Gregory Warmack, widely known as "Mr Imagination", was laid to rest on June 4 following a funeral service in Atlanta, where he died on May 30 of complications from a blood infection. Known to friends and associates as "Mr I", he was not only a prolific, brilliantly creative visionary artist, but a generous, charming, genuinely sweet-natured individual.
Born in Chicago, in 1948, he was one of nine children raised by a single mother in several of that city’s poorest neighbourhoods, and he grew up surrounded by hardship. He started making art as a child but never took an art course, and he dropped out of school after the ninth grade. As a youth, he painted rocks, carved miniature masks out of tree bark and made decorative pins and pendants from broken and cast-off jewellery.
When he was 30, he was robbed and shot point-blank in the stomach late one night in his neighbourhood. The assault left him hospitalised and comatose for six weeks. During that interval, he had what he described as an out-of-body experience in which he saw visions of ancient cultures. It took him a year to recover from his injuries.
The next phase of his career was prompted by his discovery of a dumping ground for industrial sandstone – blocks of sand fused together as a by-product of the steel-casting process. He began salvaging this material and carving it into elaborate, figurative sculptures. Around this time, he adopted the moniker Mr Imagination, spontaneously bestowed on him by a friend.
In the early 1980s, Mr I’s work attracted the attention of Carl Hammer, owner of Chicago’s Carl Hammer Gallery. Hammer gave Mr I his first formal exhibition and was the primary dealer of his art for many years. In the late 1980s, Mr I started making art out of bottle caps and old, stiffened paintbrushes. Using cement, putty, paint and other materials, he transformed the paintbrushes into mask-like sculptures that became his signature pieces. He used the bottle caps to ornament or cover the surfaces of his totem poles, throne-like chairs, and regal-looking accoutrements, including some of his clothing.
In 2002, Mr I left Chicago and settled in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he lived until a fire in 2008 destroyed his home and several hundred of his artworks. In 2009, he relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, where he settled in a small house that he filled with his art. When I visited him there last fall, he seemed to be thriving in every sense. At the time, he had a well-received solo show at Barbara Archer Gallery, one of that city’s premiere contemporary art venues. Some of the most powerful pieces in the latter show were fire-blackened sculptures he had salvaged from the charred ruins of his former home in Bethlehem.
About one hundred of us – family members, museum directors, curators, art dealers, fellow artists and other friends from across the country – attended Mr I’s uplifting, high-spirited funeral. We did our best to send him off in appropriate fashion with a rousing rendition of the traditional gospel song I’ll Fly Away.
by Tom Patterson
Mr Imagination always insisted that he was just an artist, not a "bottle cap artist" or "outsider artist". For him, the vocation of artist meant someone who lives their dreams and uses their imagination to transform the mundane into something wondrous. He did that every day of his life. Our lives are fraught with hardships, but for most of us it takes an artist who makes his dreams public to enable us to witness again the imaginative possibilities of life. His move to Atlanta was in this sense an effort to catch the spirit of the phoenix that rises from the fires of adversary. And now we have lost an angel of imagination who unfortunately spent too little time with us on this planet. It is our task to honour and cherish his sojourn with us – to remember his legacy, his knowing and mischievous smile, his fondness for burgers from McDonalds, his care for animals, his devotion to children and community, his magical ability to transform the lowliest things into jewels, his singing of Summertime, his twisted apostrophe of a beard, his boundless friendship, and the gifts of renewed and recycled life that he gave to all of us.
by Norman Girardot