Bad appraisal

City officials cite folk artist for violations of safety and trash regulations

The Reverend Seymour Perkins doesn’t have a working phone, but his friends always know how to get in touch with him.

Perkins, 75, a self-styled preacher and highly regarded folk artist, inevitably can be found on the corner of South Hackberry and Nevada, holding court on the concrete slab where his humble First Congregational Christian United Church stood until it burned down in 1999. This slab, located next to his tiny, run-down home, is a kind of open-air museum for Perkins, featuring his “hookers’ bench,” naive mural-style paintings (which he calls “cartoons”) depicting historical figures, and scrawled proverbs that are by turns playful (“Go Spurs Go Away: You Have Two Stadiums in Which to Play”) and maddeningly convoluted (prophecies that an underground railroad will lead from a hole in his property to Mexico, prompting a Latino takeover of the Americas in 2010).

Reverend Seymour Perkins creates public art that says what you’d only mutter angrily to yourself.

On Tuesday, July 18, investigators from the San Antonio Police Department, the Department of Code Compliance, and the Development Services Department descended on Perkins’s home to assess a variety of concerns, primarily dealing with the safety of his home and the pile of refuse (including three broken-down cars) on the corner lot. After the inspection, which included a dog trained to sniff out drugs, Perkins was issued citations for “accumulation of trash and debris,” “electrical hazards,” “gas lines not being used needing to be capped,” and “operating a church without a permit.”

Two days after the incident, Perkins talked like a persecuted man. “There were so many people in my house,” he said, in his characteristically hoarse voice. “And they even brought a dog. Why would they bring a dog to smell out crack? They know I’m ministering to the crack people, and I don’t have a pen to write with or a clothes hanger to hang my clothes on. What do they expect me to have?”

Perkins is living the sad contradiction faced by many so-called “outsider artists,” compounded by his advancing age. While his work has been exhibited in Chicago and earned attention from British art magazine Raw Vision and the Current `see “Public Art Confidential,” May 31-June 6, 2006`, he faces extreme poverty in a neighborhood overrun with crack and prostitution. It’s a neighborhood where one of his daughters was murdered in a drug deal, where his church was lost in a possible act of arson, and where residents warn about a shadowy man who walks up to strangers and pokes them with infected needles. While few would question that the mound of mattresses and other discarded household items at the church’s old site need to be moved, the problem seems fairly trivial in light of the rampant criminal activity that plagues this Eastside area.

“We’re asking the city to come get `the trash`, but they want us to pay,” said Roland Perkins, the reverend’s 40-year-old son. “This here has been going on through the years for old Black people in this area, because `the City` wants the land.”

Ernest Martinez, senior building inspector for Development and Business Services Center, says he received a call from an officer in the SAPD vice squad, asking him to participate in a visit to Perkins’s home.

“I wrote him up because he was saying that he was running a church, but he had no proof of occupancy, so I gave him notice to come in and apply for that so he could run a church,” Martinez said. “I know Code Compliance had some issues with some of the trash that he had on the side and the corner.”

William Paige, senior mechanical inspector for the city, focused his attention on the space heaters he found inside Perkins’s house. “He had a lot of unit space heaters and any gas jets that he wasn’t using, he needed to cap them off,” Paige said. “One of the things he was saying was that he was classifying the property as a church. You can’t do that. You can’t have the standing gas heaters in churches or any kind of commercial business. Some of them looked like they might be connected, but there was so much stuff in there you couldn’t tell, without digging it out.”

For Perkins, the inspections represented a slap in the face, a city declaration that his art is merely trash and his ministry is invalid. His voice nearly cracks with emotion every time he discusses the subject. For his family members, however, there are more pressing concerns than bruised feelings.

“We need someone to help us move all these things,” said Perkins’s daughter Chris, appealing to the reverend’s friends in the local art community. “We can’t do it alone.”

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