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Pam Gutlon promotes outsider artists in downtown Durham

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You could hear the party from blocks away. On a gorgeous summer evening at Outsiders Art & Collectibles, a blues band played on the porch for several hundred people and a half dozen whirligigs in the front yard. Inside the packed gallery, artists mingled with patrons ranging on the economic scale from a Duke provost to city workers, and explained their works. Much beer and wine and food was consumed. It was hot, sweaty fun—the best party in Durham that night, hosted by gallery owner Pam Gutlon.

Gutlon is an impresario, a collector of outsider art, a connector of people. And from this modest space on Iredell Street, she has created a happening.

"Her events at Outsiders Art brings together all sectors of Durham in that little house," says artist Dave Alsobrooks. "She's down-to-earth and skilled at putting people together."

On a recent afternoon, Gutlon relaxed on a davenport in one of the gallery's main rooms. The walls are warmed by Sam Ezell's bright paintings and electrified by Gabriel Shaffer's vibrant collages. Cher Shaffer's watercolor-and-pencil depictions of pandas, dogs and cats fill a side table. A strange two-headed sculpture with a small penis reclines nearby.

Outsider art, whose masters include Jimmy Suddeth and Mose Tolliver, is defined as a rough-hewn, naïve, primitive art form created by untrained artists—a contrast to the studied styles emanating from established design and arts schools.

"Outsider art has gotten very sexy," Gutlon says. "It's at the forefront of collecting."

But because of the infiltration of media to even remote corners of the country, outsider art is changing, much like blues music transformed from the rustic wailings of Honeyboy Edwards to the electrified licks of Lonnie Mack.

"The masters weren't influenced by the outside world, by media and movies. That was the original criteria," Gutlon says. "But emerging artists are not poor or isolated. They have access to the Internet and can look at each other's art. I have to decide who is a real outsider artist and who has learned to be one, who has made it their persona. The only way to tell the difference is by hearing their story."

Gutlon's story, she says, is "not a straight line, but like a boat, tacking." Now in her early 50s, Gutlon grew up in the Philippines and Hong Kong. She moved to the U.S. for college, where she received degrees in theater education and, later, counseling and consulting psychology. She worked in social services and education, for awhile directing a Quaker school. When she moved to Durham to care for her mother, she oversaw the two galleries at the John Hope Franklin Center. At one point, her father asked her if she could do anything, what would it be. "I wanted it to involve dogs and art," Gutlon says, laughing. "OK, I'll have a gallery where I can bring my dogs." (Owen, a beagle, and Biscuit, a dachshund mix, are frequent guests.)

Gutlon describes herself as "painfully shy," which belies her boisterous, sometimes bawdy sense of humor. "I think of myself as an outsider," she says, recalling an essay she read years ago. "I'm amongst, but not a part of."

Suddenly, two insurance saleswomen drop by the gallery.

"It's scratch and sniff in here," Gutlon tells them. She wants people to touch the work, to run their fingers over the wax frying pans, to feel the sharp edges of miniature robots.

"This captures me," one woman says of one of Gabriel Shaffer's collages. Paint, war photos, snippets of comic books, sheet music and Arabic text are layered with meaning. "Look at how he painted his eyes."

One of Gutlon's favorite artists is Eddie Hayes, an African-American man in his early 60s who lives in a single-wide trailer in Eastern North Carolina. Using colored pencils, he draws highly detailed pictures of farm life—tobacco and blueberry farms, tractors, barns, horses, haystacks. The black people work in the fields. The white man is clearly the boss.

"He has no computer," Gutlon says. "He does have a car and listens to the radio. But he's as close to traditional as you can get."

At Hayes' opening, he told patrons the story behind every piece. "What he's telling and the memories he's capturing—people were crying."

Alsobrooks, best known for his New Neighbors project, a public art installation in the vacant spaces of East Durham, has shown his work at Outsiders. Gutlon has also taken the initiative to place his work at the Durham Convention Center—and in unconventional spaces, including homes where Realtors are hosting open houses.

"What she brings is an open mind as to what are the possibilities," Alsobrooks says. "She pushes the envelope of outsider art. I don't have to be unfound and living in a woods somewhere. Some people are sticklers on the definition. She's not and it works."

Gutlon plans to start an artist-in-residence program this fall. Artists will spend a week at the gallery showing their work, but also traveling into community settings, such as halfway houses and prisons—places where art and therapy converge, where people can feel validated through their art.

The gallery's location on a lonely block east of Ninth Street has been a challenge. On this afternoon, the only visitors have been salespeople. "We don't have much walk-in traffic here," Gutlon says.

That will likely change with the opening of a restored, 10,000-square-foot building on Broad Street, a block behind the gallery. It will house the American Dance Festival, a new bakery owned by Amy Tornquist, a salon and other retail stores. Gutlon will have a gallery annex in that building, similar to a museum store. (Grand opening is scheduled for Aug. 22.)

"She's such a good fit," says building developer Arthur Rogers of Eno Ventures. "She is so community-oriented. She is a connector and I love that. All the tenants are talking and collaborating. And that's exactly what I wanted in the building."

Through her community work and support for the arts, Gutlon can be credited for helping to expose not only outsider artists but also Durham's arts scene to the larger world.

"I love all the attention Durham is getting. I'd like to think we're a part of that," she says. "It really is everybody's gallery."

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