image: Travis Commeau

Kevin Gordon

Art for art’s sake

“What attracted me to folk art when I first encountered it was, I think, the same thing that attracted me to Robert Johnson and Junior Kimbrough and artists like that. There was something genuine about it. Something real.”

So sayeth the poet laureate of the swampy groove, Kevin Gordon. In addition to being a steadily — if glacially, over 30-plus years — rising figure in the Americana world with his worldly wise lyrics and deep bluesy feel, Gordon is also an authoritative collector, curator, buyer, and seller of the often deceptively simple expressions of usually untrained, often-impoverished artists who paint pictures on wood or metal and use all manner of found materials scavenged from any and all places one might find them.

Speaking by phone from a poetry-writing retreat in New Hampshire, Gordon, who has a Master’s in poetry from the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, provides the lowdown. “I knew even back in college about Howard Finster, from the album covers he’d done for R.E.M. and Talking Heads, among others, and I discovered other artists kind of coming from the same place. At the time, though, I really wasn’t interested in much beyond playing the guitar and chasing women and drinking beer. But when I was in graduate school, I started wondering if there was something analogous visually to what was some of my favorite music — music that came from some rural sensibility but transcends that, simply because it’s so fucking good.

“When I met my in-laws, in Iowa, they were collecting similar art from the southwest, a lot from the Navajo people,” he continues. “But they were into a lot of different kinds of art. Not just from one bag. … And after I moved to Nashville, I came across a display catalog in Davis-Kidd [Nashville’s sadly demised Madison Square Garden of a bookstore]. It was a catalog from a display at the New Orleans Museum of Art. This was 1993, I think. And it was a broad overview of different kinds of self-taught art made by artists from the Southeast. I was immediately fascinated. Finster was in there, of course, but there were all these other people: Mose Tolliver from Montgomery, Alabama and Jimmie Lee Sudduth from Fayette, Alabama. I got to know both of those artists personally as I got more heavily into this, because they didn’t live very far away.”

Gordon’s father-in-law saw how he was “getting eaten up with this stuff” and wanting to learn more about it. “We saw that I couldn’t really afford to make my living just being a so-called ‘collector’, even in the comparatively low-cost world of contemporary folk art, plus given how I was spending most of my time playing music,” Gordon says. “But he gave me some seed money around 1998 or ’9 —  $4,000 to be exact — to start a little business. And I started going to see these artists who were still alive, like Mose and Jimmie, and buying from them directly, getting to know them as people. They were fascinating. To have an 85-year-old African American man tell you about being pulled over by a white cop not so long ago, and to learn about that terror first-hand, was as important to me as these objects that these people were making.

“I learned that Jimmie used about 35 different shades of clay and mixed them with a sugar-based liquid like molasses or Coca-Cola and made a ‘paint’ that was adhesive and would stick to the board he was painting on. And he did these very textured paintings of houses, the local courthouse, and other buildings. I was really impressed with the ingenuity, and the sense that he was not so much concerned with the selling of the work as the making of it. I was not only fascinated by the work but inspired by it as well.”

There isn’t much time for art exploration during his travels as a musician;  trips to secure artwork are done on other days, either to exhibits, galleries, personal visits to the artists themselves (when they’re still alive), and the occasional stops at flea markets and antique malls, which he says are hit-and-miss affairs, heavy on the miss. When he meets with the artists themselves and they name a price, he makes a moral point of never trying to talk them down. And in the end, he can either afford a piece or not.

Over the years, Gordon has amassed an impressive collection by folk luminaries such as the aforementioned Tolliver, Purvis Young, and Thornton Dial, among many others. Since his gallery is his home, viewings are by appointment, naturally. He sells — and on occasion, buys — online, but he’s constrained by the fact that his budget is humble compared to the big boys. “I can’t compete with the prices the New York Galleries offer,” he admits.

He says that only in the past few years has folk art come to be accepted as more or less legitimate art by monied collectors, museums, galleries, and the like. “I think it makes a much richer conversation when you take the best of this work, like the best of any art, and let these things be seen together. It makes it so much more interesting to me, as opposed to seeing another show of impressionists, or hiding the folk-art collection in the back corner. Seeing it together with other genres shows that there’s more common ground there than you might think.”

As for his collection — much as he might love certain pieces more than others — Gordon has learned to regard it with a limited degree of sentiment, making what he calls “a Zen bargain”, an acceptance of knowing what comes in might well have to go back out.

Turning to his music, Kevin has, as already mentioned, steadily risen in the ranks over a long career. His work is redolent of his native Louisiana: deep, bluesy, swampy, and subtly intelligent; try imagining the sound of dirty fingernails. It includes such great recent albums as “Tilt & Shine” and “Gloryland”, and classic songs like “Blue Collar Dollar”, the epic “Colfax”, and the classic Gwil Owen co-write “Deuce and a Quarter” which was recorded for the Elvis tribute record, All the King’s Men as a duet by none other than Keith Richards and Levon Helm. He’s earned praise from Rolling Stone, who called him the poet laureate of Americana, plaudits from esteemed music historian Peter Guralnick and artists like Lucinda Williams and Todd Snider, the latter of whom takes Gordon on the road as an opening act.

After coming home from New Hampshire, Gordon was scheduled to fly to California for two shows; and when two shows can pay for a flight, that means people like you. And then he was bound for here, and there, and within all that, sandwiching his pursuit of the art made by people with as much honesty and grit as his own music. Does he enjoy it?

“I’m so very lucky to have this little micro-business in my life, and just to have all this art around me, and to write about it in the form of songs, and think about it, and look at it,” Gordon answers. “And, as in the music, I’m very lucky to be able to do what I do.”