“Richard has something in common with duChamp here,” Mark says, “since duChamp did miniatures of his own work.” Various versions of duChamp’s Boîte-en-valise, his “Box in a Suitcase,” each contained miniatures of his most famous pieces, including Nude Descending a Staircase and portions of the “Large Glass,” also called The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even.
Richard’s work could be its own Art Survey course. In fact, Richard has spoken to Mark Creegan’s classes, a fact which makes Mark squint and tilt his head slightly to one side when I ask him if whatever “Outsider Art” means, it might mean Richard.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Mark says, playing with the connotations. “He’s not out in the country somewhere. And he might not have a traditional education, he might mispronounce something he’s read, but he knows stuff, so much stuff, and he’s shown in galleries.”
Outsider Artists—most famously Howard Finster and St. EOM of Georgia, Simon Rodia, who built the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, or Chicago’s Henry Darger, who wrote a 15,000+ page narrative with hundreds of illustrations about intergalactic child slave rebellions—typically work independently, are often associated with Romantic notions of madness and apocalyptic religious fervor, and stand outside the institutionalized worlds of arts education and business.
Richard’s work is as obsessive as that of any Outsider Artist, but he’s mentally sound. He has no message of apocalyptic doom or rapture. Due to his work with miniatures and the research he conducts for each piece, his knowledge of art history is categorical and comprehensive. Also, he graduated from Douglas Anderson School for the Arts, one of the country’s leading arts high schools, and Richard’s prison project demonstrates profound imaginative powers of empathy.
Mark does think that if Jacksonville can’t offer Richard his own mini-museum, a place like the American Visionary Art Museum, as long as its handling of Richard’s work reflects an understanding of his larger project, his life’s-work, might do him justice.
“Richard is self-taught and the body of his work spans the majority of his life,” says Amy Crane, program director at the Community Foundation of Northeast Florida. She refers again and again to Richard’s “life’s-work,” a fact central to any consideration of his art. Each individual work Richard creates belongs to the larger piece of art that is his life mission, the bigger statement, the Hoc est enim corpus meum, Christ’s Eucharistic iteration, “For this is my body.”
Nevertheless, that focus on the corpus, the body of work, might lead viewers of individual pieces to forget how much work goes into each piece.
“Each single piece,” Amy says, “contains so much exploration. There’s his interest in fabrics and materials, in costuming, which he often wears at exhibits, and this vast knowledge, from his research, of so many kinds of topics.”
Though he’s worked all his life against financial hardships, family misunderstandings, and the lack of many real relationships in the arts community, Amy says, without discrediting the difficulties, “He’s led a life where he can do the work he chooses to do. He’s had a kind of creative freedom that professional artists, who have to balance their vision against the marketplace, often falling back on teaching, rarely have.”
Brett Waller puts it this way: “Richard’s a person of profound faith and humility. He’s like the St. Francis of art. He just does his thing regardless of what all is going on in the secular world. He has the rare ability to shut out the noise.”
In fact, Richard’s not crazy about the idea of selling his work. “I asked Richard sometime back,” Amy says, “if I could buy a piece, or commission a piece. He thought hard about it and said finally, ‘If I do this, I have to make one for you and one for the mini-museum. I can’t give up any pieces.’”
Mark Creegan says, “I remember telling him he could sell his miniatures, people would love to buy them, but he’s not interested in producing and reproducing them. He’s most interested in the newest thing he’s researching, and rather than selling individual pieces, he wants the whole enterprise to belong to the culture.”
It’s precisely this concern of Richard’s that’s led Brett Waller to plan production of a catalog to accompany a comprehensive mini-museum exhibit at Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in early 2020. Brett believes “a catalog could produce an income for him without the need to sell pieces of the mini-museum and therefore keep the collection intact.”
When Olympia Stone’s short documentary The Original Richard McMahan appeared in 2017, Amy Crane first watched it with him on her laptop at Chamblin’s Uptown, the bookstore and literary headquarters at the heart of the city. Then she took him to the Tally Shorts Film Festival in Tallahassee, where she fell into the background and watched.
“Richard was the darling of the festival,” Amy says. “The full depth of his knowledge—in the Middle East, in architecture and archaeology, in film and music—displayed itself.” A small exhibit of his miniatures was on display and people waited in long lines to speak with him.
Richard’s creative work is always also curatorial. His work makes the world make sense by making it digestible. Still, Richard’s newest obsession takes him in a direction quite different from what we’ve come to know of his life’s-work, focusing on what Amy Crane calls “the worst expression of our contemporary humanity,” the American prison system.
3. The Biggest Question of All
In considering Richard’s current work, Chronicles from the Big House, for which he plans 90 stories and 30 illustrations, it’s tempting to offer glib and amateur psychoanalysis, to see metaphors of imprisonment in Richard’s life, his early diagnosis of Savant Syndrome, his family difficulties, his arguments with his mother and brothers who don’t see the value in his work and fight for space at home, or some larger comment about society’s norms and strictures crowding out creativity.
But Richard offers no commentary on prison as slavery and the evolution of the 13th Amendment, nor metaphor for the challenge of finding artistic freedom, but says simply, “I wouldn’t call it an obsession. One has to know everything there is to know to get a job with the prison system.”
Richard wants to be a prison guard. He’s learning to shoot a gun. He’s studying for his driver’s license. He’s just finished reading a criminology textbook, devours crime stories, and has “always wanted an exciting job.” He adds, “I also dabble in law and court proceedings.”
Photographer and poet James Hunter, who’s offered Richard artistic residency in a cabin on his expansive Elysium Art Farm, finds it fascinating that Richard’s Big House project “is the byproduct of his pursuit of being a correctional officer.”
James notes that Richard writes his stories “through phone dictation, then painstakingly, with hundreds of miles of walking to his local library, transcribing them to email form. Who does that? Do you think there’s a correctional officer in this country who’s slept in a prisoner’s uniform and chains, who’s written and painted his way to an understanding of the American prison system? Richard has.”
James Hunter and Mark Creegan often receive five or six images a day via email or Facebook Messenger, sometimes at 3:30 in the morning, various versions of Richard’s sketches, each one filled in further with badges, colors, brickwork, faces.
The Chronicles from the Big House come from fictional prisoner Tom Chadwick’s journals, read by his wife after Chadwick’s death from leukemia. Richard has come to know Chadwick as well as anyone might know you or me. The writing is raw. The stories carry names like “Mess Hall Fight,” “This Is No Ordinary Lockdown,” and “Prison Poetry.”
In the latter story, Chadwick writes about teaching inmates to read and write, maybe earn a GED. He’s received a grant to publish a small book of inmate stories and poems. Chadwick tells an inmate named José Garcia he liked his story, but wished he’d kept it clean.
“‘I can’t publish anything that’s pornographic or homoerotic material such as this, I would lose the grant to publish the book.’ He said to me ‘Yes I know, I didn’t write it for the book, I wrote it for you because I love you!’”
James Hunter has printed the Chronicles, is binding them, and will be editing them with Richard during his autumn residency.
Tom Chadwick’s final diary note after José Garcia’s surprise revelation might also set the premise and primary questions for Richard’s existential investigations of self and imprisonment:
“I look at this as a personal journey of sorts, to define or find one’s self, to find out who you are and how you fit into this world, it’s like in the animal kingdom, you can’t tell a frog to be like a lizard or a cat to be like a dog or a bird to be like a fish […] it’s also the same way as someone’s spiritual path to God and going down that road not yet taken or finding some fulfillment or just maybe to fill empty voids in their lives, you have only to look at yourself and ask these questions such as, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘How do I fit in?’ […] Some spend their whole lives asking those same questions,” Chadwick writes, but “the biggest question of all is ‘Are there any answers?’”