Artist who polishes shoes between sketches gets first big Dallas show

Artist who polishes shoes between sketches gets first big Dallas show |
News for Dallas, Texas | Dallas Morning News
| Carrollton/Farmers Branch News

FARMERS BRANCH – Willie Wayne Young has polished shoes from a perch inside Griffin Barber-Stylist Shop for more than a decade. His new perch, inside a Dallas museum, displays the sketches this “shine man” draws in his downtime.

MATT NAGER/Special Contributor

MATT NAGER/Special Contributor

Willie Young sketches on a pad in between shoe shines at Griffin Barber-Stylist Shop in Farmers Branch.

The 67-year-old’s work has captivated art curators in Chicago and back East, but has gotten little recognition in his hometown until now.

“There is something so elegant about his work and so sophisticated,” says Phillip Collins, former chief curator at the African American Museum in Fair Park, who booked Young there for a solo show on display through Nov. 29.

The sketches are as precisely rendered as medical illustrations, but the anatomy they depict isn’t human.

“I draw chicken bones,” Young says, smiling. “Here’s a dove skull. Look at that beak.”

Call it art brut, the French term for outsider art created by the largely self-taught who often live in solitude with no worries of that demon called competition.

At his work perch, Young explains the mystery of his work. Dressed in Dickies overalls, he uncorks a glass bottle kept under the shoe-shine chair. Out tumble vertebrae and skulls, of chickens and other birds.

A radio hums classical music from Tchaikovsky. Scissors click as grizzled men submit to an $11.75 haircut. Scents of hair spray fuse with fumes of shoe wax.

“This is where I do my best work,” Young says.

Use your imagination

The tools of his twin trades spill near his patched black leather chair. Camel-hair brushes and waxy tins wait to buff scuffs on boots and brogues. Look closer and see lean, green graphite pencils, and a magnifying glass for detail

Willie Young

And what’s poured onto the paper? Let your imagination take wing – beyond the chickens.

Is that Monte Albán, the walled city ruins of the Zapotec empire?

“No, and you are looking at it upside down,” Young tells his visitor. “It’s just a regular wall. Maybe I saw it in a magazine.”

Is that a constellation of space shuttles?

No, just acorns that fall from trees outside the barbershop.

And, from a portfolio, he slides out more drawings of acorns.

“That’s a female acorn,” he says of a nut morphed into curvaceous form.

Then, suddenly, he flinches. Arthritis in the bones of his hands.

“I think that’s why I draw the bones,” he says.

The language of art

Mischief first inspired Young to pick up a pencil. He began to draw cartoons and stick-figure caricatures of friends he wanted to tease.

As a teenager, he landed in a Dallas juvenile hall, where he met an art instructor who taught him the intricacies of drawing and shading.

Soon, he was in art classes offered at the Dallas Museum of Art by Chapman Kelley, an artist who ran a bustling gallery and frame shop known as Atelier Chapman Kelley.

Young credits Kelley with coaching him into the art world. Young needed the help. He never graduated from Lincoln High School, he says.

“I had a problem reading,” Young says. “I still have that problem.”

Kelley, 77, dismisses Young’s troubles with the written word.

“He understands the language of painting and drawing, and that is much more important,” Kelley says. “He is visual and focuses only on that.”

Edleeca Thompson, a Brookhaven College professor who curated the show, agrees, hinting that may be why Young has produced nearly a drawing daily for the last 50 years.

“Willie is so soft-spoken,” Thompson says. “His innermost thoughts and feelings get put on paper.”

Through the years, Kelley would connect Young with curators in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. All gave Young exhibits, including the Carl Hammer Gallery in Chicago, an outsider art champion, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, which favors uncelebrated artists. The Newark Museum in New Jersey purchased one of Young’s pieces in 1994.

But Young has had little recognition locally.

Such is the life of an outsider artist, says Kelley, who has championed others like Young. Known for their unconventional ideas and fantasy worlds, some have spent time in mental institutions or prisons. Young acknowledges having had his share of legal troubles and “family disputes.”

A lifelong bachelor with no children, Young lives frugally in a modest home he inherited, taking the bus from his house near Parkland Memorial Hospital to Farmers Branch. He scratches out a living shining shoes and sketching at the barbershop. And when he makes regular runs to Asel Art Supply near downtown Dallas, he’s always asked for a student discount, though he hasn’t been a student for decades.

Asel clerk Charles Dabbs lights up when he hears about the exhibit.

“You never know what a guy can do,” Dabbs says. “I just can’t get over this.”

Details, details

Obsessive attention to detail is clear in Young’s life. He takes his bib overalls to the dry cleaner’s because he values the perfect crease. And the artist he admires is the late surrealist Salvador Dalí, whose attention to strange detail brought him fame.

Pulling out a red book with frayed binding, Young peruses Dalí’s masterpieces and stops at a painting called The Assumption. It shows a floating Madonna’s head detached from her body. Dancing around her are forms spaced with the precision a choreographer takes with dancers.

Then, the pain hits. His brown hand curls with the arthritis.

“I can’t use my hand like I used to,” he says.

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