June 3, 2012

Remembering the Greatest Bottle Cap Artist Ever

Those of you close to me know that I lost a good friend this week. Gregory Warmack, better known as "Mr. Imagination" or simply "Mr. I" to his friends, was a gifted visionary artist and a beacon of creativity in the lives of everyone who knew him.

Relevance to this blog: He was also probably the most successful and lauded bottle cap artist ever. So far as I know, no one else who worked extensively with beer bottle caps has a piece in the Smithsonian. Honestly, I'm sure I will have a personal obit in me at some point, but today I thought I would just give a brief overview of some of his work as an introduction to those unfamiliar with one of the greatest outsider artists we've ever seen.
Mr. Imagination on his throne in his Bethlehem home
The term "Outsider Artist" means basically two things. One is that the artist had no formal training and was self-taught. Mr. I was, and was a self-taught artist from a young age. The other element of the term is that the artist is directed by a visionary experience. Mr. I was shot in Chicago in the late 1970s, and the ensuing coma gave him a series of visions that would guide him for the rest of his life.

Early in his career, Mr. I worked primarily with bottlecaps and an industrial byproduct called sandstone.
One of Mr. Imagination's pieces in the Smithsonian
Mr. I would pound out the bottle caps with a rubber hammer, and then affix them with nails and wood putty to a frame that was usually a found object.

A Mr. Imagination sandstone piece from the Judy Saslow gallery
Sandstone is very brittle and he could carve a piece in a matter of minutes. One of his favorite things to do when he met new people was to quickly knock out a pen holder in the shape of their name.

Mr. I also created some very large environmental pieces, such as this arch at the House of Blues in Orlando:
Image hotlinked from Prek and K Sharing blog
and this bus shelter at the Banana Factory in Bethlehem:
Mr. I's bus shelter, courtesy Bethlehem Patch.com
As you can see, certain themes and elements recurred in his work, even as he matured into larger pieces and different forms.
Mr. I in his throne at Musikfest.
I first got to know Mr. I when I was just a kid. My mother and my now-stepfather knew him through art projects at Lehigh. He was soon enough a member of the my family that I called him "Uncle I". In high school, I did a bit of a photo project where I asked people to put on his bottle cap hat and staff, inspired by Philippe Halsman's "jump" shots. People could not put on the hat without smiling.
Mr. Imagination at the Bethlehem Brew Works. I told you there was beer relevance.
Mr. Imagination's move to Bethlehem, and the ensuing decade he spent there, I will remember as happy years. Sadly, that changed with a fire in January of 2009. A staggering amount of Mr. I's art was lost, along with a vast collection of other artists' art and antiques. And, most devastatingly, his dog, Pharaoh.

As awful as the fire was, the huge outpouring of generosity from his friends and supporters nationwide demonstrated how special a person Mr. I was.

For a time, he lived in another location in Bethlehem. Eventually he resumed working, including on a massive sphere for Cool Globes, and other large projects.
Mr. I with Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan in his post-fire Bethlehem home.
While it is my tendency to see life evolutionarily, rather than a series of big changes at specific moments, it is probably fair to say that Mr. I was never the same after the fire. His work went in a multitude of directions, some profound, some religious, and some funereal. He made the decision, with the support of all of his friends, to move to Atlanta in 2010, where he passed away Wednesday morning.

Unless otherwise specified, these photos are by me. In addition to adoptive nephew, I played several roles for Mr. I over the years, as everything from photographer to webmaster to scholar (two of my actual art criticism publications are on Mr. I, something that would be a conflict of interest in any field other than art). The works below are all from a very impromptu website we put up for Mr. I to sell art in advance of his move.

To say that Mr. I was prolific would be a massive understatement. Like many outsider artists, Mr. I was compelled to create at a pace far beyond what a "normal" person could muster. During especially productive times, it was not uncommon that he would go weeks with very little rest. Anyone who has cared for a brilliant and creative person knows the strange lines we walk emotionally, between wanting them to be healthy and around forever, and understanding that the only thing that fulfills them is a process that is all-encompassing and downright unhealthy, at least at times. Mr. I was a man of limitless energy and positivity. He worked with children across the globe, always encouraging them to "use their imagination." He lived for art, and to bring life to the people around him.

For those of you local to the Lehigh Valley who knew Mr. I, we're working on a local memorial service. His art is available for sale by a number of dealers and galleries, so if you're interested feel free to Google or send me an email and I can connect you to the right place. There's a Facebook group where people have collecting recollections, etc. For more information, here are few links:

Here's a video of Mr. I working in Atlanta:
This post became a bit more personal than I intended when I started, so thank you for bearing with me. Death of a loved one is something for which there really is no preparation. I'll be back to happier topics Tuesday, when I'll be posting an interview with Adrian Grenier (yes, the guy from Entourage) and Justin Hawkins on the launch of their new craft beer outfit.


  1. Beautiful. Thanks for writing this. My memories of Mr. I will always have a special place in my heart.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing. This is the best way to honor the man who gave us all so much inspiration. (from Silagh White at ArtsLehigh)

  3. Thank you for sharing such a personal recollection. Those we love who have passed live on in our hearts--Mr. I will surely live on in yours. My condolences.

  4. Wonderful Dan..You have created such a beautiful piece to honor your friend. Thanks for sharing. Love and Hugs to all who have been inspired by Mr. I.