Art collector and dealer Carl Hammer first met Gregory Warmack in 1983 when he entered an abandoned home on the South Side of Chicago that was hosting the artist’s work. At the head of the tour was a placard that read “Welcome to the World of Mr. Imagination,” the name Warmack adopted for himself. It was a fitting introduction to a man whose mind never stopped working or creating.
“It was pretty staggering,” Hammer said. “I walked into a room full of sandstone carvings. A good deal of them had been burned, and there was an eerie and special drama to them.” Hammer soon began to represent the artist’s work.
The Intuit Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago, IL is currently hosting Mr. Imagination’s work. Intuit’s exhibit features 197 pieces of art, and Hammer is one of the collectors who contributed, turning over his archives to curator Martha Henry to select whatever works she wanted. It’s a remarkable exhibit, and yet it only skims the surface of his work and life.
Mr. Imagination was born in Maywood, Illinois and lived on the South Side of Chicago for most of his life. He had no formal training as an artist, but he began creating in his childhood. His life was changed, however, in 1978, when he was shot during a mugging and lapsed into a coma.
During the coma, he had a spiritual vision of ancient Egyptian pharaohs, thrones, and staffs. That experience prompted him to dedicate his life wholly to the artistic expression of his imagination.
He set to work, and in short order Mr. Imagination became one of the most acclaimed folk artists in Chicago. His reputation rested on not only his sandstone sculptures but works of art made entirely from bottle caps. He nailed the caps together one by one so that the resulting sculpture–a vest, a hat, or a full-sized throne–didn’t require any other structural support.
Sometimes Mr. Imagination created art out of materials he initially planned to use only as tools. For instance, he often used wire as a framework for his bottle cap sculptures. But at the urging of a friend he started experimenting with wire as an artistic medium in its own right, creating miniature and full-sized dresses and suits that can be seen in the exhibit.
Pushed and prodded by his visions, Mr. Imagination created images of ancient kings in his own image. Hammer says it established the artists’ connection to his African ancestry. “He saw himself as a reincarnated African king. That stands as the most iconic of his creations,” Hammer said. “His work had a kind of spirituality about who he was and who he aspired to be.”
But Mr. Imagination was in other ways the opposite of self-important or self-aggrandizing. Those who knew him described him as one of the friendliest, warmest people on the outsider art scene. “He was one of the most gregarious people I ever met,” Hammer said. “He was a friend to just about anyone on the street if they gave him two seconds. He’d produce a signature piece in their name in no time at all.”
Heather Holbus, Intuit’s Assistant Director of Operations and Promotions, agreed, speaking about a weekend she spent with him when Intuit honored him with a Visionary Ball. “He was very generous. He was very jovial, never mean-spirited,” Holbus said. “And he was always, always making stuff. He never stopped. His energy was incredible.”
That generosity of spirit applied to his artwork, which he often gave away without a second thought. “He’d spend so much time creating things and then give them away,” Holbus said. “It was never about selling them or making money. It was always about the ability to create.”
His upbeat, outgoing nature was tested, however, by the many tragedies in his life. Having lived in Chicago for years, he left in 2001 after the death of his brother, and moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. There, he worked for seven years until a fire in his home destroyed a great deal of his artwork. The trauma took a terrible toll on his creativity, preventing him from making art for a full year. “It was unusual because he woke up and went to bed creating,” Holbus said. “But I couldn’t imagine losing that much art.”
Nevertheless, friends urged him to create again, and he began incorporating some of his scorched artwork into new sculptures. He also included references to the fire in his paintings, with the label “Fire Water” featured prominently. “His work has a strong autobiographical quality to it,” Hammer said. “It talks not only about him, but about the life that he’s been through, the community from which he originated.”
Intuit hosted a fundraiser for Mr. Imagination in 2008, and he responded by sending personal artwork as gifts for the staff. He moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where he continued working until his death from illness in 2012 at the age of 64.
His friends remember him above all as a an energetic man who gave expression to his boundless imagination. Hammer recalled Mr. Imagination’s his first exhibition in a prominent New York gallery. He and Hammer flew to New York. While they were walking up Madison Avenue, Mr. Imagination saw something in the street. “He dashed out into the middle of the street amidst all of the cars racing by to rescue a big hunk of metal,” Hammer said. “I was personally embarrassed, but he said the piece was calling out to him. He had that kind of resonating affinity for seeing objects that demanded he do something with them. As embarrassed as I was, it was a revelation of how he responded to the ordinary and how he could rescue it, rehabilitate it and turn it into something people would enjoy.”
A selection of Mr. Imagination’s legacy of found objects turned into great works of art will reside at Intuit until April.