An Interview with Myles Haselhorst, Owner of Ampersand Gallery and Fine Books, as well as the William Crawford Drawing Series

After panning the William Crawford show at Freddy and questioning the authenticity of the work, I followed up the line of inquiry with the curators of the show. The curators put me in touch with Myles Haselhorst, owner of Ampersand Gallery and Fine Books, located in Portland, Oregon. Haselhorst is the owner of the William Crawford drawings and was willing to answer my questions about the ownership and ethics of exhibiting them.

Myles Haselhorst: Before I answer your questions, I want to thank you for taking the time to write such a lengthy review of the show on your blog. Though I tend to react to art more on an aesthetic level rather than digging into questions about cultural relevance and such, I do appreciate all the points you address in your review. These are all questions that need to be asked about this particular body of work. No doubt we bring our own assumptions, tastes and preferences to any art we encounter, but when it comes to found art (or the work of an unknown maker), I think it’s incorrect to assume that the maker had intentions that are anything like those we normally attribute to men or women that are “working as artists.”

In this sense, it’s difficult to write a critical review of this type of work, simply because we don’t know the intentions of the maker and can never assume they even considered themselves an artist or what they made as being art. That said, we can’t deny that William Crawford, whomever he is, was obsessively dedicated to drawing this particular world and that nearly 1000 drawings attest to this fact.

Cara Ober: Can you tell me more about how William Crawford’s works were discovered?

MH: In addition to showing work by contemporary artists, I’m very interested in what you might call vernacular photography, pedestrian design and bodies of work by outsider or unknown artists. For the past decade I have been actively collecting, showing and selling this type of printed matter to collectors all over the world. To this end, I have also established close relationships with other dealers who specialize in ephemera, found photography, archives and rare books. One of these dealers has been in the rare book trade in Oakland for the better part of four decades and is well connected with pickers, book scouts and sellers at flea markets in the Bay Area. I was at his private showroom in May of 2013 and he had recently purchased the William Crawford drawings from a flea market seller.

I in turn purchased them from him. The story he got was that they were found in an abandoned house that was scheduled to be demolished. Of course, I can’t verify the veracity of that story … but that’s the basics of how and when I acquired the collection.

CO: Is William Crawford a real person? Has he been documented or located in the world in some way? Is he dead?

MH: The name William Crawford is attached to the collection because there are about 20 drawings that are either signed William Crawford, Bill Crawford or WM Crawford. A few of the drawings are also drawn on the backs of prison roster printouts dated 1997. These are basic facts that are taken only from the drawings themselves, not fabricated. Moreover, I would never claim that they are somehow more important having been made in prison, if in fact they even were. Take those signed drawings away and this would be the work of an unknown maker. Take the roster sheets away and I would never assume they had been made in prison. Again, my initial interest was the aesthetics of work, the language of an imagined world that was created, the basic art-making decisions that are so evident, like the repeated erasures you mentioned.

The State of California does have an online data base where you can enter search names, which I have done. But, as you can imagine, Bill or William Crawford is a common name, so searching has yielded nothing. Moreover, I have no idea if Crawford is alive or dead.

This leads to the question of the ethics of ownership and showing the work. Do I have the right to own these and exhibit them? I would say yes, especially given the context of preservation that has always guided my intentions as a collector and gallery owner. As stated on our website, “Committed to cultural preservation, the gallery serves as a platform for dialogue between works by emerging artists and the printed matter that informs, inspires and in some cases serves as raw material in the creative process.” For every archive or group of material that I find, I bet there are nine others that people throw away because ours is a throw-away culture and lacks the imagination to see intrigue in the odd little things that people have made before us. Do you think these should have been thrown away or destroyed simply because there is a question of ownership? If yes, then we would have to apply the same criteria to works by Henry Darger, Bill Traylor, Mike Disfarmer and Vivian Maeir, to name a few.

CO: Why did you want to show these particular works in Baltimore?

MH: Of course I can’t speak for Freddy, but I do know they are interested in the line between fact and fiction, reality and dreams … hence naming their space after a fictional (and horrifying) character like Freddy Krueger.

I’m drawn to stories, especially stories that challenge me or make me feel uncomfortable. Crawford no doubt had a perverse way of telling his, regardless of who he actually was, whether or not we think he’s talented at drawing, or whether we think his fantasies were “so plastic it’s unreal.”

One thing I never anticipated was how people think this is a hoax. I suppose I can’t verify whether it is or is not, but the fact is that someone spent a lot of obsessive time making these drawings. Thinking it’s a hoax? Well, I’m all for it, because by its very nature all art traffics in fabrication, fakery and fiction. It just means that every person who sees the work gets to decide (or make up) who William Crawford really was (or is); they get to tell their own version of the story.

CO: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions!

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* Interviewee Myles Haselhorst is the owner of Ampersand Gallery & Fine Books in Portland, OR.
* Interviewer Cara Ober is the Editor at BmoreArt.