" desperately wanted to meet the artist, buy a few more of his works, and perhaps even get involved with his career. There was only one small problem"
It had been a long time coming. Between 1939 and 1942, an illiterate ex-slave from Montgomery, Alabama, by the name of Bill Traylor created approximately 1,200 spectacular drawings of local street life. He was befriended by a young white artist named Charles Shannon, who preserved his work and helped bring recognition to Traylor’s art. Since the early 1960s, when Traylor gradually became known, there have been only five new discoveries of significant Outsider artists: Joseph Yoakum, Martin Ramirez, James Castle, the Philadelphia Wireman, and Henry Darger. Given this country’s rapid march toward homogeneity, the chances of an encounter with a great self-taught artist are as slim as the phone book of Silver City, New Mexico. Which is one of a number of reasons why a trip to Silver City, during the summer of 2010, had been the furthest thing from my mind.
I had been sitting in Che’s Lounge, an edgy bar in downtown Tucson with an iconic portrait of the Argentinian revolutionary stenciled on a naked brick wall.
My friend Mac Daddy, a local Hells Angel at the time, once said to me, “Why would you want to patronize a Commie bar?” I didn’t see it that way. I was lured by the promise of happy hour and an ice cold Miller High Life for only a buck. Even so, I probably had no business being there. The room was packed with patrons who looked like refugees from a "Mad Max" movie.
I found myself seated on a bar stool, flipping through the pages of the Downtown Tucsonan, when I noticed a small display ad that read: "Silver City – Only Three Hours From Tucson —18 Art Galleries, Good Restaurants, Live Music —Come and Check us out!" That seemed liked a good idea since I was already planning to drive to Santa Fe and Silver City was more or less on the way. I had high hopes for Silver City based on visiting Bisbee and Jerome, other prominent mining towns in the region, which had also undergone a revival. Each was filled with an intriguing combination of mystery and melancholy, and for some unknown reason, a single absurdly good restaurant.
As I began driving toward Silver City, the scenery transitioned from strands of giant anthropomorphic saguaros to open vistas of silver-green sagebrush. Upon pulling into “Silver,” I spotted a promising-looking cafe called the Javalina Coffee House. Its name suggested a witty play on the local wild javelina and a slang term for coffee. Judging by the original pressed-tin ceiling, the cafe had experienced a number of past lives. Seated in the spacious room, I struck up a conversation with a woman named Polly, who turned out to be the owner. It was a serendipitous moment; she was originally from Sausalito—my current hometown. During the 1970s, Polly had been part of a contingent of hippies who lived on a flotilla of funky houseboats. Eventually she married, moved to neighboring Mill Valley, raised her kids and got divorced. Looking for a fresh start, she found herself drawn to New Mexico and wound up in Silver City. Despite its name, the town was actually known for copper mining. When the copper veins played out, it went into a long downward spiral.
During the 1980s, civic leaders came together to reinvent their city of 10,000 as a center for the arts. With a downtown of handsome, century-old buildings serving as a magnet, they were able to lure artists and a surprising number of galleries. Soon, a handful of hip restaurants sprang up to accommodate visiting tourists. With the rejuvenation of Isaac’s Bar, which featured live country music on the weekends, the town found its heart. Silver City’s climb back from the dead was complete.
Polly and I continued our conversation. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a polychromed, three-foot-tall wooden sculpture sitting on the floor adjacent to our table. I noticed it had a curvilinear body, which loosely resembled a snail shell.
Its whorls were painted a rich shade of gray that art historians might refer to as Jasper Johns gray. It was decorated with a coat of red spots encircled by purple rectangles. But here’s the kicker; while the paint was still wet, the artist had intentionally squeegeed the surface, gently blurring the two colors. It was a sophisticated move, reminiscent of Brice Marden.
Polly continued to quiz me about the current state of Sausalito: “Are the houseboats still around?” “Is the Trident still in business?” As I proceeded to answer her queries, I couldn’t take my eyes off the sculpture. The creature had an elongated, smooth, unpainted neck, which extended into a head whose meticulously painted facial features appeared to be divided by a peace sign. A branch, with its tip cut off, extended about three inches from the face, forming a crooked nose. A tightly manicured beard framed the entire face. Perched on its head was a black top hat, worn at a slight tilt, which gave the work a touch of whimsy. Whatever it was that I was staring at, it was an amazing piece of art.
Pointing to the carving, I said, “Hey Polly, what is this?” She smiled, “Oh, that.” “Seriously,” I said, “Who’s the artist?” “You know, I really can’t remember his name. He’s some guy who lives just outside of town. I bought it a few year ago for only 10 dollars.” As someone used to dealing with blue-chip art, including six- and seven-figure paintings by Andy Warhol, I was charmed by the quaint sum. I then asked, “Do you have his address—maybe I can meet him while I’m in town?” “I haven’t seen this guy in years. He probably moved away or something.” Flipping it over, I spotted a signature on its bottom. I said, “Hey, here’s his name… Kaderly. Does that sound familiar?” “Nope.”
There comes a moment when rapture turns to a desire to possess. That moment was now upon me. I asked, “Would you consider selling it?” “You really want to buy it? Well, things have been kind of slow this summer. With the 90-degree heat… the economy… What would you give me for it?” I blurted out, “How about 50 bucks?”
Judging by the expression on her face, Polly was impressed by my offer. “Hmm. I could use the money. Can you pay me in cash?” I instantly opened my wallet and peeled off a fifty. I was delighted. It wasn’t everyday I could buy something that thrilled me for what amounted to a tad more than lunch money. I thanked Polly, expressed how much I enjoyed meeting her, and bade her farewell. Her parting words to me were to be sure and have dinner at 1zero6.
According to Polly, the restaurant’s Pacific Rim fusion cuisine was an experience not to be missed. Later that evening, I took a short stroll from my hotel over to 1zero6. The jewel box of a room contained only eight tables. The décor was kept to a minimum; a few Chinese kites were suspended from the ceiling. I was greeted by Jake, the chef, who also turned out to be a Bay Area transplant. He once worked for a well-known restaurant in San Francisco, but eventually decided he wanted his own place. Given the area’s prohibitive rents, he realized he’d have to relocate. Somehow, Jake wound up in Silver City, where he bragged about buying a house for t$30,000 (plus another $30,000 to renovate it), and still had enough left over to open a dining establishment.
Without going into all of the superlatives, I enjoyed one of the more memorable meals of my life at 1zero6: a simple mesquite-grilled chicken breast smothered in several types of New Mexican red chilies—each bite was sex. As I ordered a second glass of Pinot Noir, my thoughts drifted to my art acquisition. Right before dessert, I told Jake about it and offered to return to my hotel room to retrieve the piece and show it to him—which I did. When we looked at it, I noticed how much it resembled the sculpture of H.C. Westermann, an educated artist with an Outsider artist’s sensibility. A typical piece of his might be a quirky robotic figure, meticulously crafted from various exotic hardwoods. Upon paying the check, I realized Kaderly was someone special who fell into the same category as Westermann. I desperately wanted to meet the artist, buy a few more of his works, and perhaps even get involved with his career. There was only one small problem.
I didn’t know how to find him, nor apparently did anyone else.
Once I returned to Sausalito, I marveled at how my $50 acquisition held its own with the rest of my collection. When people came over to visit they pointed at the Kaderly and always commented on it. No one was indifferent. I became obsessed with finding out more about him. Just for the hell of it, I went on my computer, clicked on Google, and typed the words: Kaderly, Silver City, New Mexico. Bingo.
Soon I was back in Santa Fe, heading south on Interstate 25. After a couple of wrong turns, I pulled into the town of Gila, about thirty miles from “Silver.” Soon I spied a long, purple stucco wall in the distance. I had found Kaderly’s studio. It was surrounded by cottonwood trees whose downed limbs were used exclusively by the artist for his creations. He was once quoted as saying, “If it can’t outrun me, it’s gonna become art.” A contingent of “root” creatures that resembled aliens from the cult flick "Barbarella" appeared to be guarding the entrance. This was not a promising beginning. As anyone who has ever scoured the Deep South in search of Outsider art will tell you, there are (almost) more animals whittled from tree roots than the area’s ubiquitous fire ants.
Kaderly extended his hand. He was heavily tanned and looked like he was in his mid-s60s. Once he led me into the inner sanctum of his studio I was overwhelmed by row after row of remarkable sculptures. What really stood out was the work’s sense of humor; a number of carved heads had protruding tongues. Though Kaderly is a serious artist, he obviously doesn’t take himself too seriously. He told me a little about his background; very little. He once lived in Ojai, California and made a living as an upholsterer. That would partially explain his manual skills.
Upon retiring to Gila he bought a small place, noticed a lot of cottonwood on the property, and found himself compelled to start carving things. While this story isn’t unusual among self-taught artists—at some point they all experience an artistic calling—you sensed it was a little different for Kaderly. It felt more like he needed something to do with his time and unexpectedly discovered a well of hidden talent, which had never been tapped. The only comparison I could come up with, as far as someone who came to his art so late in life, was Bill Traylor. I arrived armed with $300 in cash, just in case I found a few works to my liking. That didn’t prove to be a problem. As I pointed to various pieces and asked prices, Kaderly called out, “That one? $75. The sculpture in back? $150. The piece you’re holding? You can have it for $50.” I can’t remember ever having so much fun buying art. It was one of those rare instances where I could more than afford to purchase whatever I wanted. Within five minutes, my wad of twenties was exhausted.
Kaderly began bubble-wrapping my acquisitions.s I wandered outside and surveyed the carvings scattered along the purple wall. A certain root creature called out to me. It resembled a funky, two-foot-long caterpillar, painted in day-glow lime green. It reminded me of the hookah-smoking caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. Kaderly walked over to me, his arms overflowing with wrapped works of art. He noticed me holding the caterpillar. I put it down and said to him, “Maybe next time.” We began loading my Honda, each of us feeling like he had gotten the better of the bargain. With a wave of his hand, Bill strolled away. I was about to slide behind the wheel, when he turned around and marched back to my car. He said, “Here, you forgot something.” It was the caterpillar.
Bill Kaderly’s work can be seen at The Art Gallery at Casitas de Gila Guesthouse in Gila, New Mexico (877) 923-4827.
Photographs by Guy Cross
Richard Polsky is the author of the recent The Art Prophets. He lives in Sausalito, California. He can be reached at Polskyart1@gmail.com.