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Visionary artist Mr. Eddy Mumma's portraits, now on view at Orlando's Mennello Museum, brim with the joyous rush of creation

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When Gainesville artist Mr. Eddy Mumma arose every morning, he was greeted by a crowd of eager faces, beaming at him from the hundreds of canvases that covered every inch of wall space in his small home. These were his paintings. These were his friends. The vibrant friendly-throng effect is reproduced in miniature as part of the Mennello Museum's new exhibit, The Grand Portraits of Mr. Eddy Mumma, on display until Aug. 1.

Eddy Mumma was a self-taught artist who did not start painting until he was 60, newly relocated to Gainesville, diabetic and homebound. Despite his health challenges, Mumma threw himself into his art fully, and by the end of his life, he had produced nearly a thousand paintings, many on both sides of a particular canvas or indeed doors, sheets of plywood or even glass. (A few of these double-sided canvases are on display, evidence of a compulsive work rate — upon completing one painting, Mumma would simply flip the surface and start all over again.)

Seeing this massed array of Mumma's paintings gives the viewer a sense of the joyous rush of creation, the head rush of expression that filled Mumma's days, giving him a (no doubt welcome) reprieve from a quiet life beset by health problems.

"I imagine it was cathartic, like it was a necessity for him, and that's a common thread among many folk artists or artists really operating outside the art world," says Shannon Fitzgerald, Mennello's executive director, in an interview with Orlando Weekly. "It was a necessity; he had to be creating."

Mumma came to Florida to live near his daughter, Carroll Gunsaulies, in 1968. He began painting in 1969 at the urging of Gunsaulies, who suggested innocently that he take a painting class. Mumma only took one lesson — he didn't go back after the instructor insulted him. But that didn't deter him from painting at a beyond prolific rate. His schooling would come from endless hours spent poring over National Geographic magazines and art books featuring work by the likes of Vincent Van Gogh and Hans Holbein.

You can see in many of Mumma's paintings direct nods to Vermeer's "Girl With a Red Hat," Millet's "Gleaners," or Steve McCurry's iconic, haunting portrait of Sharbat Gula (a photo unofficially dubbed "Afghan Girl") from the June 1985 cover of National Geographic. But as Mumma continued to paint ferociously, his style became more self-assured, less homage, and his half-length portraits were executed in a style very much his own. Mumma's portrait work is kinetic and deceptively simplistic, favoring rounded faces, wide-open eyes and simple lines that convey deeply evocative expressions and emotions.

Mumma painted with acrylics and developed his own sense of color, inverting traditional "cool" and "warm" palettes to further define his personal aesthetic. "There is a deeper sense of color theory," says Fitzgerald. "As he made more work, there's more confidence, and that's where we see the bold color juxtapositions — and they vibrate, because he knew which colors together would do that."

The way Mumma signed his works became something of an art form in itself. He playfully incorporates his signature into the work so prominently that it is sometimes a central compositional element, both unconsciously echoing Warhol and predicting a now-ubiquitous age of celebrity artist branding. "His signature is very important. It demonstrates a level of confidence, and the scale where he's like, 'My name is important ... that's my brand, I'm leaving this!'" says Fitzgerald.

Mr. Eddy Mumma (American, 1908—1986), 'Untitled (The Afghan Girl, National Geographic 1985),' n.d. Acrylic on canvas board. Collection of the Mennello Museum of American Art, Gift of Josh Feldstein, 2015-001-001a,b. © Josh Feldstein
  • Mr. Eddy Mumma (American, 1908—1986), 'Untitled (The Afghan Girl, National Geographic 1985),' n.d. Acrylic on canvas board. Collection of the Mennello Museum of American Art, Gift of Josh Feldstein, 2015-001-001a,b. © Josh Feldstein

Mumma found a kindred spirit in Santa Fe College professor Lennie Kesl, who befriended Mumma and provided him with materials and tools and books. In return Mumma would, amazingly, allow Kesl to trade for or buy a painting every now and then, dirt cheap. "[Kesl] was really the only person that had access to what [Mumma] was thinking, access to his house, to his works," explains Fitzgerald.

Collectors came knocking on Mumma's door, hoping to own one of these unique works, perhaps sensing that Mumma could be North Central Florida's answer to a Rev. Howard Finster or a Daniel Johnston, but Mumma would almost invariably turn them down.

"His story is really interesting because it's very similar to our permanent collection artist, Earl Cunningham. He was a self-taught folk artist in St. Augustine, and he wouldn't sell his work either. ... Eddy Mumma is slightly more mysterious. I understand he was sometimes cranky and didn't want people on his property; he was very protective of his artwork and what he did," says Fitzgerald. "And that is a common thread by some of these artists making work, not for the market, but for themselves."

When Mumma passed away in 1986, it would be a collector, ironically, who would save his works. Josh Feldstein, who had already been inducted into the private world of Mumma-mania when Kesl shared some of Mumma's paintings with him, happened to be driving by Mumma's Gainesville home right after his death and saw family members clearing out Mumma's home, all but leaving his vast archive of paintings on the side of the road. Feldstein sprung into action, offering to buy the majority of it on the spot. Then he started working with Gunsaulies to both preserve the legacy of and get the word out on her father's art.

The Mennello has 25 of Mumma's works in their permanent collection, and now are giving these "friends of Mr. Eddy" the spotlight they deserve. (Mumma's work is also held in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Kohler Foundation and Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum, among other prestigious institutions.)

This is only the third solo exhibition of Mumma's work in the country to date, and it's a strange and beautiful thing to see so many of his paintings in one place.

"Eddy Mumma, in his own small or big way, was sharing that he mattered and he existed, and his humanity was also often very painful — it hurts to be in the world," concludes Fitzgerald. "And yet our art persists, even in difficult times."

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