On a bright, cool Saturday afternoon, La Bella stared at a wall plastered with collages of newspaper clippings, crude paintings of Freemason symbols, hand-lettered (and misspelled and inexact) quotations from the Bible and glued-on Mardi Gras beads. I wrapped my arms around her from behind, leaned in to breathe the flowery shampoo smell on her hair, and whispered, “It takes all kinds to make this world, doesn’t it?” She nodded, giggling.
Really, what else could she say? Margaret’s Grocery and Market is named for the wife of one Reverend H.D. Dennis, who’s either certifiably a genius or just certifiable. As noted in Off the Beaten Path: Mississippi,
The elaborate archways, pillars, and towers of brick are the work of ninety-plus-year-old Reverend H.D. Dennis, Margaret’s husband. The Reverend promised Margaret if she married him, he’d turn her store into a palace, and he was true to his word. The Lego-like construction project hasn’t stopped yet; the Reverend is still adding on to the elaborate structure, which serves as a combination residence, grocery store, and house of worship. “God is the greatest architect,” Dennis says. “I’m only his assistant.”
God’s architectural sense, at least the branch that resides in Vicksburg, Mississippi, favors the camp and the unwieldy. Dennis’s red, pink, yellow, and white (with the occasional hint of blue) structures are sprawled along the side of Highway 61, just outside of the river city. The folk-art site stretches over 100 feet and climbs into the sky. Altogether, Margaret’s looks like a rougher, more slapdash version of a Gaudi design. From the painted school bus to the makeshift outdoor patio to the ramshackle towers, every surface is cluttered with stenciled and woodblock text, costume jewelry, stickers, mirrors, and thickly applied paint. Sometimes the text comes from the Bible; often, it’s blurts from Dennis himself; sometimes, it’s photocopied profiles of Dennis, including a table of contents from the December 2001 issue of Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies. One section is either a shrine devoted either to King Solomon or a protest against a local trustee’s board; the design is chaotic enough that it’s hard to tell the difference. Cinder blocks and wood panels are stacked and painted, seemingly at random, though the color scheme is, if not soothing, at least orderly. The clutter obscures the fact that this is essentially a trailer park; Margaret’s becomes grander and weirder than just a home as a result.
Reverend Dennis—and who knows if he’s actually ordained?—wasn’t in. I knocked on the front door to make sure. In a way, and I’m a little ashamed to say this, I was glad. If the man’s anything like his work, we would have been treated to an hourlong sermon of love that rambled and fizzled and digressed. At least his message would have been of love and peace. I didn’t see much fire-and-brimstone in his collage structure, and he’s made a point (over and over and over again) of noting that all people are welcome to enter his church. So he’s a benign nut—I’d rather have that than the other kind. Still, walking through and around the site, I kept wondering if my response—gaping in astonishment, occasional collapses into laughter—was what Dennis would want. He’s designed the place as a house of worship but its construction comes across as spectacle. I wonder if half of its tourists are smirking on the inside. I wondered if I was, too.
I’ve always had this antipathy toward folk/outsider/naïve art. (All three of those adjectives, by the way, should probably have qualifying quotation marks around them.) On the one hand, Dennis’s work clearly inspires awe. On the other hand, it’s not skilled architecture—a quick storm would destroy the place, and it looked like parts of it indeed had been rebuilt—or particularly competent art. Earlier that day, in the Attic Gallery, Brünhilde commented on a good pencil drawing that it was “good to see someone who understood draftsmanship for a change.”
Now, I quite liked the Attic Gallery, and found several pieces that could hang on my walls happily. La Bella loved a large painting of a jukebox on wood. But I understood what Brünhilde meant. The gallery Looking around the cluttered folk art and local art gallery, full of ambitious brushstrokes that sometimes outstripped actual talent, I got what she meant.
Reverend Dennis’s love letter to God and wife wouldn’t have made sense on sale in the Attic Gallery, despite the fact that his work and that on display at the gallery are closely aligned. In the gallery, Dennis’s stuff would have been just one of many, part of a context of African American “naïve” artists. On its own terrain, though, Margaret’s was an unrivaled source of wonderment. And it was democratic art, free and open to anyone willing to make the drive. By putting it into a gallery, the work would have automatically been institutionalized, automatically become less “outsider.”
But I couldn’t decide if I thought being an outsider was such a good thing. Rudimentary spelling and drawing skills might have helped Dennis better get across his message. Was Margaret’s Grocery and Market actually any good, or was it just crazy, or was there a worthwhile difference in this case? I still can’t decide. Still, it lingers in my head more than the stately and beautiful Cedar Grove Mansion—baroque and orderly and serene—we toured earlier that afternoon, so I suppose Dennis’s gut-check to the brain was worth the visit.
RELATED: I visited the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, Alabama, in June 2007.