Shortly after coming into the care of The University of Tennessee's Hokes Archives in 1998, the mysterious "George and Helen Spelvin Folk Art Collection" has made its way around the country since first being introduced to the public at the Regina Gouger Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University in 2001.
Next week, the collection will be on display at the UT Downtown Gallery from Nov. 6 through Dec. 18. A public preview reception will be held today from 5 to 8 p.m.
The husband and wife team of collectors who gradually acquired the art for more than a quarter of a century stored the pieces in their modest Tennessee home until they could no longer maintain them, at which point they donated the artwork to UT to "serve as a study collection and teaching tool," according to the collection's narrative.
Neither George nor Helen Spelvin are art collectors, nor are they Tennessee residents. In fact, they don't exist at all except as complete fabrications borne in the mind of UT's Professor Beauvais Lyons of the School of Art, who is nationally recognized for his works of "archaeological parody" spanning the past two decades.
"It's (the collection) a mock documentary," Lyons said. "It uses the conventions of documentary to present a work of fiction."
Despite this knowledge, visitors to the exhibit in other galleries have still been caught up in the false sense of authenticity, Lyons said.
"Once they see the pictures and read the biographical narratives, they forget and think it's real," Lyons said.
The collection draws from 11 fictional artists created by Lyons, the exhibition's curator. The collection includes Arthur Middleton's portraits of American Presidents, Lester Dowdey's "limberjack" puppets, the "alien communication device" by E.B. Hazzard, Max Pritchard's cereal box religious tracts and other noteworthy folk art pieces.
For Lyons, the chance to play the role of 11 different and distinct artists was exciting.
"Parody is not for everyone," Lyons said. "But parody oftentimes has a critical dimension to it that sort of helps us call into question some of the assumptions about what we believe and systems of information that we might assume to be real."
Lyons serves as director of the Hokes Archives and worked to bring the "Centaur Excavations at Volos" exhibit to Hodges Library.
The Downtown Gallery is located at 106 South Gay St. and is open Wednesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. More information on the Gallery can be found at or by calling 974-3200. More information on the Collection and the Hokes Archives can be found at