Clyde Angel – an elusive story

I love this piece of art attributed to the artist Clyde Angel, aka Vern Willits. After it found it’s way into my home, I tried to find out more about the artist and walked into a world of point/counterpoint.  Of course, I am very aware of the “telephone game” nature of folklore and know that every story is that of the storyteller. 

There are conflicting reports about Clyde Angel and his status as an outsider artist. Some accounts believe that Angel has been struggling for many years with mental illness.  It was said that he was fearful of meeting people, preferring instead for people to see him through his art.  Reportedly he worked alone using a welder’s shop in Iowa, creating beautifully intricate pieces of figurative metal sculptures. His work typically featured animal and human forms with certain elements of nature like stars or flowers. 

All I know to be true is what I said earlier, I love this art.

So, how did this all get started?

Some sources (including Tom Patterson “Reflections on twenty-five years in the Self-taught/”Outsider” art field” and Jeff Huebner, “Has Anyone Seen Clyde Angel?,” Chicago Reader, April 14, 2000, pp. 1, 31-37.) have reported that “no one who has exhibited or purchased work attributed to Angel has ever met him, and his work has only made its way into the self-taught art field due to the efforts of one Vernon Clyde Willits Jr., a sculptor who received an associates arts degree in 1976 from Mount Saint Clare College in Clinton, Iowa, and who has been responsible for introducing and supplying the work to the dealers and curators who have shown it. It’s hard to come away from the Reader article unconvinced that both Angel and his work are actually Willits’ creation.”

A rebuttal from Beverly Farber Kaye, Beverly Kaye Gallery, :

After reading the Patterson article, “Dust Storms in the Parallel Art Universe”, I was upset by his conclusion about the validity of the artist, Clyde Angel. I referred to the Huebner article that Tom Patterson sited, which he said made it hard to be “unconvinced that both Angel and his work are actually Willits (the agent’s) creation.”

The author of the original article, Jeff Huebner, did not come to that same conclusion.

The two highly respected dealers mentioned in the article did not come to that conclusion.

Certainly, there are questions, but until they are answered, no one can safely come to that conclusion without severely damaging the reputation and marketability of the artists’ work. Now the art has been discredited. It was withdrawn from the Outsider Art Fair. If this is a sham, that would have been the right thing to do. But, nothing has been proven yet to anyone except Tom Patterson and readers who believed his conclusion, without reading the original article for themselves.

Let’s look at the facts. There seems to be no public record of a Clyde Angel. The agent’s job, however, is to protect a mentally ill artist from an audience he has repeatedly stated he does not want to meet. If Clyde does exist, seems like the agent’s doing a good job. The name “Clyde Angel” might be made up, taken from the actual middle name of the agent. Could this have been a ploy to keep at bay seekers of an artist unable to deal with society? We really don’t know! Everyone knew that the agent was a retired fireman and sculptor. This was made known as soon as Sherry Pardee saw the sculpture and introduced it to the art world. Is there other information that has swayed the opinion of Mr. Patterson, that has not been mentioned in this article? 

I am deeply troubled. I don’t know the answer…..only the agent and Clyde Angel….whoever that is, know the answer. I yearn for the truth. I wish I could end with the comment, “The jury is still out”, but the jury has already convicted. It makes me shudder. In a court of law the burden of proof would not have been met. But there has been a public execution.

For years the art community has debated the existence of Clyde Angel, “highway wanderer”. His works captured the hearts and fascination of collectors at the Outsider Art Fair in New York, when veteran dealer Sherry Pardee first showed his works. When the work was banned from the show, as questions about the veracity of the person and the sculpture were brought into question, some dealers, myself included, stood by the work. Judy Saslow and her Chicago gallery was a top advocate for Angel’s work, and I personally thank her for her steadfastness.

— Beverly Farber Kaye

So, imagine my delight to receive an email today from his niece…
“I am Vern Willits’ niece. Vernon Jr, aka Skip Willits, is my cousin.  I don’t know the answers to your questions. Although we were close when we were younger, the families have drifted apart and we are not in contact at this time.”
“What I can tell you is that Uncle Vern was not institutionalized in my memory. He had three daughters and one son – Skip – who is listed as the artist’s “agent”
“If you still have an interest, I would be interested in exploring that with you.”
“A photo of the family circa early 60’s.”

L > R James Austin, Abby Willits, Jane Austin, Vernon “Skip” Willits, Jacque Willits, Jenny Austin, Harvey Nichtern, Vern Willits Sr. Not pictured, Vern’s daughter Billie Sue Willits
“I have more photos of Uncle Vern circa 1988 or 89- taken at a visit to their home with my then three-year-old son.”
“Uncle Vern was mentally sound. Although these things were not much discussed back in the day, I do have one uncle who was committed to a mental health facility after he returned from WWII.  That was his wife’s brother, no blood relation.  During time spent at his home, I did not note any evidence of ill health ever.”
“My son called him Grandpa Uncle Vern, and while I can see the art as a possibility, the back story is full of fabrications.”
“Get in touch if you’re interested in discussing this issue further.”

One last thing…for now…

Clyde Angel, 1920 – 2006
By Skip Willits

My father was Clyde Angel, an artist who made a name for himself by producing a powerful body of work while fiercely protecting his identity and privacy from the art world until the day he died. I didn’t say this while he was alive because he asked me not to. I knew him as Vernon Clyde Willits for most of my life. He was a welder in a small factory called Climax Engines in Clinton Iowa for 40 years. He was a family man, an avid swimmer, a traveler, a very curious soul always up for an adventure. In his retirement he took up cross country skiing. He loved books. The local library used to get rid of their old books in a dumpster that sat behind his house. He couldn’t stand to see these books thrown away, so nightly he would sneak over to pull them out. His studio and house were filled with these old discarded library books.

My dad was a product of the great depression, a World War ll vet and, like many of his generation, a man of tools and reality. He lived a factory life, usually working 10 hour days, 6 days a week, paid his bills on time. Whenever he found a little time for himself he was content in making crafty, clever works which often took the form of visual jokes; nut and bolt figures that appeared to be chasing each other, a depiction of a snow skier’s trail going through a pine tree, or flowers made out of metal pipe. He also busied himself making utilitarian constructions; stainless steel house boats, spiral staircases, porch railings. Family and friends would continually request all sorts of repair jobs and welding projects, all of which he enthusiastically took on. These craft objects and welding projects continued to give him great pride through out his life, even after his success as Clyde Angel.

In the early 1990’s, several years after his retirement he began to make uniquely strange and powerful artworks out of steel found objects and other media. He was very prolific but secretive and at times ritualistic in this new form of art making. I first discovered his new direction when I found 3 pieces of his “secret artwork” hidden under a pile of scrap steel I was getting ready to discard. These objects were startling to me and the way in which he made them bizarre, compared to his normal craft. This new artwork was out of context with his usual daily life. Through drawings, writings, wall reliefs and sculpture objects he referenced his past, present and where he thought he was going in a most unusual way. The people he knew, pets he’d had, traumas experienced were all part of his subject matter. While talking to him about this work it became clear to me that it was an essential part of his life and he could no more have stopped this new type of image making than stop his breathing.

The new artwork gave him great satisfaction but at the same time made him uncomfortable. He felt that he would be ridiculed or perhaps considered an eccentric if he showed it to anyone who was used to his ‘normal’ work. Also, he was personally unsure of where this new inspiration came from; this feeling of obligation to “make these things” puzzled him. In a peculiar way I think he was almost embarrassed by what he was making. He knew the questions would come; Why such a compulsion to create, why did he go in such a strange direction at this point in his life, why such wild outlandish figures and writings. Perhaps he didn’t want to know the answers.

Though he intuited that this new work wouldn’t be accepted in his local world he still had a desire to “get it out there.” I convinced him to let me show his work to some people who could help do this, but he insisted on anonymity. And so he created his new name, Clyde Angel. Clyde because it was his middle name, but more importantly because Clyde was the name of his father whom he loved dearly and admired greatly. The Angel part I’m not so sure of.

Though I tried to convince my dad many times to let me introduce him to the people who admired his work, he refused. This stand that he took didn’t make things easy for those who admired his artwork or represented him. The art world demanded the proper credentials and a face to go with the art. When he refused the uproar it created sometimes over shadowed his artwork. Some, like gallerist Judy Saslow understood his request to let the artwork speak for itself, “If you want to know me, know me by my art.”

The idea that all artists, through their art, aspire to leave something behind that will let future generations know they were here, to make a statement about themselves, their experiences, who they loved, who they were – that’s all he wanted to do. In his stubbornness and wisdom he accomplished all of this.

In his lifetime I stayed quiet; I honored my father’s wishes. Now things have changed. When he was alive we talked with each other everyday, often times about art. I don’t have that luxury anymore. In the three years since his death I’ve done a lot of thinking about the meaning of his life and art, where things should go from here. What to do with what I know and what was left to me.

Two weeks before he died I took him to the circus. He always loved a good circus. His favorites were the acrobats on the flying trapeze. Once he created a sculpture depicting the Great Wallendas. During this part of the show I leaned over and told him I thought the acrobats looked like his artwork. He just smiled and kept watching the show.

“I remember flying down the deep inside the wind.” – Clyde Angel