• Philadelphia Wireman, Untitled, ca. 1970-1975, found objects and wire, Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Margaret Z. Robson Collection, Gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson, 2016.38.51

Within the record of artists whoseidentities were lost over time, one known only by an assigned label, the“Philadelphia Wireman,” remains among the most enigmatic. In the late 1970s,about one thousand bundles of wire, wrappers, reflectors, lost possessions,trash-treasures — intentionally encompassed and shaped — were found in a SouthPhiladelphia alley. 

Each cocooned sculpture is uniqueand roughly fits in the palm of a human hand, more specifically that of theirmaker. These objects have no designated front, back, top, or bottom, no title,and in and of themselves raise questions about both art and artist. Scholars’observations and anecdotal accounts, together with where the objects werefound, suggest an African American male maker working predominantly with hishands. Additionally, the small works are not unlike protective charms or powerbundle objects that trace back over a thousand years across Africa and itsdiaspora. Such bundles, clusters of objects or materials that are inherentlymeaningful or symbolic, may be imbued with a protective force that can help theholder feel safe, healed, or empowered. 

These works describe a maker whowent unnoticed and unappreciated in his lifetime, and who may have facedinsecurities on a number of fronts. But they also point to an artist who createda body of work chronicling reclamation and transformation, and used theritualized acts of gathering, seeing, and making as a way to survive, day byday.

(We Are Made of Stories:Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection, 2022)

ca. 1970-1975
Not on view
6 12 × 6 12 × 3 14 in. (16.5 × 16.5 × 8.3 cm)
Credit Line

Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Margaret Z. Robson Collection, Gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson

Mediums Description
found objects and wire
  • Abstract
Object Number
Linked Open Data
Linked Open Data URI

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