Throughout the 1960s, Dude’s alarm clock rang at 4:00 a.m.—Saturdays, Sundays, holidays included. An hour or so later he was unpacking tins of shoe polish—black, brown, cordovan, and neutral—along with his well-used brushes, buffers, and rags. He kept the tools of his trade in a decades-old wooden box that he carried under his left arm. The strap of the box had, over the years, worn a deep groove in his left shoulder. In his right hand, he carried a large, brown, corrugated cardboard box. It had a lid. He had glued a leather strap around the box so that he could carry it as if it were a suitcase.
Those early mornings, Columbus “Dude” McGriff would walk to one of the Manhattan hotels where he, from time-to-time, leased a shoe shine stand. Dude was nearly blind in one eye; his second eye was glass. He waxed and polished the shoes of swells, business-men, and visitors who wanted to look their New York City best.
After he’d organized his tools-of-the-trade, Dude would open the other box—the one that he carried in his right hand—and extract three or four of his creations from their protective newspaper wrapping. One day he might display an airplane, a truck, and a grasshopper—another day, maybe a cow, a bus, and an ant.
In the 1960s, Mel Torme bought some of Dude’s creations, as did Robert Goulet. More than two decades later film director, Jonathan Demme would seek out Dude who was living in Tallahassee, Florida and buy some of the man’s work.
Today, Columbus “Dude” McGriff’s work is in the permanent collection of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and examples were included, posthumously, in a 1993 exhibit that opened in Tallahassee and was curated by James Roche, a 40-year art professor at Florida State University. His wire sculpture was featured in Missing Pieces: Georgia folk art, 1770-1976, curated by the Atlanta Historical Society, the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Columbus (Georgia) Museum of Arts.
Unsigned, Unsung, Whereabouts Unknown
Make-Do Art of the American Outlands
The following narrative is a compilation of found interview and video transcripts featuring Roche talking about the Unsigned, Unsung show, self-taught and outsider art, and Columbus “Dude” McGriff. Not all are complete.
Professor Roche, 1993—Columbus “Dude” McGriff, recently deceased, unsigned, unsung, nobody knew him for years; he’s what we call the Lost Wireman–you’ve heard of the Philadelphia Wireman—well, Columbus was ‘the Lost Wireman.’
He was in some shows in ’76, that was before that people had seen the [McGriff’s] work in NYC. Columbus—he was almost blind in one eye and the other one was glass—worked in hotels there as a shoeshine man.
When we started this show, Columbus was in perfect health. He was born dirt-poor, near a large plantation, dependent on that for work. Many families are not unhappy about that way of life, and Columbus was that way. Came from a family in Gadsden County, Florida, but right off from the beginning, they were working in the fields; he would go off, play with the other guys, but when he was five years old, his eye was punctured with a piece of wire.
He cut his other eye, too, later on, but first he started with one good eye, and he had these huge hands and you can tell his work because of the tightness of the wire, then he had a few shows, nobody much heard of him, but he stayed in Cairo, Georgia, until his death very recently, the last day of last year…he was supposed to leave the hospital, but died that night.
Like I said, blind completely in one eye and punctured in the other eye, he just couldn’t see so he would go around picking up scrap pieces of wire from the baling machine so that people wouldn’t step on it with their feet, that was his job. How’d he find the wire? He’d step on it,: pick it up, to keep people from steppin’ on it. But at the end of the day he’d come back with the wire and start building stuff, and he really built with wire all of his life.
Columbus started making toys. He made little cars and airplanes and trucks, he made them his whole life. He died at sixty years of age. To me, he is the best wire bender that we’ve seen. No one bends wires the way Columbus McGriff did. And I’ll tell you why. He was known in Cairo Georgia as “Dude” McGriff. But I also came to find out that he was known to some as “Mr. Grip.” Now, what does “Mr. Grip” mean? “Mr. Grip” means that Columbus had seriously strong hands and could take this steel bailing wire (like you and I could take a piece of kite string and wrap it around our finger), and curl it and pull it and curl it and pull it—anyway he wanted to. Mostly, because his hands were twice the size around as mine.
It’s easy for me to spot a piece by Columbus McGriff because no one wound wire as tightly as he did. All steel. He’s dead, he’s gone, but what a wonderful legend: toys, animals, and the joy that he gave to children. I never saw a child that wouldn’t immediately love and want to come over and pick up a Columbus McGriff toy or sculpture. I call them toys because they were childlike, he was like a child.
A lot of these guys go quickly, know what I mean? In bad health, bad situations. Columbus choked to death, no excuse at all. He was in a little, southern hospital.
We received an invitation from Material Culture Gallery in Philadelphia:
We will hold a weekend of auctions dedicated solely to the superb self-taught art collection of Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme. In an exclusive arrangement with the auction house, Demme brings a multitude of painting and sculpture to the sales, totaling over 1000 lots. Direct from the Eye: The Jonathan Demme Collection of Self-Taught Art is a compendium of Demme’s travels and tastes that transcend borders, encompassing Haitian and American self-taught artists from the 1940s to the present, contemporary intuitive painters from Jamaica, as well as art from Africa, South America, and Europe. Jonathan Demme’s impressive collection will also be on display in a pre-auction show.
Join us for a special exhibition party honoring Mr. Demme and his 70th birthday will be held on Friday, March 28, from 7 PM to 11 PM, with refreshments and live music by Jamaican-born American Reggae recording artist and actress, Sister Carol East.
Our McGriff Grasshopper arrived from Philadelphia.
We’re enjoying it, learning its secrets, having a display case made, and sharing the story of Columbus “Dude” McGriff. We recently acquired a 40-year old copy of Missing Pieces: Georgia folk art, 1770-1976—our grasshopper is featured in it.
Columbus “Dude” McGriff (American/ 20th c.)
Metal wire sculpture, 17.5″ x 9″ x 6″
Purchased by Jonathan Demme directly from the artist, Tallahassee, 1987
Acquired from the Jonathan Demme Collection
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Thank you for the above notes on Dude, and trust me, he would be so proud to see his work in a collection like yours. Johnny and I had fun every time we saw Columbus or O. L. Samuels, because they were so “not NYC” an very much the “real thing” is the ways that counted to us. Great years of collecting together. Jimmy and Alexa
Jim, Thank you so very much for your comment. You have no idea what it means to me.
Writing those notes was my pleasure. Dude’s personal story captivated me as much as his grasshopper did. And, I believe that’s what makes l’art brut or outsider art so compelling to me and others. In many ways the outsider artist is more a part of their creations than other artists. To me, outsider art is a creation with a greater—and an absolutely singular—internal narrative. I’d love to speak with you sometime, if you’re amenable to that. I believe that your voice on McGriff should be captured and shared with others.
Again, thank you. You can reach me directly, if you’d like, at stephen _@_ brockelman.com
I will try and get a audio copy of an interview I did with Columbus, that has lots of good information on him, his life, and his work. There are wire pieces that were done by his sister and his brother that come up on the market and must be watched out for. Dealers try to sell them as “Dudes” when they are not. Their pieces simply do not look as tight and spontaneous as Columbus’s do. Send me a picture if you ever see one you are unsure of. YOURS however is the real thing and Johnny would be glad you got it.
If you ever want one of his really complicated works, let me know. I am 75 now and want my collection to go to people who really love this kind of “from the heart” work. JD and I had lots of fun traveling around looking for anything that was “make-do” art as we called it. Please send me an address where I can send you a note or such. I have/had the best and largest works he ever did and have passed some of the larger works to collectors so I should send some images of works he never got to show. Do you have a copy of the catalogue I wrote for the exhibition here at FSU in 1993 or so. Very hard to find catalogue as they were all bought from the museum very quickly……but if you can, find and buy one because it has some nice works in it. With respect and I hope we contact if you like outsider work, not represented on seen in NYC. Jim Roche. P.O.B. 881. Tallahassee, Florida 32302.
Thanks so much for catching up with me, sir. I’ve sent you an email with my address, email, and phone. I look forward to hearing from you and seeing your collection. It’s moments like this and connecting with others with like interests that make collecting even more worthwhile.
We are coming up in your part of the country, in the next 10 days or so. I have a question for you. Please let me know which of these things do you like the best. Duck, Car, Bi-Plane, Jet Plane, Logging Truck, The May Flower, Dinosaur, Horse and Buggy, Alligator, Bird, Grave Flowers, Pig, Mosquito, Grass Hopper, Six-Shooter With Holster, or Rooster.
Please send me your top three “like the best” in order. WE have had both of ours and are still using both mask and shield when anywhere out of the yard. We will be going to Baltimore in about 6 days. Stay safe, get your shots, stay home,……… With regards, J and A Roche in Tallahassee