Ten years ago, author Greg Bottoms and I worked together at a local arts and culture magazine called “Gadfly” in an office on the middle level of The Rutherford Institute (which bankrolled the mag). Upstairs, my dad was busy suing Bill Clinton, but down in our purgatory, Greg and I would talk of fringe religious artists like James Hampton, Jr., a Washington, D.C.-based janitor who also made a 180-piece sculpture out of tin foil-wrapped refuse, all for the purpose of announcing the end times as told in the Book of Revelation. As a Christian, I could offer some perspective on religious belief to Bottoms who, as an agnostic, was always a little uncomfortable in his immediate surroundings. That same tension is everpresent in his newest book, The Colorful Apocalypse, an account of his “journeys in outsider art.”
Devilish works: Greg Bottoms uncovers the wild side of Christian art in The Colorful Apocalypse.
Over the course of 180 pages, readers follow the former UVA creative writing student as he travels to Georgia on the first anniversary of the death of Howard Finster (who died in 2000), whose fundamentalist art construction “Paradise Gardens” made him famous enough to be commissioned by both R.E.M. and Talking Heads to do album covers. There, Bottoms meets artist Myrtice West, who only began to paint her visions from God after her daughter’s murder. In Baltimore and then South Carolina, the author tags along with William Thomas Thompson, whose nerve damage preceded a life of painting apocryphal anti-Semitic portraits. His sometime-partner Norbert Kox leads Bottoms to frozen rural Wisconsin, where he finds the artist constructing sculptures attacking the Catholic Church and the pope as the anti-Christ, all after a bad LSD trip.
“For my project I was mainly interested,” Bottoms says near the end of his book, “in the social and psychological situation out of which Christian visionary art came. I didn’t want to be a critic; more like a documentarian. My idea was to talk to the artists themselves about their intentions.” As with this one, Bottoms’ two previous books were as much about him as they were its subjects. Published in 2000, Angelhead was a riveting memoir of his schizophrenic brother’s descent into mental illness and his family’s suffering. Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks—a loose collection of stories chronicling the lives of eccentric Southern characters—was released the following year. Whereas Rednecks seemed to suffer from a self-consciousness that overshadowed his characters, the six year span between books shows Bottoms efficiently balancing his own experiences with mental illness against the sheer craziness of these religious artists, people who have transformed their painful pasts into visceral art, much as Bottoms does here.