Above: (left) "Untitled" by Mr. Imagination; Located in Kentuck's Permanent Collection. (right) Mr. Imagination at the Kentuck Festival of the Arts; year unknown.
Gregory Warmack (henceforth known in this blog post as Mr. I) used everyday, cast-off materials to explore themes of self identity, immortality, and Black pride. He was the third of nine children who grew up in one of the poorest parts of Chicago. He credited his mother for recognizing and encouraging his creativity at a young age—by his teens, he was making found object jewelry and carving bits of bark into faces. He had a series of jobs to help support his family, including a busboy, masonry repairman, and a hairdresser.
In 1978, Mr. I had a premonition that someone was going to kill him.
One week later, while selling jewelry on the street, Mr. I was shot twice in the stomach at point-blank range. He spent six weeks in a coma, and, during the doctors' attempts to save his life, he had a life-altering "out of body" experience during which he had visions of time travel, past lives, and ancient cultures. According to Material Culture, "the visions inspired him to dedicate his life towards the creation of art with spiritual power and and a positive restorative force that could make people happy." It took him six weeks to come out of a coma and a year to recover from his traumatic injuries.
In the 1980s, Mr. I renamed himself Mister Imagination, a nickname bestowed upon him by a friend. Inspired by his visions, he began to work with new materials , including the bottle caps and sandstone he is most known for today. His signature pieces were hardened paintbrushes with mask-like faces, as seen in the piece in Kentuck's Permanent Collection. He also began covering everything—including his clothes—in bottle caps. The bottle caps gave his sculptures a regal, jewel-like finish; ordinary chairs became thrones and hats were transformed into stately crowns.
In 2002, Mr. I moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in search of the pace of a smaller town to aid in his creative process. He became ingrained in the Pennsylvania art community until 2008 when a fire consumed most of his artwork, material possessions, and several beloved pets. Seeking a fresh start, Mr. I then moved to Atlanta, Georgia and lived there until his untimely passing in 2012.
During his life, Mr. Imagination became one of the most famous self-taught artists in the world. In addition to dozens of exhibitions both national and international, his work resides in the collections of the American Visionary Museum in Baltimore, MD; The Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; the Museum of American Folk Art, New York, NY and other institutions.
True to his art, Mr. Imagination's booth at the Kentuck Festival was always a spectacle everyone had to stop and admire. His love of community and working with children demonstrated the accessibility of art—all you need is a few cast-off objects and a little imagination.
Inspired by recent programming at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, beginning June 5th Kentuck Art Center is dedicating ten days of online content to the Black artists in our Permanent Collection. While Kentuck Art Center cannot address the full complexity of systemic racism on our own, we can gain perspective and a sense of purpose by listening to the voices of artists we are proud to have in our collection.
Kentuck's Permanent Collection holds artworks of significance to Kentuck's history, as well as the American Folk Art movement. The objects collected by Kentuck physically document the narrative of American Folk Art, as well as Kentuck's Festival, Studio, and Exhibiting artists. The objects in Kentuck's Permanent Collection form a history that is the basis for research, exhibition, interpretation, and community engagement.