There are secrets in the hills. A population of people and creatures who’ve chosen to live out their days in obscurity, well removed from both beaten path and road less traveled—people like the late artist Tim West. In the decade since he was befriended by the photographer Diana Hausam, his work and story brought to light, his status as a reclusive genius has been confirmed by so many tellings. Diana’s story, however, is a different matter
WHEN DIANA HAUSAM, a West Fork photographer, went looking for the stories that old buildings tell in the summer of 2006,
she discovered Tim West instead. Up a side road past the Winslow gas station, Tim had constructed an odd sculpture by the ditch, artfully assembled bicycle parts and junk. The state would soon make him take it down, insisting it was an eyesore and threatening to fine him $200 a day, or at least that was what he told people. In the brief time it was up, Diana, then a student at the U of A, happened to drive by while looking for dilapidated structures to photograph. Sometimes she would see a falling barn or a run-down house and not pursue it because it would be difficult to track down the owner, then later it would collapse. She regretted these lost opportunities to record the final stages of decay. She didn’t want to miss the chance to learn more about the junk artist, or why someone would drag these broken bits together. A note left with her address on the bicycle parts yielded a handwritten letter in return, inviting her to come visit.
Tim West greeted her in his standard summer attire, shirtless and barefoot with a chunk of bark belted firmly against his belly to hold in a hernia he refused to have treated. He was dirty, woolly, but lean and muscular. The man Diana met was not simply an odorous hermit, though, but a trained artist with an MFA and two pieces in the Museum of Modern Art—and another two at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He submitted the pieces himself when he was a young man, fresh from his studies, and then seemed to drop out of attempting to market his work or make a living after that. He told Diana all about his work and portions of his past. Spotty stories of his youth echoed those he told of alcoholism and run-ins with the law; the isolation in Arkansas kept him out of trouble or at least out of view. His drawings, sculptures and etchings, were squirreled in every corner and hollow of the land where he’d lived for almost 40 years on a sprawling acreage inherited from his parents. He said it was the only place he could live for free.
Diana began to visit Tim occasionally, and photographed or videotaped footage of him in his natural habitat. He hammed it up for the camera at first, utterly at ease and eager for the audience. Performing. Her favorite portraits of him were all from the first day they met. On video he appears playful, circling on his bicycle with his bark strapped to his gut, or drawing, his dirty hands smudging and shaping the ink. He hunkers against a tree waxing philosophical with worn observations about art. When you draw a woman, he says in one taped segment, you possess that woman in a way. Diana spoke of the videotapes as she did Tim’s artwork, treasures she kept of someone she cherished and had lost. She supplied him with his favorite Monster Energy drinks, cat food for his many pets and tried to get more footage for a documentary she still hopes to complete.
SHE MET ME at a Fayetteville coffee shop to talk about her experiences with Tim. She was running late, either from what I would learn was her work as a certified nursing assistant with the elderly or disabled, or teaching a class on photography, something she had been doing locally for years. As soon as we were seated at a table, Diana went straight into how she’d come to meet Tim, skipping past any details about herself or her work. It was apparent she was repeating exactly what I had read from previous interviews about her and Tim, and the flatness of the repetition made her seem disconnected from the story. I wanted to find a way to address what I had heard of Tim’s art, but found my attention piqued more by Diana’s own interest in him and her photography of him. After all, it was her eye that had brought her to his place in the summer of 2006—the reason she’d first been drawn to the odd old man in the woods, and the reason she’d promoted him until his death in 2012 at the age of 74.
There’s something inherently risky in approaching people who inhabit the hills. The Ozarks have long attracted people who want to hide themselves and their doings in the bramble-choked hollows, or drop completely out of polite society. Diana’s photographs reveal remnants of what the city-averse left behind, collapsing buildings yielding dust and disrepair in stark, black and white images of broken dolls and tattered furniture. Shards of sunlight through wall cracks and roof holes. The results are archeological snapshots of domesticity broken down by time and elements, traces of lives you can envision by the garbage they left behind. To get these images she had to cross ditches, squirm under fences, walk through briers and step across rotting floorboards. She had to be willing to get dirty, and to trespass. Tim West seemed to embody the very elements of her work in the flesh.
I know people who have been shot at just for getting lost or turning up the wrong driveway. Living in town now, it still seems odd to see children wander across strangers’ yards, oblivious to the danger of tripping through an unknown flowerbed. Then I remember gun waving is generally discouraged where there are sidewalks. Diana seemed almost shy, and it was difficult to imagine her approaching strangers and their boundaries far beyond the city limits.
She told me about finding an old house she just had to photograph near Mountain View, thinking she could run in and quickly get a few images until she heard bullets whizzing into the trees. The experience left her avoiding ruins for a good while. I pressed for more details, but she drifted back into Tim’s story, the narrative sounding rehearsed as a fairy tale due to years of repetition.
I don’t romanticize dirty, old men who live alone in shacks. Not even if they are artists. Neither do many whose families settled here generations ago and struggled to escape the poverty and isolation. My mother was born in a cow shed near Kingston, and she and her 12 younger brothers and sisters have done everything possible to distance themselves from that hardscrabble life. The people I knew who embraced Ozark isolation, who refused jobs, indoor plumbing and basic toiletries, heaping up trash around them in their own corner of the woods, or squatting on others’ property, were not the sort of individuals I admired for their rejection of modernity. They were often drunks, or abusive fathers whose children left them to rot alone in the woods. Sometimes they were mentally ill and helplessly under-served by our medical system or just flat-out lazy. The worst were so filled with hatred of others they preferred to rarely see them or be seen. “What was wrong with him,” I asked, meaning, what drove him to squat in filth, alone in the woods. “Was he some kind of gigantic asshole?”
Diana said he was just an eccentric, and even popular with the ladies, having been married four times. I missed what the allure was about Tim. In this first meeting, I asked her more about her own personal life, hoping to discover why she was attracted to this friendship with the crusty old man, or found him so appealing. She just shrugged and said she didn’t know really. When I pressed for more information, she fell back upon details about Tim rather than expanding on her own motivations. She told me he rode into Fayetteville on his bicycle for years, making the long trek to visit his friends, and had lived with his last wife, Joy, in his one-room shack before she had to be placed in a nurshing home. Diana used to visit Joy, who is wheelchair-bound and survives her late husband. Each time Diana stopped by, Joy begged to go back to the shack with Tim, preferring the squalor to the geriatric facility.
IN TIME, Diana discovered Tim wasn’t as isolated as he seemed. She noted his habit of getting a single order of biscuits and gravy almost daily at the nearest gas station, the way he’d allow an occasional roommate of sorts to camp out on the land. There was also the clay bank, a red, dirt-backed, natural display case on the curve of the highway where Tim constructed concrete sculptures and put up oddities for the viewing of local drivers. There weren’t many on the county road, but the ones who did pass could not miss his gallery. He wanted to be seen, to be noticed. He wasn’t really trying to disappear, and it wasn’t hard to convince him to let her seek a venue for his art.
Not long after she’d befriended Tim, Diana convinced the owner of M2 Gallery in Little Rock to feature his work, taking in a huge stack—hundreds—of urine and dirt-stained drawings. A show was scheduled. Tim reveled in the attention, claiming he knew he would be famous someday in an interview. He took a shower for the opening at an acquaintance’s home in Little Rock after Diana drove him, eyes watering, down to his first show. She watched him flirt with the women at the opening, who seemed fascinated with his hermit lifestyle and hairy façade. He was the caricature of an outsider artist.
It seemed important to see what was left of Tim’s home and his clay bank gallery, so I asked Diana to take me. We arranged to meet up at her house a few weeks later and drive there together before the undergrowth and ticks set in too heavy from spring. She hadn’t been out there in a year or two and wanted to see it again herself. It also gave me a chance to see his work in person at her home in West Fork, a converted stone barn near the highway. When I got out of my car, a cacophony of barking, unseen little dogs could be heard beyond the fence.
Diana is proud of her Tim West collection, which is visible in the entry and hallway of her home with her own work. I asked her about her photographs, and she directed me to a prominent one featuring Tim thrusting a kitten gleefully at the viewer, one of the many cats that occupied his one room shack, coming and going through a hole in the floor with the raccoons. The stone walls share space with photographs of Tim on one side and his drawings on another, and the hall narrows and doglegs back into a collection of bedrooms, the original remodel intended to convert the barn to a bed and breakfast. In her still shots he squats on a handmade bridge, glaring like an old troll. A pair of mannequin legs make repeat appearances in her images of Tim and his work, shifting in composition, sometimes propped against a sculpture, Tim crouching before them, or poking unoriginally from an old garbage can turned on its side. The entry turned gallery has a peculiar, shrine-like quality due to the singular emphasis on Tim’s work. No visible traces of Diana’s life or relationships are there.
Tim’s earliest landscapes are the strongest, smudged, browned from body sweat, earth and cat urine, a process that lends the compositions an Old World patina. There are elements of Japanese printmaking in the styling of each branch or twig. As he ages the lines loosen, overlapping, haphazard and dense. His last drawings have the same wild landscapes, but dark, human figures hover or overlap, suggestions of beautiful women and bodies bent in bondage, dildos and leather constraints. Diana refers to these as emotionally “dark.” The bondage series could be the doodlings of a naughty schoolboy with moderate talent, illustrations that I speculate he did after he started to get attention in the last few years of his life, mistakenly thinking people could still be shocked by bondage.
Viewing a grouping of his work in one place, it was clear that Tim thoroughly occupied and recorded his landscape, becoming a part of his environment and art with the very dirt that clung to his body. He repeated the same subject and setting over and over again for 40 years. Diana’s earlier descriptions of his drawings, the intricacies and the filth of his existence, suggested the images would not exist in remotely the same way without his chosen lifestyle. Were they not under glass, I wondered if they still smelled of body odor and cat urine.
Twisting turns of color and brambles, choked with weeds and refuse, bicycle parts and trash, combine to make a tapestry-like effect when set on a backdrop of dirtied paper. The density of the compositions revealed loosely drawn figures almost lost in the overgrowth, posing with a hatchet, or a face drifting like a spirit in the trees. Tim seemed fascinated with the bones of trees, the outlines and lines of vegetation, rather than leaves. Any faces or figures he drew also take that shorthand approach, elevating the outline over the interior. Streaks of bright color intersect the topography, lifting portions to catch your eye while concealing objects in the briers and dense brush. Using pens and markers on paper, Tim drew the natural world and geography still visible when we went to his old place. I rode with her in her SUV as she drank an iced coffee and told me about taking fitness classes for the first time. She had a yoga class to get to later in the day, but it wouldn’t take too long to see the place.
DIANA PULLED down the hint of a driveway still remaining on Tim’s land, just past the Winslow gas station. The first new growth of spring was beginning, and it was easy enough to navigate the weeds and former paths. All structures on the property were in a prolonged process of collapsing. His shack was completely floorless, and sat behind a more intact, but junked up one-room cabin. A neighbor who cut timber off the land also cut a deal with Tim that he would build him a newer, better shack, constructed in front of the old one. He never occupied it. Diana said Tim worried the cats and raccoons he fed could not get in and out of the new cabin without holes in the floors, and so he preferred his old place. The one-room cabin with front porch and solid floors was inhabited after Tim’s death by squatters with children. Ramen wrappers, an overturned sofa, old tennis shoes, plastic toys, milk jugs and a single dress hanging from the front porch remained. Someone had spray painted “cat house” in green by the front door. I tried to imagine Joy, wheelchair bound and living in the one room shack heated by a wood stove, a single light bulb suspended from the ceiling, listening to Tim talk and watching the raccoons and cats come and go through the floor. On the far side of the creek bed, we would later see one of her abandoned wheelchairs, overturned in the brush.
Inside the remnants of Tim’s original shack, a weathered chair sat beside a sewing machine, a gas can and a full-sized mattress. A third of the walls were missing, and floorboards had been pulled up. Scavengers tore what was left of the floor and walls apart shortly after his death, seeking rumored treasure. His etching plates were stolen, probably to sell for scrap. Diana told me two nephews in Texas inherited the property, but they did not seem interested in the old man or his artwork, and planned to keep the place for a future hunting retreat. Tim’s entire art collection, stacks and stacks of images on paper that were not stolen or used as bedding by some critter, went to Diana upon his death five years ago.
We picked our way through the trash and empty Monster Energy cans, flung haphazardly in the leaves with random liquor bottles, a favorite of Tim’s that may have contributed to his death from organ failure since he drank up to four a day. With each new can I stepped over, I thought about him standing there barefoot, draining the last of his Monster Energy before dropping it where he stood in the dirt. By a clear stream where he would bathe in warmer months (when it was cooler he went without baths) upon an old stone foundation, there sat a tin-roofed space built from random windows, perhaps by his parents. Diana leaned into doorways or stepped into the structures as if uncertain of their collapse, telling me her memories of what Tim used to do in each spot. Pieces of a hanging bridge used to get across the creek during flood level still hung from trees, the same bridge he had crouched upon in one of her photos. She pointed out you could see the exact topography that informed much of Tim’s work in the hillside and underbrush, and it was not difficult to imagine him squatting barefoot in the dirt, sketching out his landscapes. It was a pleasant place to sit on a warm day.
Up an old access road, glass panes concealed by leaves cracking under our feet, we found where the original bicycle sculpture had been by the highway. He was always building things here, Diana said, as she sorted through items, looking for signs of Tim. Another trash heap, either by design or by pirate dumpers, contained a rolled mattress, rusted metal, plastics and glass. A stone mill wheel from the original foundation by the creek had Tim’s imprint upon it. Bicycle parts were attached to the outside of the wheel. I poked through the garbage and turned up glass bottles, a candle holder. I handed these to Diana and she took them to keep.
From there we crossed the stream, moving through a meadow and then a thick stand of bamboo, more Monster Energy cans in the grass, up to a cluster of collapsing log cabins, a gurgling spring contained in a stone surround between them. There was something more established, more planned in the construction here. The original settlers, over a hundred years ago, had desired access to fresh water, and built the compound and fireplace strong enough to outlast a century of neglect. Ivy grew twined through the roof and windows like a witches’ cottage, and a sweatshirt hung from a nail beside the fireplace like Tim had just stepped out. More empty milk jugs than you could count, paperbacks, a cooler, a TV, cushion stuffing and multicolored plastics were scattered across the floors and paths. Diana pointed out a hollow in the dirt floor of a shed behind the cabin where she said Tim used to sleep. An avid reader, his books lay on the ground, heaped in the corners. I toed the cover of one, still untouched by the elements, to read the title: Any Minute I Can Split, a novel by Judith Rossner. Diana opened a battered roll top desk, a kerosene lamp sitting atop, and discovered a faded, mouse-chewed drawing that Tim had done, forgotten in the ruins.
He’d drifted from structure to structure, sorting through his junk heaps, constructing three dimensional items in the woods, scratching faces into the collapsing buildings with nails, molding simplistic, smiling figures in concrete on wire forms. His name, painted on an antique car hood propped against a tree at the top of the the clay bank where he’d arranged and rearranged his sculpture, was still visible. Crumbling concrete figures, crafted on wire, would soon fall, or already have. What was left of one face held the trace of a smile. Near the road, a single, large stone erected as a monument with the date of his death and “Westland” written at the bottom, a dozen belts strapped around the stone to represent the belts he used to hold his hernia in with bark. Diana pointed out the number of belts and noticed a mannequin leg from one of her photos lying in the weeds. When she reached down to take it, it disintegrated in her hand.
THE LAST TIME we met she told me of her intended projects, photographing old lawn ornaments, an abandoned town in the Smoky Mountains and traveling to Wisconsin to visit a remnant factory for gigantic fiberglass figures, Shoney’s Big Boys and gigantic chickens. Weather-worn absurdities. She said she wants to photograph the factory’s castaway yard, a field full of huge figures and heads and popular stop for tourists who happen through that part of the state. She hopes to discover more outsider artists like Tim here in the Ozarks, more crusty old men in the hills, that she can document or photograph. It was a repetition of the storyline she’d already told me, much as Tim repeatedly drew the same landscapes for years. Then she paused, and said she doesn’t know what she wants, but is tired of riding Tim’s coattails, ready to put that part of her life behind her and move on.
I didn’t learn much more about Tim that didn’t seem likely, his drinking problems from the past and tangles with the law, the community thinking he was simply a crazy, stinky old man. I learned very little about Diana that she wished for me to share. What I could tell from looking at her photographs, and considering her desired pursuits, was that Tim mirrored in the human form her preferred subject matter of buildings in disrepair and decay. With his woolly head and bark-rigged hernia cure, he was as run down and junked up as any structure she photographed. Given his preoccupation his self-proclaimed brilliance, not always evident in his work, Tim represented what many artists can only aspire to, someone who pursued art his entire life, unceasingly, despite a lack of recognition, accolades or money. Perhaps Diana will be influenced to continue to record that which is collapsing and worn, no matter where it takes her, trespassing through muck and briers. Putting his presence in her life behind her, but borrowing his determination to continue to create and reflect her own vision from the ruins.