I can almost see J. Alan Cumbey, sprawled next to his sister in his Willi Smith suit and his skinny tie, chain-smoking as his sister tells me about his life. He looks bemused, from the even line of his flat-top down to the tips of his pointy shoes. Cumbey was a prolific gay writer and artist in 1980s Richmond — better known for his wry writing style than for his jarring artwork. One chilly November night in 1992, Cumbey, blinded by his five-year struggle with HIV/AIDS, put the final touches on his last drawing, Pull Cord for Nurse. He passed away the next day.
25 years later, Diversity Richmond’s Iridian Gallery and J. Alan Cumbey’s sister Lisa are holding the first-ever public exhibit of Cumbey’s work — to honor an outstanding collection of outsider art. Outsider art, a rare category, is defined as art created by self-taught, untrained artists who never sought recognition. This exhibit of outsider art is curiously titled Beyond the Valley of Wigs in Space.
“Opening night will be the first time the public sees his work,” said Lora Beldon, curator of the show. “There wasn’t really an outlet for some of his earlier work — what we’re calling his ‘porn work.’ If you consider male, gay porn in the early 80s, his work had to be quite underground.”
Cumbey grew up in rural Virginia, and was recognized as a gifted child from the start — albeit a misunderstood one.
“Peanuts and paper mills. That’s it,” his sister said of their surroundings as children. “Even in such a small town, he was recognized for his writing, although he made art all the while. That sort of shifted when we both entered an art show in high school. I had done an ordinary portrait that I’m sure the judges thought was Jesus, and Alan had done this amazing painting that told a story, and was sort of sci-fi.
“I won the competition. And from then on he really just focused on his writing. He had realized that this was not the place for his work. He didn’t want to redirect his style, so he didn’t continue making art until he’d left home.”
Cumbey moved to Richmond to attend VCU when he was 18, but dropped out just a few months later, causing a rift with his parents that would only intensify over the years. After waiting tables for a while, he moved to Key West — only to have to move back soon after, when he was diagnosed with Type I juvenile onset diabetes.
Despite weighing only 125 pounds, Cumbey pressed on and started writing again. He wrote for Throttle, Richmond’s alternative, underground magazine; Style Weekly, which was mainstream even back then; and for Night Moves, a magazine that fell somewhere in the middle.
“He started writing regularly in the mid-80s, for Night Moves,” Lisa Cumbey said. “He had a column called Mr. Theater-goer, where he did theater reviews, music reviews, wrote about pop culture.” I asked her if her brother was a big fan of theater. “He liked drama,” she said, laughing. “He was so brilliant, brilliant in every category. He wrote plays and beautiful poetry, and he was so, so gifted with words.”
His sister describes Cumbey’s writing style as witty, humorous, personable. You could describe him the same way. “He was hilarious, hilariously funny,” Beldon said. “And whenever he spoke, it was beautiful.”
But Cumbey was also quiet, observational. He drew cartoons of everybody in his life. And when his sister got a haircut or lost weight, she would see it in her brother’s drawings of her. He would never say anything out loud, though — preferring to reserve his slow, southern drawl for more profound words.
It was around this time, in the 80s, that Cumbey really came out — while he was finding himself through writing and drawing and living life. He was confident in his writing and his life as an openly gay man, but was less secure about his art. However, he kept at it as he grew older.
“Comic books helped define his early work,” Beldon said. “He had the dark black lines outlining his drawings, but eventually he moved past that. The fashion, the pop culture, and the music of the 80s is all evident in his work. He did a lot of series that would go on for years, and that’s really important to outsider art. Alan thought in this type of manifesto, big picture mindset. He was really writing visual novels.”
In 1987, Cumbey was diagnosed with HIV. His sister hosted the first function to raise money and awareness for AIDS in the history of Virginia — together, the brother and sister worked tirelessly within the community in the hopes of finding a cure. Cumbey’s illness, in fact, is a strong theme in much of his work. One of his strongest works, Rag Doll, is a self-portrait drawn soon after his diagnosis.
“It’s kind of hard to look at,” Lisa Cumbey said. “But it’s important. He drew it when he had started to go blind. I remember he told a friend how he just felt like he was going to explode.”
For Beldon, J. Alan Cumbey’s work is like a time capsule of the 80s, a profound snapshot in history. Both Beldon and Lisa Cumbey look forward to the upcoming exhibit as a chance to showcase an extraordinary collection of works with both artistic and emotional value.
“This the 25th anniversary of my brother’s death,” Lisa Cumbey said. “His art was the most important thing in his life. We’re selling all of it without commission, and it’s at the lowest price it can be. I just want people who want to have a piece of Alan’s art to be able to have it. My brother would’ve loved to have known that people wanted it.”
The opening reception and party for Beyond the Valley of Wigs in Space will take place on Nov. 17, at 7 pm in the Iridian Gallery, located at 1407 Sherwood Ave. This event is open to the public, and the exhibit will run until Jan. 29, 2018. For information, visit diversityrichmond.org.