American Folk Art Museum: Button Tree
Gregory “Mr. Imagination” Warmack (b. 1948)
Wood and cement with buttons, bottle caps, and nails
56 x 34 x 60 in.
American Folk Art Museum, gift of the artist, 2000.13.1
Chicago artist Gregory Warmack, also known as Mr. Imagination, has boundless energy and continually turns his artistic powers into acts of goodwill intended to contribute to societal change. Warmack believes that his art objects—from monumental public art grottoes that can now be found across the nation to small, accessible bottle-cap and button tokens—are gifts. And in many ways, his art is inspired by a gift—the gift of life.
Although Warmack has always made art objects, it was only after he was shot in the stomach in 1978 in an attempted robbery that he made a conscious choice to become an artist. After the shooting, Warmack fell into a coma, and during this time he had visions of ancestral worlds and other civilizations. It was out of this trauma that Mr. Imagination was born, and there followed an explosion of creativity. Warmack began to work in earnest and on a large scale. He uses any materials he can find, constructing totemic figures and mythological animals covered with bottle caps, buttons, and coins. Recycled pieces of furniture covered in bottle caps become regal figures and accessories such as thrones and footrests. He also works in industrial sandstone, plaster, and wood. And he attends art openings and events wearing a homemade suit encrusted with bottle caps. Masks, canes, and staffs are forms the artist returns to again and again. All these objects he attributes to a past Warmack claims to have visited as he struggled for his life.
The understructure of Button Tree is the limb of an old tree that the artist rescued from the streets and set in a base festooned with bottle caps. Dismayed that the tree had been the victim of development, her resolved to “save part of it.” Warmack worked on the piece a little at a time, nailing buttons onto the wood one by one in a laborious process that took years to complete.
Wire strands of buttons radiate from the branch, creating a lively, jubilant presence. The animated surface, with its tangling tendrils, becomes almost like dreadlocks springing forth from the head of a majestic man. By rescuing a dead tree limb and transforming it into a jaunty work of art, this northern urban artist has also reclaimed the Southern rural root tradition practiced by Bessie Harvey and Lonnie Holley. And because each button is nailed to the tree, one cannot help but think of the Central African nkisi tradition of covering the surface of wooden sculptures with hundreds of nails, each representing a prayer, pounded in by a village full of believers. While the result may be different, the act is the same. Warmack has created an American nkisi, willing the dead tree to linger in life still, now as a work of art.