For years the art community has debated the existence of Clyde Angel, "highway wanderer". His works captured the hearts and fascination of collectors at the Outsider Art Fair in New York, when veteran dealer Sherry Pardee first showed his works. When the work was banned from the show, as questions about the veracity of the person and the sculpture were brought into question, some dealers, myself included, stood by the work. Judy Saslow and her Chicago gallery was a top advocate for Angel's work, and I personally thank her for her steadfastness.
Finally we have some of our questions answered. Clyde Angel's son, Skip Willits has written this moving account of his father's life and art. History will make the final judgments. I will just sit back and enjoy the art. The images I've included were grabbed from the net. My own personal collection will be published at a later date.
Clyde Angel, 1920 - 2006
By Skip Willits
My father was Clyde Angel, an artist who made a name for himself by producing a powerful body of work while fiercely protecting his identity and privacy from the art world until the day he died. I didn’t say this while he was alive because he asked me not to. I knew him as Vernon Clyde Willits for most of my life. He was a welder in a small factory called Climax Engines in Clinton Iowa for 40 years. He was a family man, an avid swimmer, a traveler, a very curious soul always up for an adventure. In his retirement he took up cross country skiing. He loved books. The local library used to get rid of their old books in a dumpster that sat behind his house. He couldn’t stand to see these books thrown away, so nightly he would sneak over to pull them out. His studio and house were filled with these old discarded library books.
My dad was a product of the great depression, a World War ll vet and, like many of his generation, a man of tools and reality. He lived a factory life, usually working 10 hour days, 6 days a week, paid his bills on time. Whenever he found a little time for himself he was content in making crafty, clever works which often took the form of visual jokes; nut and bolt figures that appeared to be chasing each other, a depiction of a snow skier’s trail going through a pine tree, or flowers made out of metal pipe. He also busied himself making utilitarian constructions; stainless steel house boats, spiral staircases, porch railings. Family and friends would continually request all sorts of repair jobs and welding projects, all of which he enthusiastically took on. These craft objects and welding projects continued to give him great pride through out his life, even after his success as Clyde Angel.
In the early 1990’s, several years after his retirement he began to make uniquely strange and powerful artworks out of steel found objects and other media. He was very prolific but secretive and at times ritualistic in this new form of art making. I first discovered his new direction when I found 3 pieces of his “secret artwork” hidden under a pile of scrap steel I was getting ready to discard. These objects were startling to me and the way in which he made them bizarre, compared to his normal craft. This new artwork was out of context with his usual daily life. Through drawings, writings, wall reliefs and sculpture objects he referenced his past, present and where he thought he was going in a most unusual way. The people he knew, pets he’d had, traumas experienced were all part of his subject matter. While talking to him about this work it became clear to me that it was an essential part of his life and he could no more have stopped this new type of image making than stop his breathing.
The new artwork gave him great satisfaction but at the same time made him uncomfortable. He felt that he would be ridiculed or perhaps considered an eccentric if he showed it to anyone who was used to his ‘normal’ work. Also, he was personally unsure of where this new inspiration came from; this feeling of obligation to “make these things” puzzled him. In a peculiar way I think he was almost embarrassed by what he was making. He knew the questions would come; Why such a compulsion to create, why did he go in such a strange direction at this point in his life, why such wild outlandish figures and writings. Perhaps he didn’t want to know the answers.
Though he intuited that this new work wouldn’t be accepted in his local world he still had a desire to “get it out there.” I convinced him to let me show his work to some people who could help do this, but he insisted on anonymity. And so he created his new name, Clyde Angel. Clyde because it was his middle name, but more importantly because Clyde was the name of his father whom he loved dearly and admired greatly. The Angel part I’m not so sure of.
Though I tried to convince my dad many times to let me introduce him to the people who admired his work, he refused. This stand that he took didn’t make things easy for those who admired his artwork or represented him. The art world demanded the proper credentials and a face to go with the art. When he refused the uproar it created sometimes over shadowed his artwork. Some, like gallerist Judy Saslow understood his request to let the artwork speak for itself, “If you want to know me, know me by my art.”
The idea that all artists, through their art, aspire to leave something behind that will let future generations know they were here, to make a statement about themselves, their experiences, who they loved, who they were – that’s all he wanted to do. In his stubbornness and wisdom he accomplished all of this.
In his lifetime I stayed quiet; I honored my father’s wishes. Now things have changed. When he was alive we talked with each other everyday, often times about art. I don’t have that luxury anymore. In the three years since his death I’ve done a lot of thinking about the meaning of his life and art, where things should go from here. What to do with what I know and what was left to me.
Two weeks before he died I took him to the circus. He always loved a good circus. His favorites were the acrobats on the flying trapeze. Once he created a sculpture depicting the Great Wallendas. During this part of the show I leaned over and told him I thought the acrobats looked like his artwork. He just smiled and kept watching the show.
“I remember flying down the deep inside the wind.” – Clyde Angel
Thanks for the update Beverly! It helps to add another dimension to the art that we both enjoy, no matter the "pedigree."
Thanks so much for taking the time to read Skip Willits's comments about his father. This might be the closest we'll ever get to the real truth, but the work is exceptional, and I do not regret collecting it, nor showing it.
Thank you for the invaluable work you do......it keeps me "on the road" in my mind at least! And the entertainment value is priceless! I highly recommend your blog to all art lovers who have ever done a second take driving down the highway of life.
Skip Willits is my cousin, Vernon C Willits, Sr., was my beloved uncle - he was married to my mother's sister. We were close when we were kids.
I have many questions, too, and read of the controversy in the Chicago Reader.
Thank you for loving my family's work. Everything Skip says is true, except that I know nothing of library books salvaged, although I have not visited their home since their 50th wedding anniversary around 1990 or so. Prior to that I was at least an annual visitor.
Uncle Vern didn't share this information with us. I just don't know who the artist is for sure. I've never seen the work side by side, and am certainly not qualified to judge.
Thank you for reading the blog and telling me your personal story. What a movie this would make! The Angel pieces have a special place in my collection, and someday I hope to know the whole truth. In the meantime, I will just enjoy the art!
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