January 16, 2011

This Man Made Art Because He Couldn't Help Himself: Steve Ashby's 'Fixing-Ups'

Train In Landscape, 19??

"I wake up with an idea that won't let me get back to sleep. So I get up and make that idea."

The son of a freed slave, Steve Ashby was born in 1904 in Delaplane, Virginia, and never left his hometown. He started working as a farmhand with his father when he was still young. He later worked as a gardener and a hotel waiter before his retirement in the 1950s. After his wife died, had many idle hours. When he made his first life-size sculpture of her likeness, dressed in her clothes from panties to outer wear, the neighbors were shocked at first to see her tending to her daily chores again. He took to making smaller "fixing-ups" that he produced prodigiously out of wood, and found objects like magazine cutouts, tool parts, fabric, marbles, and toys. These art objects, many designed with whirlygigs and moveable parts, ranged from the expressive to the pornographic fantasy, and were often a vehicle for Ashby's keen eye for social details. He stuck an assortment of his sculptures in the ground, on the fence, and in the trees around his yard. The pornographic cutouts were kept under his bed, shared only with great reluctance. The droll perceptiveness of his work is all the more accentuated by the crudenss of the carving. The characters, caught in the middle of their mundane daily lives seem imbued with laughter and terror in equal amounts. Since his death in 1980, Steve Ashby's work has been in many exhibitions of outsider art around the country, and he has been anthlogized in several books on African-American folk art.

Untitled, 19??

Untitled, 197?

Untitled (Cat's Head), 1970s

Pregnant Woman, late 1960s

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