This touching article about Marvin Richardson, Tech 1951, appeared in the Commercial Appeal on September 21, 2003. 


    By Michael Donahue

Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly. These words show up repeatedly in Marvin Richardson's paintings.

Courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful.

As if they are on a continuous loop through his brain, Richardson paints the words in a colorful scrawl on paper scraps, matte board - anything that can hold the power of the message.

Thrifty, brave, clean, reverent.

They are from the Boy Scout Law, words that mean a lot to Richardson, 73, who was a scout as a boy, and later an active volunteer.

Richardson is about as proud of the words as he is of his art show coming up on Friday. His friend Chris Garner arranged the event. Garner asked Richardson what he'd like to call it:

"The Really Big Art Shew," Richardson said.


Garner met Richardson about nine years ago when Richardson brought him some of his Boy Scout awards to be framed.

"I just thought he was a real neat guy they were allowing to help with the Boy Scouts," said Garner, 44, owner of Garner Picture Framing Co. at 632 S. Perkins. "He's like a walking Rorschach test. He says the first thing that comes in his mind and it's usually real happy. He always has nice things to say. He's a real positive, happy individual."

Later, Garner discovered Richardson, who is mentally challenged, was a talented "outsider" artist. "Outsider art is usually work that is not originally meant for sale. It's usually work done by someone untrained who has little or no influences other than their memory, their spirituality, their demons. It usually comes from within."

Garner is presenting a show of more than 60 of Richardson's paintings from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Friday at the frame shop. The show will include Boy Scout Law and Boy Scout Oath paintings as well as florals, landscapes and abstracts.

"We're going to make some Scout Oath T-shirts," Garner said. "We're going to have a lot of fun. He'll be so excited. It's going to be his big day."

Nancy Cheairs, noted Memphis artist, plans to be there. She's particularly fond of Richardson's flower paintings.

"The flowers are very dreamlike and impressionistic and the colors are sort of muted and ethereal," she said.

Garner learned bits and pieces of Richardson's life during each of his visits to the shop. "He knew my grandfather, who was fire chief at the downtown fire station," he said. "He used to ride on my grandfather's shoulders going down the pole."

On a whim, Garner asked Richardson if he ever painted. "And sure enough Marvin had been painting on and off for years. He started to bring me these really great, loose paintings."

Garner gave him leftover framing materials. "This business is rife with scraps. I gave him matte board, paper."

Richardson returned a few days later with a stack of paintings. "It's almost like if I give him 40 pieces of matte board he wants to go finish them all by the next time he sees me. Seriously, in a week he can do 20."

His paintings of the words to the Boy Scout Law and Oath particularly struck Garner. "One is so blurred you can't make out any of the words. And the other one I like so much is 18 by 24. He ran out of room to put the last three: 'Clean,' 'Brave' and 'Reverent.' "

Richardson cut out a smaller board and added the three words. "When you frame or display it, you have to add it on."

On a recent Wednesday, Richardson bustled into the store with a new painting he finished at 2:30 that morning. "I've got a real pretty one," said Richardson, a stocky man in thick glasses with salt-and-pepper hair parted to stand straight up on one side. "This is the most unusual painting."

When told it looked like a piece of stained glass, Richardson said, "That's what I was thinking. I'm glad you come up with that."


Richardson first learned about color from his father, a printing pressman. As a child Richardson "messed around with crayons" and finger-painted, but he wasn't really interested in art.

He and his sister, Marianne Levey, lived with their parents in a big wooden house on Linden. "Mother had paintings that were really paintings. They were better than these. Flowers and things."

Sometimes other kids would pick on him. "I was a big, heavy, clumsy kid. I had a face as big as a football. They would tease me."

He began standing up for himself. "I would go into a rage, grab one by his feet and pick him upside down. 'Vengeance is mine,' sayeth the Lord. 'I will repay.' But it takes Him a long time to repay."

Richardson's father was "gentle and patient. He was 6-foot-1, 250 pounds of Army sergeant. And he loved those scouts."

When Richardson was 12, his dad took him to a Boy Scout meeting. "He said, 'Come on, let's go down and see what they're doing.' "

Richardson fell in love with scouting, which he calls "the best adventure of life."

Shortly after Richardson became a scout, his father took him on a surprise trip. "I'd already seen Sergeant York in 1941. But this was not Gary Cooper I went to see. It was the real Alvin York."

They visited York at his home in Pall Mall, Tenn. York met them in his Army uniform. "I had on my scout suit with the broad-brimmed hat." York, whom Richardson described as "the gentlest person," coached him in target shooting. "He said, 'Whatever you're doing, don't be in a hurry.' "

Richardson graduated from Memphis Technical High School on Feb. 10, 1951. "I took a big, deep breath. Finally made it. With straight Bs, As and Cs."

He got a job with the post office, where he worked as mail handler and dispatcher for 25 years until he retired.

For the Boy Scouts, he worked in various capacities, including assistant scoutmaster. He often drew posters for meetings.


After his parents died, Richardson continued to live in the big house on Linden. He married a woman who lived across the street. "But you couldn't call it a marriage. She was in and out of Tennessee Psychiatric Hospital."

It was difficult when she was at home. "She had a bad habit of wanting to pull the plug out after we'd put food in the freezer. She would pull it out and she would cut it. But thank goodness, she cut it after she pulled it out."

Family members were against the marriage. "They said, 'Marvin, we tried to tell you not to marry her, but you loved her so much that you wanted to help her.' "

Richardson and his wife separated, and she later died at Shelby County Hospital. Richardson sold the family house and moved to Wesley Highland Towers near University of Memphis.

Another resident saw Richardson drawing an elephant and told him about an art teacher. Richardson took some lessons. "Learn your main colors and you got it made. That's all there is to it."

Some of Richardson's Boy Scout awards hang above his drawing board in a corner of his efficiency apartment. He paints in tempera because it's not as messy as oil. He gives his paintings to friends, donates some to the Boy Scouts, keeps the ones he doesn't like.

The Scout Law, which he constantly paints, is important to Richardson, who still assists the Boy Scouts. "Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, reverent - I think I've lived every one of them. I've had enough time."


The Art Exhibit:  Garner Picture Framing Co., 632 S. Perkins Road

Highlights: More than 60 paintings by Marvin Richardson

Marvin Richardson combines his first loves, painting and the Boy Scouts, in such a way that it is earning him recognition as a folk artist late in life. Frame shop owner Chris Garner (background) has set up a show of his pieces.

Richardson works in the small space in his efficiency apartment near the University of Memphis. He paints in tempera because it's not as messy as oil.

The words of the Boy Scout Law - "A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, reverent" - find expression over and over in Richardson's paintings.

Some untitled pieces are inspired by nature, designs or the city surroundings. "The flowers are very dreamlike and impressionistic," said artist Nancy Cheairs.

Artist Marvin Richardson makes use of his color chart for decisions in painting. Friend Chris Garner is helping place Richardson's "outsider" art before the public.

Copyright 2003 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN
Record Number: 0FDBD675516AE75C



Marvin 1951

Marvin 2003

                                                       Marvin and Scout Troup at his art exhibition - 2003