Red Tree With Bus and Monster

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Portfolio: Pen and Ink Drawings

Welmon Sharlhorne is an artist that continues to produce work against all odds. Born in New Orleans in 1952, Welmon grew up in the country just south of the city in Houma, Louisiana. Rural, deeply segregated, and sitting at the very edge where the continent meets the Gulf of Mexico, Houma offered little opportunity for the young and uneducated, especially African American young men. Welmon drifted from odd job to odd job, and then into petty crime, which landed him in a juvenile detention center near Baton Rouge, Louisiana for four years. After a few short months of freedom, Welmon was once again in trouble with the law and graduated from juvenile detention to the infamous Angola prison in North Louisiana where he spent over two decades serving time for a series of burglary and extortion charges.

While in Angola, Welmon was taken with the urge to make images, and began a series of highly imaginative drawings with common markers on paper and manila folders that he continues today. As with many self-invented artists, Welmon’s work is quirky, individualistic, and consists of a singular iconography related to events close to his daily life: walled buildings, cathedrals, doing time, the thirst for freedom, and the monsters within. Barely able to write his own name, making art was a literal and conceptual leap for Welmon, but one that transformed his life. Finding a larger sense of purpose, art making has kept Welmon focused through his prison years and the hardscrabble life he lead living on the streets of New Orleans after his release. When I first met Welmon in 2001, he carried his entire world contained in a black briefcase and hanging in a few laundries around New Orleans. In spite of being homeless, hungry, and penniless, Welmon has a distinct sense of pride, and indeed a sense of calling, in being an artist that has allowed him to rise above the dire circumstances in which he has lived.

Welmon’s early prison works were ink on manila folders made with a series of found templates to form the tight geometry of his drawings. This basic geometry was invigorated by imaginative variations of a few, often-repeated themes and an innate talent for all-over decorative patterning. Welmon’s work, in his own words “made it out of prison before he did” and was valued by dealers and collectors for his meticulous, detailed rendering, inventive subject matter, and exotic style before he became know as an artist and a New Orleans personality. Although undocumented due to his illiteracy, Welmon is also a wordsmith, often summarizing a long conversation with a rap-like poem of the major points of discussion, or telling moral tales to young people through rhyming poetic narratives.

Welmon Sharlehorn’s work is included in important collections such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington D.C.), Collection de l’Art Brut (Lausanne, Switzerland), and the American Visionary Art Museum (Baltimore, Maryland). His life and work are included in most of the major publications about contemporary, self-taught artists. Over the past few years, Welmon has settled into a shotgun house in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, but may still often be seen walking the streets of the French Quarter.

–David Houston