by Tim Gilmore, 11/18/2016
Walter Whetstone doesn’t remember me. He’s had two strokes since our last substantial conversation.
I first wrote about Walter and his masterpiece of Outsider Art called the Whetstonian four years ago. In the next couple years, I visited him maybe a dozen times.
He’d called his half-block bricolage on Jefferson Street from State to Union Streets in Northern LaVilla the Whetstonian, because, as he explained, “If Smithson can have his Smithsonian, then Whetstone can have the Whetstonian.”
On one visit, Walter wore a “Whetstone Chocolates” ball cap. He said he’d visited the factory in St. Augustine and told them, “You’re Whetstone Chocolate, and I’m Chocolate Whetstone.”
Dorothy Whetstone does most of the talking these days. Dot and Walter sit next to each other at the large oak table inside the Whetstonian. She speaks fondly of how they first met at the Jefferson Street Pool just up the street 59 years ago. Walter wore a fedora and a multicolored suit. Dot wore a two-piece bathing suit with a big bow on the back and high heels. After they started dating, he’d pick her up at her place in rural Dinsmore-Pickett, almost as far north as Callahan, in his shiny green Buick, which Dot could hear from the highway.
As Dot speaks, Walter mostly stares at the table. The Whetstones now want to sell much of Walter’s lifelong collections. There’s talk of their son turning the space into a restaurant. Wayne Wood, founder of Riverside Avondale Preservation, and Maura Wolfson-Foster, a close family friend and photographer who published a photography collection called The Whetstonian in 2012, say they’d love to see the Whetstonian preserved.
Wayne explains that he’s leading a tour up to an Outsider Art landscape called Pasaquan in about a week. Pasaquan’s the bizarre creation of folk artist Eddie Owens Martin, who called himself St. EOM, outside Buena Vista, Georgia. Martin built the strange pre-Columbian-looking sculptures and UFO-shaped buildings at Pasaquan over a period of more than 30 years. The Whetstones, however, seem too worn out to fight for the Whetstonian’s preservation.
Dot says, “This is not how I envisioned living the last years of my life.”
We climb the stairs and wander through the second-story apartments, then emerge onto the roof and look out from atop the Whetstonian over the center of the city.
Back downstairs, I notice splotchy black-and-white renderings along a sherbet-green wall. There’s a headboard lying against it, but there’s enough of the imagery visible for Dot to point to it and say, “Oh! That mural! That tells the story of Walter’s life.”
She says someone came by the Whetstonian years ago, she doesn’t remember how many years, and she doesn’t remember the person’s name. She’d not seen him before and didn’t see him again. He was there long enough to put Walter’s story on the wall. Since then, water damage has eaten away at parts of the narrative.
There’s an image of Walter’s grandfather, working with lumber at big saws,
an image of his father, who drove an ice truck,
drawings of old family shotgun shacks,
and a portrait of a young Walter Whetstone in the Western Union shirt he wore when he delivered telegrams from a brick building beside Hemming Park where the Main Library sprawls now.
For years, I’ve been arguing for Walter’s carefully placed assemblage of mannequin parts, musical instruments, wagon wheels, streetlamps, carousel horses, African statuettes, Virgins Mary, cow skulls, portraits of black Jesuses, wrought-iron gates, hitching posts, old beer signs, old glass bottles, antique clocks, and Harriet Tubman heads as a masterpiece of Outsider Art, art created by people not trained in the arts and not seeking artistic fame who yet have an unyielding passion and need to create.
I’d love to see the Whetstonian preserved and shared with the world like Pasaquan, but as I stare at the mural that tells Walter’s life story, Dot says resignedly, “All this might be gone soon, and I’m about ready.”
From his seat at the table, Walter says wearily, “This too shall pass. This too shall pass.”