by Kevin Crowe
Step right up, boys and girls, ladies and gentsâ"and step into a world of pure fiction. See lost shards from forgotten Mesopotamian civilizations. Gaze at the greatest natural oddities ever to be crafted by the hand of the Almighty. Wander blindly into questionable research and specious uses of the scientific method. Do you believe in centaurs? Do you want to believe in magic? Step right up, if you dare, step into a giant house of mirrors, where nothing is as it seems.
Marvel at the wonders of the mind....
The year was 1993. Joey Skaggs had been invited to speak at the University of Tennessee as a part of a lecture dubbed â“The Media: Politics, Power and Persuasion.â” Skaggs, a well-known con artist in some circles, had pulled off a handful of elaborate pranks against folks in the unsuspecting media. Posing as a South American entomologist, he seemed credible enough to convince an international news wire to run a story on a miraculous dietary supplement that was nothing more than a witchâ’s brew of cockroach parts. He also landed several news spots after claiming to be a canine pimp at a veterinary hospital. He fabricated a 50-foot bra as well. And so on, never missing an opportunity to mess with minds.
When Skaggs arrived in Knoxville, WBIR-TV requested an interview with the colorful media jester. The segment was filmed at the station and aired on Live at Five. Or so it seemed. In truth, Skaggs never left campus when he was in town. The man who was actually interviewed by our local NBC affiliate was the troublesome Beauvais Lyons, a UT professor of art who succeeded in keeping a straight face the whole time.
It wasnâ’t the first time that this self-described trickster had been involved in a hoax, and it certainly wouldnâ’t be the last.
Giving himself the title of curator of the â“Hokes Archives,â” Lyons creates entire disciplines of academic forgeries. Heâ’s fabricated entire civilizations from scratch, touring with the exhibitions of his latest archaeological â“discoveries.â” Heâ’s amassed of formidable collection of what appear to be anatomy sketches, but these sketchesâ"while mimicking the drawings of Grayâ’s Anatomyâ"have a surrealistic edge, a peculiar fascination with the body as art. Heâ’s even toured with a collection of outsider art, each piece designed and given a backstory.
For Lyons, itâ’s all about writing a cogent narrative, taking his audiences on a mind trip.
â“Iâ’d agree with Shakespeare,â” Lyons says. â“All the worldâ’s a stage. I think that any artist takes on a kind of character. What they wear, how they present themselves. If they want to conform to conventions of what an artist is, or if they deliberately buck those conventions, they always take on a character.
â“Even if you want to appear natural or relaxed, thatâ’s a character.â”
So Who Is Beauvais Lyons, Anyway?
Heâ’s a delightfully charismatic person. Heâ’s likely to go off on tangents during a conversation, speaking in technical scientific jargon to describe some recent theory of particle physics or laughing hysterically at a student film entitled â“Furniture Pornâ” on his computer.
In short, heâ’s a decent fellow. He cares about his students. He dresses well, occasionally wearing a seersucker suit or flowing, colorful, tribal flare, depending on his mood. Sometimes he dons a T-shirt, a far cry from his other, more theatrical personas. He could easily be labeled as an eccentric, but maybe thatâ’s all part of the fun.
Beauvais Lyons, in an interview with a Polish art magazine, was asked whether Beauvais Lyons really exists. Is this man just a figment of an overactive imagination? â“Ask my mother,â” he told the reporter, â“or maybe my daughter. Descartes offered an answer to the question of our existence, except that I would modify it to say, â‘I make art, therefore I am.â’â”
â“The funny thing is, I donâ’t have a daughter,â” Lyons says. But his answer was still a valid one. Beauvais Lyons does exist. Heâ’s a distinguished professor of printmaking at UT. He likes fresh pineapple. Heâ’s likely to cite the works of South American magical realists, particularly Jose Louis Borges, as major influences of his own work.
â“The question of expressing oneself to assert a unique selfhood,â” Lyons went on to tell the Polish art critic, â“is not really interesting to me. I regard this as a Romantic myth, one that presumes there is something exclusive about each individualâ.
â“I would assert that if there really is a Beauvais Lyons, he exists as a product of his biology and the social patterns of his family, education and his economics.â”
Here in his office on the 2nd floor of UTâ’s Art and Architecture building, Beauvais takes a sip of tea as he looks over a few sketches based on Borgesâ’ short story, â“TlÃ¶n, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,â” in which Borges describes an imaginary culture that had been documented in a bogus encyclopedia. This format has become the backbone for much of Beauvaisâ’ art.
For more than a quarter of a century, Beauvais has been creating academic spoofs, an ever-expanding, encyclopedic collection of phony knowledge, all of it presented as if it were the stuff of intense scientific scrutiny.
As an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he presented himself as an archaeologist and displayed more than 20 shards of ceramic artwork from a supposed ancient people called the Arenot, which sounded an awful lot like â“are notâ” when the young artist pronounced it.
The Arenots were said to have lived in what is modern-day Turkey, and Beauvais provided 15 lithographic plates to complete his illusion of actual archaeological discovery. He went on to describe in considerable detail the excavation, and he provided articles from scientific journals, each wonderful parodies of academic prose, positing theories concerning the religious, social and political institutions of the Arenots.
The local newspaper later â“exposedâ” the artifacts as fakes. Beauvais couldnâ’t have been happier with the accusation. Today, after filling his aptly named â“Hokes Archivesâ” with his creations of scientific fiction, he continues to write his oddball histories, always keeping his tongue deep inside his cheek.
Every time he starts from scratch to create an entire fictional history, heâ’s testing our gullibility. With any luck, heâ’s promoting healthy skepticism as well, even though heâ’s hoping that each work of creative forgery will continue to blur the line between whatâ’s real what isnâ’t, leaving a few ironic cues along the way to keep our minds working, perhaps even laughing a little bit at the absurdity of it all.
Beauvais hopes to mimic serious, credible research by designing intricate hoaxes, each meticulously formed to fit into a socio-historical framework. Beauvais, as the artist, takes total control over his lands of make believe, where anything is possible, so long as itâ’s plausible.
The Early Exploits of Heinrich DrechmÃ¼ller
Before indulging in mock-academics, Beauvais spent his formative years in Madison. His father, Dr. John O. Lyons, taught English at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Lyons became an early influence on Beauvaisâ’ body of work. The Invention of the Self: The Hinge of Consciousness in the 18th Century, a book written by Dr. Lyons in the late-â’70s, gave the precocious artist a model of academic prose that would go on to fuel a lifeâ’s work.
The family just so happened to live in Baghdad around 1964, where Beauvais was drawn to the early civilizations between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. And from â’71-â’72, when his father was a Fulbright Scholar in Iran, the young artist was schooled at the Iranzamin International School in Tehran. Beauvais remembers visiting archaeological sites and museums throughout the Middle East.
â“Some of those experiences led me to do my archeological-themed work,â” he says. â“I created my first fictitious culture in part as a way to bring together all my spheres of knowledge and technical ability. By fabricating and documenting, I recreated the process of the history of the artifact.â”
In 1983, Beauvais fabricated an even more intricate civilization. Known as the The Excavation of the Apasht, Beauvais took his exhibit to museums in 10 states. He used print-making, ceramics and sculpture to create a comprehensive collection of archaeological fantasy.
Beauvais himself became an integral part of the exhibit. Speaking in a rough German accent, heâ’d appear as the archaeologist Heinrich DrechmÃ¼ller (German for â“shit diggerâ”), and the learned professor would give long-winded tours of the Apasht exhibit, delighting museum patrons with his immeasurable knowledge of a mysterious ancient culture.
Apasht itself is an Urdu word meaning â“unintelligible.â” During great ceremonies of cosmic asexuality, the Apasht were said to worship a â“primordial hermaphrodite.â” Beauvais provided more lithographic plates, too, documenting the history of the Apasht.
These plates were said to have come from Volume VIII of Catalogus Van Niet Nereenzelvigen Oudheidkundig Klaarblijkelijkheid, which is Dutch for â“Catalogue of Unidentified Archaeological Evidence.â”
â“If you go to the McClung Museum,â” Beauvais says, â“almost everything in that Egyptian display is a facsimile. Everything is a reproduction. The mummy is about the only thing thatâ’s real.
â“I like it, and I think itâ’s a great permanent exhibit. Still, some of itâ’s like being in a gift shop at an airport in Cairo. Itâ’s not entirely real.â”
Similarly but not exactly, Beauvaisâ’ archaeological projects were a strange blend of theatrical seriousness and pure, unabashed whimsy. These parodies were so successful because they never appeared to be parodies on first glance. Beauvais describes the overall effect as pre-fiction and post-fiction, because there are two ways to experience his work. First, the jokeâ’s on you. Then it becomes something akin to a work of fiction, begging to be interpreted a second time.
â“I donâ’t regard it in any way as malicious,â” he says. â“The art is a prop in a theatrical production.... My work in archaeology led me to differentiate between art and artifact. The anthropologist is less concerned whether itâ’s art or not.
â“Much of it is beautiful, and wonderful.â”
Beauvaisâ’ third civilization, a project entitled Reconstruction of an Aazudian Temple, consisted of stones from a temple wall, shards from a colorful fresco and a facsimile of the Aazudian temple itself, constructed out of styrofoam. There was also the cryptic â“Vessel with an Inverted Spout,â” and a few academics disagreed on its true function. There were articles on display, speculating on its use as a meditation device, a water clock or a sobriety detection instrument. For the artist, it was about as far as he could go with mock-archaeology.
â“That was sort of the ideal archaeological statement,â” he says of his Aazudians, â“because it was such a utopian culture. The Aazudians were accomplished in all the arts: poetry, dance, cooking, horticulture and massage.
â“They eat garlic, drink beer. They have a god of wine. If Iâ’m going to make a culture, Iâ’d want to claim that theyâ’re my ancestors.â”
Fact Versus Fiction
â“How well do I know Beauvais?â” asks Wesley Morgan, a professor of psychology and one of Beauvaisâ’ occasional drinking buddies. â“I guess pretty well. It is hard for me to say since he is a delightfully complex person. Most every time I meet with him I learn more about him leading me to think that perhaps I donâ’t know him as well as I thought.
â“I do think that the man that I know is quite similar to the public persona he presents as showman of his art. He is a very bright, creative and engaging person with strong humanistic values.â”
Beauvaisâ’ â“Hokes Archives,â” true to form, begin with a spurious history. See, in 1891, after receiving his certification from the London Academy of Fine Arts, Everitt Ormsby Hokes took a job as a lithographic draftsman at the publishing firm of John Murray and Sons, where he built a name for himself by embellishing his lithograph plates with his own personal eccentricities, such as embedding erotic imagery on Plate 72 from â“Harrisonâ’s 100 Views of Punjia.â” He was fired almost immediately.
In his older and wiser years, Hokes was able to start his own publishing firm in 1901, and he began to amass a formidable collection of cultural oddities. After his death in 1939, the archives were forgotten, as Ormsbyâ’s only son, Richard, sold the printing press to a greeting card company. That is, until 1973, when Beauvais Lyons happened to be in the right place at the right time.
â“I acquired the collection at an auction of unclaimed goods from a storage locker in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, for a price thatâ’s embarrassingly small,â” Beauvais declares. â“Once you take possession of something, you have an ethical set of obligations to it. The intervening nearly 30 years have proved to be a burden. My job is to preserve, promote and promulgate the collection.â”
A History in the Mocking
One of Beauvaisâ’ recent projects, a collection of folk art from the â“Spelvin Collection,â” has toured extensively. The collection, which consists of more than 900 pieces of outsider art, was gifted to the Hokes Archives after the original owners, George and Helen Spelvin, ran out of room in their split-level house in Lenoir City.
â“Iâ’m lucky that they chose the Hokes Archives as the recipient for these works,â” Beauvais says. â“For the Spelvins, the artists in their collections teach us about the universality of creativity. Thereâ’s a purity of expression in these works.â”
The name Spelvin comes from an old theatrical convention. Itâ’s used when an actor is playing two parts and the director doesnâ’t want the audiences to know, so the name â“George Spelvinâ” is listed the playbill.
The exhibit features flower paintings on book pages by Emma Whorley, a painted record collection by Lucas Farley, Bible passages hand-printed on the insides of cereal boxes by Max Prichard, and portraits of American presidents by Arthur Middleton, who was inspired to pick up the paintbrush after his son completed the requirements for a merit badge.
â“The Spelvins felt that the artists in their collection were more connected to their time, their place, and their community than other, insider artists,â” Beauvais explains. â“The artists they collected did art for and about their lives, and their communities.â”
One critic, who apparently never really got the joke when the Spelvin collection came through the Regina Gouger Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote in the Pittsburgh City Paper: â“Thereâ’s faux-naif, and thereâ’s real naif, and the Spelvin collection certainly qualifies as the latter.â”
â“Itâ’s an awesome and important responsibility to preserve the scholarship of Everitt Ormsby Hokes,â” Beauvais continues. â“I have to be faithful to his work in the early 20th century. I keep discovering more of his work all the time. Much of it is in storage, but as I go through it and inventory it, I find crates that I didnâ’t know were there. I have to open those, and discover more.â”
His latest work, The Association for Creative Zoology, riffs off the idea of a society of stoic creationists, which formed in 1908 so that its members could dedicate themselves to the study of the beauty and overwhelming complexity of Godâ’s design. â“The idea that God, in his ultimate wisdom as an artist, uses collage to combine different creatures he has made to create new variations,â” the curator explains.
When his zoology project opened at the Art Gallery of Knoxville on Sept. 7, Beauvais was on hand to give visitors a lesson in what he calls the principle of zoomorphic juncture, an idea that attempts to explain the common attributes found within the animal kingdom. He wore period attire, and was able to embody the scientific creationism of one William Jennings Bryan.
â“Like me, he was balding, and probably eats a little more than he should,â” Beauvais says of the famous attorney from the Scopes Trial. Never breaking character, he played the role flawlessly, seamlessly blending his conservative scientific schtick with a looney, outlandish sense of humor.
The Association of Creative Zoology, as a piece of installation artwork, is designed to tour the country in churches and science fairs, wherever Beauvais can find an audience.
Along the way, heâ’ll continue to add to his archivesâ"â“discoveringâ” new curiosities, if you will. One idea thatâ’s been kicking around Beauvaisâ’ head for a while is German expressionism. Heâ’d like to create a fictional expressionist painter, and spend half a year in Germany and Poland creating this yet-to-be-named artistâ’s lifeâ’s work.
â“If anything,â” Beauvais goes on, â“laughing at the absurdity of it all is a way of coping and surviving.â”
He adds: â“One might say that your account of me in the Metro Pulse will be a kind of fiction.â”
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