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MUHLBACHER, JOSEPH (1876?-1955)

Folk artist Joseph Muhlbacher, born in Deusch Feisteritz Austria, on March 3, 1876, to parents whose names remain unknown, came to the United States in 1901 and in 1905 homesteaded 160 acres in Roger Mills County near Cheyenne. He became a citizen of the United States in 1910. Muhlbacher kept to himself, and locals generally referred to him as "the Hermit." Creative and industrious on his own property, he built a half-dugout with rock and concrete walls and a flat tin roof. He was among the first in the county to terrace his land. The solitary figure with long, flaming red hair and beard often played the violin. Over the years he used concrete to turn his house and surrounding yard into a sculpture garden with a number of strange, statue-like objects and figures that had symbolism apparently understood only by the artist. One in particular, which he called "Tree of Life," depicted a nude man and woman. Local citizens found the image offensive, and they and the county sheriff destroyed the piece in 1932. Despite the artist's nontraditional subjects and although Muhlbacher seemed to prefer his own company to that of others, his residence became something of a local Sunday-afternoon attraction. In 1941 Muhlbacher's unusual life and art were the subject of a documentary on a CBS serial radio program called We, the People. "The Hermit" made a trip to New York for an interview and also was featured in a short-subject film that appeared in motion-picture theaters around the nation. A true visionary and outsider artist, Joseph Muhlbacher died of pneumonia on July 9, 1955, and was buried in Cheyenne. His land and his creations were sold at auction. The ruins still stand.

SEE ALSO: FOLK ART, FOLKLIFE, NATHAN EDWARD GALLOWAY, OUTDOOR SCULPTURE, MORRIS TENENBAUM.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: John Beardsley, Gardens of Revelation: Environments by Visionary Artists (New York: Abbeville Press, 1995). Lane Coulter, "Folk Art Images in Oklahoma," Folk Art in Oklahoma: An Exhibition Presented by the Oklahoma Museums Association (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Museums Association, 1981). Jim Etter, "Hermit's Rest," Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 21 March 1993. Kent McInnis, "Joe Muhlbacher, Eccentric Folk Artist of the Oklahoma Prairie," The War Chief 19 [Indian Territory Posse of Westerners International] (September 1985).

Dianna Everett

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