More than words
After stroke steals language, an artist is born
By HOWARD POUSNER
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 08/19/05
In Harry Teague's paintings, people take wing by hitching
a ride on birds — that is, when they're not flying
on their own powers. They dive off dangerously tall cliffs
into impossibly small ponds. Strapped to the outside of
rockets, they blaze off into outer space. In other words,
they do all sorts of miraculous stuff that the fragile yet
determined man who brings these scenarios to life with acrylic
paint on posterboard can only imagine. But, oh, what a fertile
imagination Harry Teague has — not to mention a remarkable,
and utterly instinctive, sense of color, composition and
Less than a decade after the dull
recovery from debilitating strokes and other health setbacks
led him to pick up a paintbrush for the first time, Teague,
60, is establishing a name for himself in the wooly world
of folk art.
During this weekend's 12th annual Folk Fest at the North
Atlanta Trade Center in Gwinnett County, collectors will
search out Crazy Dog Art Gallery's booth to see the Cartersville
artist's latest creations. Even visitors who don't know
Teague's name, or his brave story, will be drawn by the
appealing color juxtapositions in his works — sunflower
golds, Caribbean blues, piquant purples and groovy greens.
The arena of folk art is populated more by pretenders than
contenders, but many believe Teague is the real thing. The
House of Blues bought 200 of his pieces in the late '90s.
And last year, St. Mary's Health Care in Athens purchased
13 to display in its Neonatal Intensive Care Unit; Radford
University in Virginia bought five.
"Harry has a unique style and the subjects are cathartically
about memories, longings, what life has taken away,"
says Richard J. Bay, Radford's curator of art education
and community outreach. "Some therapist probably could
have taught him to do [formulaic] landscapes, but what Harry
did was take the road less traveled, and he is learning
as he creates about himself and his vision of the world."
While Teague's work is not yet included in a major museum
collection or chronicled in a prominent genre publication
like Raw Vision, folk art galleries from Hilton Head, S.C.,
to Seattle sell his pieces. Only 10 years ago, Teague didn't
even know what "folk art" meant. All that he and
his wife, Diannia, knew was that he was bored out of his
Teague had suffered two strokes in September of 1990, when
he was a 46-year-old businessman developing a subdivision
outside Gatlinburg, Tenn. A heart attack, and triple-bypass
surgery, followed six months later. Brain damage left him
with right-side paralysis, partial vision loss and severe
aphasia (an inability to articulate words his brain knows).
A classic type A personality, with high blood pressure and
a three-packs-of-Winstons-a-day habit to prove it before
his strokes, Teague spent three years being driven to Knoxville
by Diannia for rehabilitation therapy. He regained the ability
to walk and some speech, but he could no longer read, write
or resume his go-go-go life.
In 1994, the couple, who do not have children, moved back
to their native Cartersville, where they could be closer
to extended family. The next summer, at a loss for what
to do to keep her husband occupied, Diannia took Harry shopping
for painting supplies at a Michael's crafts store. After
an hour of indecision in the face of so many unfamiliar
choices, a stranger took mercy and offered help.
Charlene Ediger, a painter and art teacher from Canton,
suggested they avoid oils and instead use acrylics, which
would be easier to handle for Teague, a left-hander whose
left side was not affected by the strokes. She helped them
pick brushes and other supplies, and even said she'd visit
and show him how to use the materials.
While waiting a few weeks for
that meeting, Teague warmed up by wearing out a couple of
watercolor kits. When Ediger brought over her acrylics,
palette and brushes for the informal demonstration, she
found him raring to go.
"He was watching me, and said, 'OK, give me the brush.
. . . I can do this,' " Ediger recalls. "I must
have gone out a few days later to see what he'd done, and
I was just astounded. He'd just taken off."
Teague wasn't instantly the artist of the sophisticated
compositions he turns out today, but it was clear he had
something. His first piece was a hummingbird, and other
simple depictions quickly followed. It wasn't long before
his skill level and imagination took an interesting leap.
"He did a purple barn, and I said, 'I don't know about
that color,' " Diannia remembers. "I told Charlene,
and she said, 'Leave Harry alone!' which we laugh about
all the time now."
Teague has painted 1,300 infinitely detailed pieces in just
under a decade, most of them 30 by 19 inches, and sold at
annual events like Folk Fest or the Decatur Arts Festival,
where the wife who was originally opposed to purple barns
dutifully sets up her husband's booth.
The sun looms large in many of Teague's
compositions — perhaps a symbol of the rays of hope
he's clung to — and even in their conception.
Most of the ideas for the paintings are hatched during hour-or-two
sessions when Harry sits out front of their pin-neat brick
house in a Cartersville subdivision, soaking up soothing
rays near a banner for their beloved New York Yankees.
What he's thinking of, even Diannia is never sure. But when
his patio-chair pondering is done, Harry usually knows exactly
what his next painting will look like. Unlike many artists,
he doesn't sketch anything first. The lines, the colors,
the full composition are already painted in his mind. "Just
wait and see," he answers, when his curious wife asks
where he's heading with a painting, which typically takes
a few days to finish.
"It's just unbelievable,"
Ediger observes. "There's something in his vision,
in his brain, that we just don't know about. It's something
to do with the stroke, I'm sure." In a recent e-mail
to Teague, Florida folk artist Will Luck praised his friend's
"stream of consciousness" approach to his subject
matter. "It allows for those spontaneous gestures and
moods to become a type of poetry," Luck wrote. "Each
painting is a visual poem, a poem [that] makes me want to
take my hat off in respect and awe."
One sunny August morning, the poet behind the pictures finds
himself frequently at a loss for words — excited,
maybe a little overexcited, by having a first-time guest
over who wants to gab about his art. Sitting in the dining
room that doubles as Teague's studio, where brushes and
65 tubes of different hues are lined up atop the color-splashed
plastic tablecloth, he struggles to complete a sentence.
"Cartersville, Georgia, and . . . me . . . ,"
he starts and pauses, before putting his hand on his brow.
He darts his gray eyes at Diannia, hoping she'll finish
the thought, as she's done millions of times, but she's
lost, too. He repeats the phrase, only to hit the same roadblock,
and then spins his left hand as if trying to grab the evasive
words out of the air
The futility of it all hangs there for only a few moments.
Soon Teague is laughing and slapping his leg as he shows
his visitor fanciful paintings like "Travel Tour,"
depicting tourists riding purple camels across the foreground
as violet birds dart in the opposite direction past golden
pyramids. "Beautiful work," he says, repeating
the phrase he'd used to describe Matisse paintings in a
favorite book given to him by Charlene Ediger, and who could
argue on either count.
Teague's wife of 41 years says she's not surprised about
his late-blooming art instincts, even though he never had
any particular interest in that kind of expression before
his strokes. "In his business endeavors he was always
creating a new business or idea, and they came really fast,"
Diannia says. "Harry enjoyed new challenges, and I
think he thinks of each of his paintings as a new beginning."
New beginnings, made possible only
with the help of a longtime partner. In Gatlinburg, before
his strokes, Harry and Diannia ran two restaurants, a gift
shop and a smokehouse. The work has changed with the circumstances,
but they're still in it together. "Harry couldn't do
what he does without Diannia," Atlanta painter Mary
Zeman notes. "And Diannia is so proud of Harry, you
can see it in everything she does. "Diannia is such
a small lady, but she gets a lot done — working full-time
[as a telemarketer] out of the house, doing art shows and
being there for Harry," Zeman adds. "She does
it gracefully. That's what I see when I see them together:
Not long ago, Diannia asked
Harry what he would do if he could do whatever he wanted.
Painting, he responded. "I said no, I mean if you did
not have the disabilities of your stroke," Diannia
recalls. "He said, 'Painting. I love it and wish I
had done it from the start.' OK, some of that retelling
was Diannia filling in the blanks," she acknowledges.
"Harry can't say all those words," she says. "But
those are partly his words and all of his meaning."
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