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Chicago artist ‘Mr. Imagination,’ famed for using bottle caps, dies in Atlanta

Mr. ImaginatiGregory Warmack Obit Photo. Courtesy Center for Intuitive Outsider Art

Mr. Imagination, Gregory Warmack Obit Photo. Courtesy, the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art

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Updated: July 6, 2012 9:17AM

The Chicago artist known as “Mr. Imagination,” who charmed his audience with riotous, joy-filled works made of thousands of bottle caps and found materials, has died in Atlanta.

The rough-hewn art of the self-taught Mr. Imagination, whose real name was Gregory Warmack, can be found “all over the world,” according to Cleo Wilson, executive director of Chicago’s Intuit: the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

The Smithsonian acquired some of his sandstone work, and he was featured in a traveling exhibition that originated at the Dallas Museum of Art, “Black Art — Ancestral Legacy: the African Impulse in African-American Art.”

The 1996 book, Contemporary American Folk Art: A Collector’s Guide, said that Warmack “beats the Chicago Sanitation Department to back-alley waste and assembles what most of us would consider trash into sculptures of great power. . . . Warmack’s work is beautiful, but it has another level as well — it is about the black experience and Warmack’s search for his African roots.”

Mr. Warmack, 64, died of an infection Wednesday at an Atlanta hospital, said Carl Hammer of Chicago’s Carl Hammer Gallery, which sells his work.

Years ago, mutual friends told Hammer he ought to meet Mr. Warmack, who didn’t have a phone. He went to the artist’s Chicago home.

“He was living essentially in a vacated or abandoned house that was somewhat burned out,” Hammer said. “There was a big sign over the door that he had created out of his bottle caps that said ‘Welcome to the World of Mr. Imagination.’ ”

He lived for years near Belmont and Clark in an apartment in which virtually every nook and cranny was decorated with bottle caps. In 2002, he relocated to Bethlehem, Pa., to get “more peace and green in his life,” according to Intuit’s Facebook page. But a house fire in 2008 burned his artwork and raw materials, and killed his beloved dog Pharaoh, Intuit said. He moved to Atlanta in 2009.

His work can still be seen in spots like Chicago’s House of Blues, where he used bottle caps to embellish the walls around the bar, Hammer said. Officials with the House of Blues asked him if he could spice up the bar two nights before the club opened.

“He worked about 48 hours straight,” Hammer said.

He also did installations at House of Blues clubs in Florida, Las Vegas and New Orleans, Hammer said.

One of nine children, Mr. Warmack had been a clothing designer and hairdresser. But when he was shot during a robbery in the late 1970s, “these visions came to him” of Egyptian figures, Wilson said.

“I saw myself as Mr. Imagination, an African king,” he said in a 1996 interview with the Sun-Times’ Dave Hoekstra.

Often, Mr. Warmack could be seen wearing a hat festooned with bottle caps.

“It weighed about 20 pounds,” Wilson said.

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