Better Late Than Never: The Remarkable Work of the Philadelphia Wireman

philadelphia wireman fleisher/ollman gallery outsider wire sculpture

The list of fine art painters and other artists who were not appreciated during their time is so long that many artists take a kind of solace in not being recognized.  ‘Maybe I’ll be famous one I’m dead could be a thought of meaningless self-congratulation, but it’s a though based in reality and, as far as I’m concerned, just as valid a reason to keep working toward one’s goals as ‘Maybe I’ll be famous next week’.  If there is one thing that I hope the current generation of art school students/dropouts/grads remember is that people like Van Gogh and Vermeer were not making art solely for the purpose of winning the Most Fun Vocation Award, but for the very sake of creating from their experience.  (My brother showed me a great episode of Doctor Who last night called ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ which inspired me to write this post.)

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I have some student loan debt but I imagine that it must be pretty freakin’ tough to be $100,000+ in debt for a degree that amounts to a little more than nothing in the quote-unquote real world (don’t worry, friends, I earned a degree in English Literature and feel your pain).  I feel for my arts/humanities brothers and sisters because I have seen more than my fair share of acquaintances from the art school/liberal arts set  struggling to find work, taking any unsatisfying job that comes their way just so they can make rent, and eventually have the life sucked out of them emotionally and creatively, fulfilling the culturally-fulfilled prophecy that their most significant credential is worthless.
But for every twenty-something that loses their creative spark never to find it again, there must be dozens – even hundreds – of people who are tinkering, painting, and sculpting in their homes for reasons that will never be confessed, making extraordinarily original work that may never be seen by the academics and “art types” that art school students know on a first-name basis.  What would happen to the grandmother down the block who paints every day if she got a gallery show? To the man who builds extravagant whirligigs to sell at craft fairs? To the Philadelphia Wireman, if only someone saw this work while he was still alive?

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The Philadelphia Wireman’s story is one of mystery.  Philadelphia, PA, 1982: an art school student stumles upon boxes full of handmade bundled-wire sculptures (some of which are shown on this page).  He brings the boxes of more than 1,200 pieces to the outsider/avant-garde art experts at the Fleisher/Ollman Gallery where, eventually, the pieces are shown with the name “Philadelphia Wireman” given as the creator, since no one was ever able to find out who exactly lived (or died) at the residence where the boxes were found, nor any reason obtained as to why they were on the side of the road.

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The small sculptures created by the Philadelphia Wireman are testament’s to their creator’s life.  We may never know the name, gender, or age (you know, basic biographical stuff) of the person who made these wildly diverse objets d’art but by the sheer number of them and the creativity involved in their making we can see that whoever created them could not only have been doing them out of boredom or some compulsion.  To see these works is to see someone creating as exuberantly an honestly as possible.  Themes of fastening/keeping together and “everything belongs” are so obvious as to not need too much explanation, but to see these things in person (unfortunately I can only share pictures, but at least they are almost the same size) in their three-dimensionality is to realize how thought-out they all seem.  They are not merely random household scraps with a bunch of wire strung around them and that intention invites a level of pure fascination that I have encountered with no other artwork.
Before signing off for now, I wanted to acknowledge the difference between those who are trained to make art “well” or “correctly” or “salably” yet quit right after their training is through and those who have little to no training yet create passionately.  May we all be the kinds to put our most sincere efforts towards the passionate creation of what we want to bring into the world.

When you get down that no one appreciates your work, remember the Philadelphia Wireman’s work could have all ended up in a trash heap somewhere never to be seen.  Be encouraged to share your work with those around you.  I bet someone will love what you are working on.  You could always share it with me.  I like it already.

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