Like so many visionary artists, it seems, John Root Hopkins lives in the middle of nowhere. Outside Cambridge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Route 16 rolls past clusters of aluminum sided houses and fields of corn and soybeans. In Church Creek, just beyond the firehouse, the road branches off and meanders through stands of Loblolly Pines to a gravel driveway that leads to Hopkins’s home, which overlooks the creek. The house actually belongs to Hopkins’s lady friend, Helen “Bunny” Crump, and she’s scurrying around packing for a trip to London, while Hopkins sits at the kitchen table.
The 80-year-old Hopkins may have 10 pieces in the American Visionary Art Museum’s (AVAM) upcoming exhibition, What Makes Us Smile? (co-curated by Simpsons creator Matt Groening, artist Gary Panter, and AVAM founder/director Rebecca Hoffberger), but he’s hardly your typical visionary artist. He isn’t a recluse, hasn’t struggled with mental illness or addiction, and isn’t prone to anti-government rants or religious epiphanies. He’s actually a South Carolina native, retired patent attorney, world traveler, decorated war veteran, and all-around southern gentleman, with a disarming smile and wicked sense of humor. “I like to paint every day and stir up trouble,” he’s fond of telling people.
Since retiring from AMP Inc.—where he worked out of offices in France, Italy, Spain, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania—and moving to Dorchester County 20 years ago, Hopkins has painted 1,400 pieces and, he estimates, sold more than half of them. They’re popular items at Joie de Vivre, a Cambridge gallery that’s been exhibiting his work for nearly a decade.
“The ones that make people smile sell the best,” says owner Joy Staniforth. “They’re simply a reflection of John Root’s brilliant wit.”
Hopkins’s larger-than-life portrait of Jack Kevorkian, holding an actual scythe, is in AVAM’s permanent collection, and he’s been included in two previous exhibitions at the museum. And he’s quick to joke that he’s had work shown at The Louvre and The National Gallery: paintings done on sardine cans and Altoid tins that he secretly hung in the restrooms. “That way, I can say my art has been shown at the finest museums in the world,” he cracks.
Though he painted as a youngster, Hopkins never had any formal training, and his work leans toward a wry primitivism that suits his humor. “I don’t think there’s any rational explanation for what I’ve painted over the years,” he says. “I just paint what comes to mind, and that’s it.”
Crump points out Hopkins’s pieces that hang throughout the house, surprisingly conventional paintings of cats, a lion, sailboats, a blue heron, and a perfectly drawn rabbit—a gift to “Bunny” from the artist. “That rabbit is the best thing he’s ever done,” says Crump. “You can see every hair.”
“You know, the Cambridge Women’s Club always asks him to donate a painting for their auction,” she adds, proudly.
When asked if there’s anything on display that reflects Hopkins’s sense of humor, she points out a painting of Noah’s Ark. At first glance, it’s a typical scene of the animals heading two-by-two toward the giant ship. Look closely though, and you’ll notice that the tiny mice holding hands in the foreground are iconic Disney characters and McDonald’s golden arches illuminate the distant shore.
“I get such a kick out of that,” says Crump. “It always makes me chuckle.”
Rebecca Hoffberger figured the time was right for a humorous exhibition at AVAM.
“With the economy and job market the way it is, it seemed like a show centered on humor and the things that make us smile would be timely and useful,” she says. “If you think of when you laughed hardest and best, it probably didn’t have anything to do with money. I think it’s healthy to refocus people on that.”
So she began researching laughter in primates—she gleefully notes that apes have the capacity to tickle themselves—and looking at laughter’s scientific underpinnings, cultural significance, and therapeutic value. Besides learning that, yes, laughter is good medicine, and that smiling is, indeed, a universal language, Hoffberger also found something surprising: Jokes about flatulence are more ancient and universal than one might think.
“Did you know that the ancient Greeks wrote a book of fart jokes?” she asks. “It turns up in the writings of Shakespeare and Chaucer, too. And the highest paid performer in late-1800s France wasn’t Sarah Bernhardt, the great actress, it was Joseph Pujol”—the “fartiste” known for his musical expulsions of gas.
So, yes, the exhibition will include a Whoopee Cushion Bench, in a gallery titled “Toot Suite.”
It will also include more sophisticated fare, some of it suggested by Hoffberger’s co-curators, who are both steadfast AVAM fans.
“AVAM is a wonderful place,” says Gary Panter, the legendary alt-comix artist who’s probably best known for designing the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse sets. “One senses a great spirit behind the scenes, which turns out to be Rebecca and Ted [Frankel, who runs AVAM’s gift shop] and friends of the featured artists.” Beyond that, Panter calls the art “strong,” and says he recognizes its “supernatural charge of unhinged exploration.”
Matt Groening had a similar reaction while visiting AVAM a few years ago. He was in town to see his son, who was attending a local college, and left a message for Hoffberger. “He left his card, which had Marge Simpson on it,” recalls Hoffberger, “and he wrote how much he loved the museum and the museum store, which he said was his favorite in the whole world.”
Hoffberger contacted Groening, and they talked for an hour-and-a-half. “AVAM is the only museum that has ever brought me to tears,” he told Hoffberger, who says they also bonded over how much they loved Fractured Fairy Tales and Mad magazine as children. Hoffberger asked Groening to co-curate What Makes Us Smile?, and he agreed.
It turns out that he and Panter are good friends, and they’re both huge fans of a famous Baltimorean.
“Matt and I are both rabid Zappa fans,” says Panter. “It’s one of the things we bonded over.” Panter notes that they’re both John Waters fans, as well. In their discussions about the exhibition, Panter says he and Groening “enthused about the museum and talked about humor and objects a lot.”
At Groening’s suggestion, the show will include a tribute to Mad magazine—in the form of an elaborate, Alfred E. Neuman-inspired bedroom; work by Pedro Bell, who drew the classic Parliament/Funkadelic album covers in the 1970s; and screenings of The Simpsons episode in which Homer unwittingly becomes a visionary artist (“Mom and Pop Art,” from Season 10).
For his part, Panter recruited Atlanta cartoonist Lonnie Brooks—“His cartoons make me laugh and have a great offhand attitude,” says Panter—and artist Ian Flynn, whose work Panter describes as “high energy folk cubism.”
But Hoffberger did the lion’s share of the curatorial work, choosing the balance of the show’s 80-plus artists. She’s excited about a metal sculpture of a red-haired, bikini-clad biker—by Lou and Judy Hagen, who are husband and wife and long distance truckers—that will hang over the front entrance, and a giant “Smile” welcome mat made from toothbrush bristles by Boston artist Nadya Volicer. She’s also got costumes and props from physician/clown Patch Adams, a huge collection of “junk-picked” toys from comedian Michael Baldwin (known as “the legendary WID”), drawings by quadriplegic humorist John Callahan, a few pieces by John Waters, and postcards culled from Frank Warren’s Post-Secret project.
“This is going to be a very playful and loving show,” says Hoffberger, “but with some serious undertones. Its themes are meant to spark communal contemplation, so it’s more grassroots than some of our previous exhibitions.”
Hoffberger finds Hopkins’s art especially playful, and she spends a day rummaging through the attic of the Cambridge condo where he stores his work. Hoffberger’s eyes sparkle with a glint of anticipation as she makes her way through stacks of paintings and drawings, as Hopkins looks on. Every so often, she shrieks with delight and pulls a piece from the pile.
There’s a watercolor of a safe leaning against another safe (Safe Sex); a painting of a man walking his dog, their faces nearly identical (It’s True); a large painting of a nude woman wearing a small hat and driving a tractor (Straw Hat is its unlikely title); and an untitled piece showing Winnie-the-Pooh with a popgun and Christopher Robin’s hands in the air.
“I love the sense of play, coupled with a keen intelligence,” says Hoffberger. “We often think that intelligence makes for serious art, but this work shows that needn’t always be the case. It has an impish sense of joy and delight.”
“It’s true that I want to make people smile,” says Hopkins. “And I do that. Sometimes, I even make myself laugh.”
A few weeks later, Hopkins finds himself in a Cambridge nursing facility. Bed-ridden and withdrawn, he’s struggling with the effects of diabetes and various other maladies that have sapped his strength and darkened his demeanor.
I bring a book of Impressionist paintings and make small talk, with little result. Not even a mention of the October 9 opening at AVAM draws much of a response. When I ask Hopkins if there’s anything he’d like to have, something that might make him feel a little better, he says flatly, “I wish there was,” and drifts off to sleep.
A few moments later, I go to the nurse’s station for scissors and tape. I tear pages of paintings by the likes of Monet and Cézanne from the book, trim them, and hang them around the room.
At one point, Hopkins awakes and looks around. His eyes widen just a bit, and he smiles. Then, he goes back to sleep.