John William Dey


(“Uncle Jack”) (1912–1978)
painted approximately 650 seriocomic scenes of the rural landscape, combining memories from his childhood in Virginia with those from his time spent hunting andlogging in Maine, and with fantasy. He often painted snow scenes and woodland animals, including moose, bears, rabbits, and birds. Trademark crows, a threatening presence in his detailed landscapes, punctuate bright blue skies. The narrative works, some with a humorous twist, others with a dark edge, occasionally refer to popular culture. In one painting the actor Charlie Chaplin, for instance, dressed in his familiar black coat and baggy pants, stands in the middle of a snowy, rurallandscape and is, according to the painting’s title,
Inspecting Country Real Estate.
Dey combed flea markets and secondhand shops for old frames in which he placed his compositions. Using model-airplane enamel on corrugated cardboard withwooden or Masonite supports, the surfaces of Dey’s paintings sparkle. Dey used templates to trace his figures and was exacting in their execution, often shining a lighton them and using a magnifying glass “to see if anything is wrong.” He frequently attached to the back of a painting an envelope with his notes commenting about thework.While growing up in Phoebus, Virginia, Dey’s parents separated when he was eleven. His mother worked at a variety of jobs to support her family, and Dey helpedas well, serving a newspaper route and working at his school as a janitorial assistant. He dropped out of school at age eighteen, and two years later left Virginia for Maine, where he worked as a trapper and lumberjack. He returned to Virginia, moving to Richmond in 1934, married, and in 1942 joined the Richmond police force.Affectionately known as Uncle Jack by the neighborhood children, he repaired their toys and bicycles. He retired from the police department at age forty-three.As early as 1935, Dey had produced some decorated objects, but he did not begin to paint on a regular basis until his retirement. Art absorbed Dey, and he expressed his obsession with painting in a letter to collector Jeff Camp: “I spent over three weeks on theseworks…. These days are not eight-hour days, but instead twelve, fourteen, or eighteen.”
See also
Painting, American Folk; Painting, Landscape
Hemphill, Herbert W.Jr., and Julia Weissman.
Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists.
New York, 1975.Horwitz, Ruth.
Contemporary American Folk Artists.
Philadelphia, 1975.Johnson, Jay, and William C.Ketchum.
American Folk Art of the Twentieth Century.
New York, 1983.Kaufman, Barbara Wahl, and Didi Barrett.
A Time to Reap: Late-Blooming Folk Artists.
Seton Hall, N.J., 1985.Rosenak, Chuck, and Jan Rosenak.
Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists.
New York, 1990.Trechsel, Gail Andrews.
Pictured in My Mind: Contemporary American Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Dr. Kurt Gitter and Alice Rae Yelen.
Jackson, Miss.,1995.Wright, R.Lewis, et al. “John William (‘Uncle Jack’) Dey.”
The Clarion
(spring 1992): 36