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The bare bones of art

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Jerry Allen is kind of an odd “beholder.”

He would be the first to admit that, if his wife, Linda, doesn’t beat him to the draw.

Allen’s eyes were on the fast track around the room. His bottom lip masked the top. His brow furrowed and he took a deep and thoughtful breath in an attempt to explain his unique eye for beauty.

“I guess,” he said. “I guess, it goes back to when I was a boy. I’ve always been fascinated with Indians and Indian life. I’ve hunted and collected arrowheads since I was real young. But, I really don’t know where my interest in art comes from.”

Perhaps, from the old Western movies that played every Saturday afternoon at the picture show. The silver screen featured cowboys and Indians but it was the Indians in brightly colored beads and headdresses, decorative feathers, masks and drums and war paint that caught Allen’s eye.

When he was not at the picture show, he was roaming the pastures where he found hundreds of arrowheads and pottery shards in the plowed fields around Hamilton Crossroads.

Even as a boy, he had an eye for design.

“I mounted the arrowheads and pottery pieces into designs,” he said. “One was a teepee. Another was a canoe. I made all kinds of designs with the arrowheads.”

As time passed, arrowheads became harder and harder to find and young Jerry Allen found other interests. But he never lost his fascination for the Native American culture and, like those he admired, he, too, had a great appreciation and respect for nature.

He saw the beauty in nature’s offerings, especially rocks.

The different shapes, colors and textures interested him and, over the years, many of the rocks held memories of special times, places and loved ones.

About three years ago, Allen was walking across a field near his home at the Crossroads. His eyes were cast downward in hopes of finding a treasure – a rock or maybe even an arrowhead that had been turned up. But there, in the weeds, Allen saw a huge skull of a horse. Something clicked. His boyhood fascination with Indians, his adult interest in rocks, his love of nature and his eye for design manifested and the result was the development of a unique art medium.

“I don’t know if anybody else is making art from animal bones but it’s what I do,” Allen said. “Not many people know that I paint animal bones and I don’t sell any of them or even try to sell them. I paint bones because I enjoy it. I enjoy walking the pastures and the woods looking for aged bones and then turning them into pieces of art.”

One room of Allen’s house has, as the old saying goes, “more bones than Carter has little liver pills.”

Allen laughed as he looked around the room filled with hundreds and hundreds of his works of art. His artwork is stacked on things, shoved under things, placed on top of things and there is hardly a place where there’s not a brightly colored Jerry-bone.

Allen’s canvases are the skulls, backbones, hip bones, leg bones and neck bones of cows, horses, goats, deer, squirrels, beavers, armadillos and things he can’t even identify with a few turtle shells thrown in for variety.

When I find a bone, I look at it this way and that way and I can usually see something in it – a shape that reminds me of something,” he said. “My favorite is the back side of a bone that, once I painted it, looks like a lion’s face. I can see many different things in the bones – airplanes, snakes, all kinds of creatures and critters, boats, fish, even the devil.”

The creatures that Allen creates from the bones are, for the most part, whimsical and fun. They have faces that belie the grotesqueness of their “bodies” and uncertainty of their backgrounds. Their bulging eyes were being knocked around golf courses before they became an art object.

“Much of the are reminds me of the ritual masks that Indians wore and some of it has a spiritual-like quality,” Allen said. “Some of pieces have stories behind them. Like this one. It’s the jawbone of an ass. That comes from the Bible. This is the kind of bone that David used to slay the Philistines. And, these …”

A smile a mile wide spread across Allen’s face as he selected a crimson and white turtle shell with the words “BCS 2010 National Champions” emblazoned on it.

“I’m an Alabama fan so I’ve got several Alabama turtle shells,” Allen said. “One has all of Alabama’s national championships on it. I’ve got the Troy Trojans and several SEC teams. My goal is to paint all the SEC teams on turtle shells but I’ve got to catch enough turtles first. When the weather gets warm I’ll be back fishing.”

Until then, Allen is content to walk through pastures and woodlands looking for and digging up bones.

“I enjoy finding bones and then seeing what I can see in them,” he said.

“I guess you can call what I do art. If you can turn the back of a horse’s rear into a face, I guess that might be art.”