Butch Anthony dug up a 65-million-year-old dinosaur bone when he was a teenager. Since then, he’s mined oddities, curiosities and found art, culminating with a new show that explores what’s within us. His show, “Vita Post Mortum,” is equal parts absurdism and haunting and runs through Jan. 25 at the Akron Art Museum.
“When I was 14 I found a dinosaur in the creek, so I’ve always been into skeletons,” says Anthony, whose show features antique portraits with the bones brought to the forefront, along with sculptures crafted from animal skeletons and an overall aesthetic that’s tempered by clever phrases, colloquialisms and subtle jokes.
“I find these old photos down in Alabama; they’re kind of spooky looking,” Anthony says with a charming drawl, adding he finds his materials through yard sales, thrift stores and even dumpster diving. Along with the obvious financial benefits of salvaging art materials, Anthony simply likes the way old stuff looks.
These stoic old portraits once adorned the walls of family homes in the 19th century. Now, Anthony’s handiwork gives these images a new life.
Museum of Wonder
The Akron show also is reminiscent of Anthony’s 80-acre property in Seale, Ala., which houses Anthony’s Museum of Wonder, an eccentric spectacle featuring everything from his recycled sculptures to snakes in jars, the world largest gallbladder, animal bones, taxidermy and other oddities.
The property also houses a one-room cabin Anthony built when he was a teenager, which later became his taxidermy shop.
Though revered around the world for his work, the artist says he prefers the comfort of his Alabama property. Rather than traveling the world, people come to him. “I hear the horn blowing and the dog barking, and I go out there and it will be somebody from New York,” he says.
Anthony looks around at his work when asked about the similarities between his exhibit and Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) iconography “It looks sort of like an x-ray to me,” he admits.
Soft-spoken and humble, his art emits a confidence not readily found in the artist himself. He’s coined a term for his style: “intertwangleism,” which combines the concept of a theory and a distinct way of speaking. Anthony says he plans to move on to other body systems, like muscles, veins, clothes and shadows, but he’s stuck on bones right now. This is only the first layer to the “intertwangleism” philosophy.
“Everybody’s got their ‘ism’ so I just made one up. So it’s all my rules. No one can tell me I’m doing it wrong.”
His artwork is adorned with clever sayings, and for this, Anthony keeps a notebook handy, and he hangs out at the local auction on Friday nights in Seale, a hub of social entertainment. “I always keep a notebook in my back pocket. I’ll write down things they say; they’re always saying something weird.”
From science to salvage
Anthony didn’t set out to be an artist.
He’s more into biology and science. “I never went to art school,” he says. “I just sort of taught myself. I make it up as I go along.”
The dinosaur bone he found is now at Auburn University, the same school that recruited him to study science and travel the country excavating dinosaur bones. They even gave him free tuition in exchange for the fossils when he was 17, and he went on to study zoology and geology.
Anthony later got into art when he and friend, John Henry Toney, dug up a turnip that looked like it had a face. On a lark, Anthony suggested Toney make a picture of it, so it was put up for sale for $50 at a local junk shop. And someone bought it. From there, Anthony began creating art, realizing there’s a market for it. “I thought hell, if he can do it, I’ll make one, too.”
His knack for salvage landed him on the television show “American Pickers.”which also prompted him to build a drive-through exhibit after the TV appearance led to an influx of visitors.
“About once a month these reality show people call me and want me to do some kind of TV show, but I think I’m going to stick to the art,” he says.
And when asked about the appeal of salvaged artwork, his answer is simple: “You go to these art stores (for supplies) and come out of there broke. All this stuff is free. I find it all. People throw away paint. I’ll wear a paintbrush out down to a nub. I don’t hardly spend any money on art materials.”
He adds: “There’s a lot of junk in Alabama, so it’s free for the picking.”
Anthony’s work also prominently features a Carnie aesthetic. He remembers going to the Freak Show tents at local fairs as a young man. One time, someone drove up to his property with a circus tent, which he cut up and used as canvas. “I roll this tent out and inside of it was a sideshow banner of the Lobster Boy. It was an original one too.”
“Vita Post Mortum” runs through Jan. 25 at the Akron Art Museum, located at One S. High St., in downtown Akron. For hours and additional info about the exhibit, visit akronartmuseum.org. The exhibit is organized by the Akron Art Museum and supported by the Mary S. and David C. Corbin Foundation.