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Renaissance Man

By Carolyn Bahm

ARLINGTON – Artist Jimmy Crosthwait truly is, as one Memphis observer recently told him, “woven into the DNA of this place.” He is a familiar face to Memphis children from 22 years of puppetry at the Pink Palace Museum. Music devotees recall him playing the washboard for the iconic band Mud Boy and the Neutrons. Horror fans know him as Willard in the television movie, “Savage County.” Art patrons have poked at his whimsical beaded mobiles in local gallery windows, taken home his floral wall hangings, and admired his larger sculptures that have a totemic Native American feel. The stages of his life read like a lesson in art exploration. Crosthwait seems glad to keep learning. “The things people learn, if they engage in art, are things they almost can’t learn in any other way,” he said. He is as approachable as his creations. Crosthwait is a thin man with a mane of flowing white hair, expressive hands and a neat beard he strokes when he talks. A sense of local history clings to his life story. He frequently mentioned his luck and gratitude at the long list of Memphis-area artists who influenced his sculptures, his drawings, and his music. Friends’ artwork holds places of honor in his home. A walkthrough is a tour of his own artistic life from the ’60s onward, including a triptych with a lighted Last Supper scene and a drawing that looks at first glance like scattered dandelions, until the viewer leans closer to see the literal maze of lines within. His works have matured over the years, but they continue to pull unlikely elements together. “It’s a marriage of strength and delicacy,” he said, rummaging in his studio for examples. The pieces have fragile elements like glass teardrops, but the assemblages hold together with glue, metal rods, dowels, and stainless steel deep-sea fishing line rated at 20 or 40 pounds. Zen Clocks are one of his newer lines, connecting items like an ornate metal arch, a pocket watch, and a door lock on a metal foundation. He bought ornate wooden Russian spoons at this year’s RiverArtsFest in Memphis for the clock pendulums. Crosthwait waggled a spoon between two fingers and said, “I’m always looking for a new angle on the dangle.” His basement studio is packed with a magpie palette of shine, texture and color. A bright blue metal dinosaur hangs on a back wall. Blankets cover his table saw and kiln to add more surfaces where he can sift through art elements. An IBM Selectric typewriter ball shares space with Italian marbles, deconstructed stamped metal jewelry from yard sales, a tiny brass pig, his own pinch pottery, an abacus, snippets of wrought iron, an upturned chalice, and an amber glass teardrop as fat as a baseball. They all come together in art that is uniquely Jimmy Crosthwait. Whimsy and organic shapes dominate, along with Eastern and Native American motifs. There’s also a thread of humor that makes his eyes sparkle: A clay ball nestled in a close-fitting stand will probably become “It’s Only Rock and Bowl (But I Like It).” A wall hanging with a crossbar labeled “Made in Thailand” has a maiden of Thailand dangling below it. His beaded mobiles are Zen Chimes because their silence is like that of one hand clapping. And he calls many of his wall hangings Equations, because – he said with a theatrical flourish – the metal shapes just look something like math symbols. Artwork is art fun for Crosthwait. “Art doesn’t have to be about sending messages.” His pleasure in making joyful art is evident all the way up to his home’s top floor. It was once designed as his father’s apartment, and it now holds a sofa full of puppets and even a nearby volcano puppet designed to “erupt” with cloth lava streams and tinsel steamers. Some of the puppets may be destined for a new home soon, as he no longer performs. Crosthwait explained that he was browsing RiverArtsFest in Memphis this year when a diminutive female Elvis in complete Vegas garb stopped, looked him over carefully, and asked, “Jimmy?” It was local street performer Patricia Carreras, who he saw again the next day at the festival, this time in whiteface and a Charlie Chaplin costume. They talked about her puppetry interests, and he later called her to offer some of his own retired creations. He also recommended her to Iddo Patt, president of the board of directors for Indie Memphis, as a natural fit for the film festival with her Charlie Chaplin persona. Crosthwait has deep roots in Memphis, and he likes to make connections with people as well as with art. n Art from Rafters to Basement His passion for art and his pleasure in daily life are evident in his Arlington home. Starting in 1991, he and his wife, Ulla, worked with a contractor friend for three years to fill it with art and functionality. Ceramic sculptures are embedded in small spaces of the flagstone exterior. They installed wooden floors and ceilings, designed custom honey locust and walnut cabinetry, and cut and laid tiles. Crosthwait built a modular chest of drawers that disassembles to form a bed’s foundation when guests visit. That pervasive thread of beauty and functionality relates to his artistic vision. The Greeks had two words for art, Crosthwait said: One word referred to utilitarian items, and the other referred to magnificent works. Both types are necessary, and both are art. He cited music as an example of how art pervades human lives. “Is it frivolous? Is it a luxury? Or—,” he snapped his fingers and waved his hands, “do we all hum a tune?” n Speaking of Music Music is a natural topic for the artist, who was the washboard player for an iconic Memphis band, Mud Boy and the Neutrons. He is now its lone surviving member, but music remains a strong part of his life, whether he is playing with Sons of Mud Boy or simply enjoying his own creations. At his home, he picked up one of his clay vases and blew a lonesome wail across the narrow neck. He traced the resonant edges of a Tibetan singing bowl. Even leftovers from his art get a trial run as musical instruments: For his sculpture, he cuts sheet metal into four-foot squares and then trims out organic swoops and antler-like branching shapes. The remaining perforated metal sheets are stacked like ornate gates beside gadget-topped tables in his studio. One was transformed when he hung it from his studio rafters and lightly thumped it. After the long shimmering vibration faded, he began tapping it with a long metal screwdriver and tracing the curves and metal outcroppings. The result was a concert of different sounds, depending on where and how the piece is touched. He smiled and shrugged. “Call me an experimental musician, or a percussionist.” Whether it manifests in music, puppetry, acting, sculpting, or other art, Crosthwait’s creativity is just part of his daily life and he said it always has been. He told the story of being labeled a borderline genius when he was in the third grade, and he laughed. “I’ve often thought that was great – if I had been a full-fledged genius, I wouldn’t have stood a prayer.”

Arlington artist Jimmy Crosthwait explains how he creates one of his popular beaded mobiles.

Arlington artist Jimmy Crosthwait explains how he creates one of his popular beaded mobiles.

One Response so far.

  1. […] weekend. The studio will showcase the paintings of Deborah Fagan Carpenter and the sculptures of Jimmy Crosthwait on Dec. […]

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