If you try to research Hank Lee on the internet you won't learn much, but you will find two things: 1. A man named Hank Lee owns San Angel Folk Art Gallery and 2. Hank Lee's Magic Emporium closed and generations of would-be magicians are pretty bummed. While the latter has no affiliation to San Antonio's Hank Lee, magic is the best place to start when talking about the folk art collector.[Related: A Peek Inside San Angel Folk Art Gallery]
When Hank Lee moved to San Antonio in 1989, he opened San Angel Folk Art Gallery; today, the small space is a world-renowned institution for outsider art. Passersby will know they've found the gem nestled inside the Blue Star Arts Complex when they hear the parakeets. These brightly colored birds sing a song of welcome as visitors cross the threshold into Hank Lee's world and leave the rest of the universe behind.
"We really try to focus on somebody that has this singular vision," Lee says of the vibrant work that surrounds him, "something that is completely theirs in that they're getting this singular message across."
The gallery owner carefully selects the visionary artists to populate this world. He explains, "People will say, 'oh, you need to meet my aunt,' and you go over to the aunt's house and she says 'Oh no, you want my crazy cousin.' And you go to the crazy cousin and it's the jackpot." Other times he selects artists from within the art world. Regardless, once inside the gallery, the constructed world transcends barriers of class or education. Visitors will find the metal animals of an artist who's shown at the Tate sniffing Coke can flowers crafted by a woman at a Mexican market.
In the midst of our interview a visitor interrupts, asking if Lee would be interested in looking at her work. He graciously obliges, giving her his card with the promise that if it doesn't suit his gallery, he can provide suggestions for other spots she might solicit. He acknowledges that initiating this sort of conversation is hard and sometimes embarrassing for an artist.
"I've always tried to make sure that I'm not busy," he pauses, before furthering, "If [other galleries] say they're too busy they're lying. They're never too busy. We're all poor. We're never busy."
It would be impossible to talk to Hank and fail to notice this generosity of spirit.
He offers his artists three- to seven-year grants, providing them with a working stipend so that they don't have to compromise their work for outside responsibility. His ultimate goal is to preserve the institutional memory so the work will live on.
Even his characteristic guayaberas wouldn't be possible without the relationships he created with several seamstresses in Mexico. He provides them with an American salary and they, in turn, create small batches of shirts from the vintage fabrics he procures.
As we walk around the shop, he colors every piece with stories about the artists. Isaac Smith creates animals that will later populate his Kingdom of Isaac (a kingdom he believes God will give him upon his death), Keith Davis was a barber that couldn't stand people so he became an artist, and the late Seymour Perkins thought his house was on top of an underground railroad. "You end up becoming so engaged and endeared with the projects that you learn so much because so many of the projects have to do with their life, too ... you do end up befriending them because they're all wonderful people. I couldn't sell somebody's work I didn't like."
And there's no end in sight to this lifelong career. "I'm afraid I'm cursed to [collect] forever, because I can't pass something up if I think it's too good to be left sitting somewhere. Whether it's at a gallery in New York or a folk artist's floor in Brazil. I can't leave it if it's too good."
As the interview draws to a close Lee quips, "and we got through it without anything about me." This is true, with the exception of a childhood tale he let slip. During the summer, his mother would hand the children money and a EuroRail ticket with the orders to "stay gone as long as you can." Even as a child he loved art, but lugging paintings around Europe simply wasn't cost effective or practical. Instead, he opted for small objects, waiting for back roads where he might find unforgettable pieces to carefully curate the world inside his suitcase.
And for Lee, this world inside a suitcase has never stopped growing.
San Angel Folk Art Gallery, 110 Blue Star, (210) 226-6688, sanangelfolkart.com