Welcome to the World of Mr. Imagination

The late Mr. Imagination (real name: Gregory Warwick) was born in Maywood, Ill. and started making art at an early age. In 1978, he was shot during a mugging and fell into a coma. After his hospitalization, he claimed to have had visions of his past lives and re-dedicated himself to his artistry. He used found and discarded materials and soon caught the attention of Chicago's Carl Hammer Gallery. We revisit a retrospective of Mr. Imagination at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art and get a close-up look at his eye-popping creations. The exhibit runs through April 25.

Read an interview with Intuit co-founder and board member Cleo Wilson.

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How often do you hear of an artist’s career beginning after a near-death experience, like with Mr. Imagination (Gregory Warmack)?

My first response was to say that it does happen more frequently than you’d think. But usually the experience with the artist isn’t their near-death. It’s something else—a major trauma, such as the death of a loved one or something of that sort.

What could a visitor expect to see at the exhibition?

It’s the most comprehensive look at his work that’s ever been put together. The thing that I think is most exciting about the exhibition is you can see the transition of his work: from where he first started working with sandstone to his progression to working with bottle caps.

It began with bottle caps nailed down and painted, and evolved to something more elaborate. He was creating whole sculptures. He continued to progress until his death. And the exhibition shows a lot of his work—close to 200 pieces.

Any particular standouts in the exhibition?

There’s one very, very large sculpture that belonged to Phil Wicklander, a printer. It’s after Mr. Imagination had the second fire in Bethlehem [Pa.], where so much was destroyed. He was completely devastated by it. He said he didn’t think he’d ever create again. It was too much for him.

Phil sent him tons of wooden blocks, the kind of wooden block letters used with old-style printing, as well as negative plates of works previously printed. And Mr. Imagination took that and created, I would say, a self-portrait that’s quite large—7.5 feet tall. I think it’s stunning and very different from his other work.

What differences can a viewer see in his work over time?

I would say he got better after each one of the setbacks. He just got better at what he was doing. The setbacks ended up inspiring him—both the fire and the mugging. I really would say he’s like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

His work is certainly unique, but who would you say were his contemporaries? Or what artists would you say he drew inspiration from?

I know that he was friends with lots of artists. He would have their art on his walls and trade with people. He was taken to see Howard Finster’s garden in Georgia. I think he was drawing inspiration from some of that in the creation of the garden outside his home in Atlanta. And so yes, he was inspired by the work of other artists. They were also self-taught artists.

In Atlanta, I know his plan was to build a community where artists could come and create their vision. I don’t know how far he got into that before he fell ill and passed away.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

View a slideshow from the exhibition. 

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