For more than 20 years, Bruce Lee Webb has collected work associated with fraternal orders, like the Masons or Oddfellows. Webb is co-owner, with his wife, Julie, of Webb Gallery in Waxahachie. Now, he’s also a co-author. Photos of his collection anchor the new book “As Above, So Below,” which he wrote with Lynne Adele, an art historian specializing in folk and outsider art.
Webb stopped by the KERA newsroom to chat about how his collection, and his involvement in fraternal organizations, led him to a deeper understanding of history.
Not to mention a friendship with musician David Byrne, who wrote the forward to “As Above, So Below.”
You can listen to a short version of our conversation that aired on KERA FM.
Here are some more excerpts:
Fraternal orders really took off in the United States after the Civil War. There were something like 70,000 local lodges and maybe 5.5 million members. Can you explain what these fraternal orders are and why people were so drawn to them?
To me, fraternalism is part of true Americana. It’s part of the makeup of our constitution and a lot of it we probably borrowed from France. Liberty, fraternity, equality are the basic ideals of fraternalism. After the Civil War, I think a lot of people were lost and there was a great coming together through fraternal associations that maybe men had fought against each other during the war. Afterwards they put all that aside and could meet on fraternal basses, put aside politics and differences of religion. Those were some of the principal tenants about the lodges. You’re not allowed to talk about religion or politics in a sectarian way. That’s one of the things that is good about fraternal groups – it brings people together from different mindsets.
Why were secrets so important to fraternal orders?
It’s a way to bind the group together?
All of the objects – banners and costumes, works on paper, wooden carvings – how do these come in and why are they important?
I think everyone interprets symbols differently. These symbols are kind of like archetypes, in our subconscious. We see them and we think of what it means. Even without words.
How did you start collecting fraternal paraphernalia?
I started to research it. And then moving to Waxahachie, I joined the Masonic lodge in 1987, and then the Odd Fellows. It gave even more meaning to go through the ceremonies. I’ve really liked that so much of the ceremony is unchanged for a hundred years or more. There’s that sense of history, and I also love a good mystery. That’s the thing sometimes you don’t have to know the full meaning behind something. I like things like sort of being a little bit in the shadows you could say.
Some of these things really do look mysterious…
You have been collecting these items for 25 years?
You learn how your eye can discern great things in a pile of junk and somehow you’re able to hone in and see that item or object that you’re really interested in and pick it out of a big group of things that you’re not interested in. Going to flea markets is kind of the basis of a lot of it for me.
My grandparents were missionaries to South India and my grandmother collected books on occultism, Hinduism and things like that. When I was growing up I would visit my grandparents and kind of be left alone in my grandmother’s library, and I just really love looking at old books. A lot of it has a love of old books is kind of the basis for what I collect.
Do you remember the first piece of fraternal order related paraphernalia that you acquired?
There’s a whole chapter in the book on the heart-in-hand image, which shows up in other folk art.
One of the most striking pieces to me was a slide that was made for a magic lantern which is kind of precursor to the slide projector. It’s called “Where Hideous Things Slither and Climb” can you describe that scene and how that would’ve been used in fraternal situations?
That would’ve been used in connection with a lecture after you had gone through the Knights of Pythias ceremony of initiation.
We have to talk about the goats. There are a series of contraptions, mechanical goats….?
The catalogs that DeMoulin put out had really wonderful illustrations that are like cartoon illustrations. You can just imagine the lodge secretary and the other members sitting around the desk deciding which one they’re going to order. “Do we get the Fuzzy Bumper or do we want the Whirling Wonder where the goat spins the candidate around?”
You are a member of a couple of fraternal orders. What role do they play today? How are they relevant today?
There’s a sense of history, a lot of people remember a grandfather, an uncle or some family member that was a member and maybe it’s a connection to something that they had gone through. Like, you wanted to do what your grandfather had done. It’s something that’s connected to the old world and so many of us doing our jobs we don’t get a chance to visit on the kind of level that you get to visit at a lodge meeting. Again, you can’t talk about religion or politics.
It also puts you in contact with that WWII generation, some of the older men that I’ve met at lodge just shared so many great stories. Their lives have had a really big impact on me. For me, I like being around the older people that I’ve been around. I like that sense of connection to the old world and old America that seems to be disappearing so quickly.
David Byrne, the musician, wrote the forward to your book. How did that happen?
He also embraced folk art, the Talking Heads had Howard Finster paint one their album covers. I know that David collects fraternal stuff himself an I think he really wrote a beautiful forward.
The book isn’t just work from your collection…
Most people aren’t going to be scouring flea markets in quite the way you have looking for these sorts of objects. But if you’re interested, what can you easily see?
Probably the easiest thing to see is your local cemetery.
Also visit local fraternal buildings. Most big cities in America have a Scottish Rite. I’ve found if you knock on the door there’s usually somebody there that will give you a tour and let you look around. There’s a lot of art work in fraternal buildings, whether it’s murals or the buildings themselves or the collections that they have. It’s my thought that this is probably their best advertisement if they’re trying to entice new members, let people see some of the cool artifacts. At least it would affect me that way.
I love going on road trips. Around the country there’s a few folk artist environments that are fraternal. Up in Lucas, Kansas the Samuel P. Dinsmoor Garden of Eden is fraternal. He was a Civil War veteran who wound up getting two pension checks from the government. He took his second check and spent it on cement and supplies to build an incredible environment in the little town of Lucas. It’s called the Garden of Eden and it’s carved stone and cement. It has masonic figures and it has the history of the world. Mr Dinsmoor was a populist, so it has this incredible crucifixion – labor being crucified and being pulled at the edges by the banker, lawyer, preacher and the doctor. To me there are so many interesting aspects of folk art around the country that have fraternal basis to them.