Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Albert Huffstickler, Poet and Outsider Artist

"Outsider Art" is one of those ornery terms that people dislike and disagree about, yet everyone more or less knows what it means. I like the way it is defined on the Interesting Ideas webpage, as "Creative works -- paintings, drawings, sculptures, assemblages, and idiosyncratic gardens and other outdoor constructions -- by people who have little or no formal art training and who produce (or at least began producing) art without regard to the mainstream art world's recognition, marketplace or definitions."

Here in Houston, we have a great example in the Orange Show, an architectural maze built with ordinary and found materials by one Jeff McKissack from the year 1956 to 1980. He worked in isolation way outside of any mainstream, and I wonder what his neighbors thought of his feverish mosaics and unusual sculptures, many in homage to his beloved fruit, the orange. I had the honor of reading poetry there once sometime in the 1980s with the Flying Dutchman Group.

But the real purpose of my post today is homage for my friend Albert Huffstickler (Huff), whose oil pastel drawing of a lion has a place of pride in my study. Huff (1927 - 2002)was known more for his poetry than his art, but late in life he became a tornado of drawing activity, selling color copies of his art for supplementary income. Known as the Bard of Hyde Park, Huff was Austin's favorite offbeat, down to earth philosophical poet for many years. The main keeper of Huff's flame is his friend, poet Felicia Mitchell, who last year created a Huffstickler group on Facebook.

I have a large collection of letters from Huff, and a pile of his drawings which I hope to scan and post to the Facebook page soon. I met Huff in 1994, the same year he did his drawing of the lion, at the Austin Poetry Fest. Come to think of it, I met Felicia Mitchell there for the first time too. At that time I had just started editing a small press poetry journal called Arrowsmith. One of the first poems that landed in Arrowsmith's PO Box was one from Huff. It seemed like magic; no sooner did I set up shop than he was knocking at my door. Our friendship began there and continued until his death. When he and my friend, the Houston poet Susanne R. Bowers also became friends and lovers, he visited Houston often. They loved to sit and draw together in Susie's kitchen, stepping out into her yard for frequent cigarette breaks. (I would like to write a post about Susie some other day. I was pleased to see that her chapbook, Grappling, is still available from Nerve Cowboy in Austin.)

I've already published my favorite Arrowsmith poem by Huff, "Reading at the State Mental Hospital" in a 2009 post. But here is that first poem Huff sent me in 1994:

As Simple as That

Some plants root from cuttings
But sometimes when you take a cutting
and put it in the ground,
it will suddenly start to bloom
and will sprout few if any roots.
And sometimes after it blooms,
it will die because
it has no roots to feed it:
everything it had was spent
in bringing that flower to life.
And this is a metaphor that
not everyone will understand:
the bloomers will probably understand it
and the rooters will probably not.

Huff's "Lion" drawing has always looked to me like a portrait of himself. You could pass Huff on the street and maybe not give him a separate glance. He kind of shuffled along, his pants drooping despite suspenders, and you could see he was very self-involved, like any good introvert poet. But put that man at a poetry podium, throw on a pair of professorial reading glasses, and his demeanor changed. He became the Poet, a regal one at that, leonine in posture. You could be in a noisy Austin coffeehouse and suddenly there would be a hush because Huff was reading. He had every one's respect. I don't know how to explain it but the man had at those times a demeanor that was both humble and majestic.

As seen on a Hyde Park, Austin mural: LONG LIVE HUFF.

drawing by Albert Huffstickler: Lion, 1994.


tom said...

A fine tribute to a great poet.
He is missed.

RC said...

Nice piece on Huff.I knew him in the early 1980's.Met him thru the late Jim Cody.

LoneStarLibrarian said...

Thanx for reading. You have a cool subtitle to your blog. Would that I could reconcile with my origins, I guess for many of us there are always some mysteries there....