Vol. 3, Issue 22, November 1, 2005
Plenty of Homers, But Is It Art?
To the casual observer, at first, it's an unassuming green bungalow with white shutters. But to those in the know, 59 Remo Lane is utterly unique in the state of Pennsylvania, and quite possibly in the United States; it's the "House of Homer." Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on your point of view.
Homer Renshaw, 78, is a retired steelworker who experienced what was by his own account an epiphany eighteen years ago, when his grandson brought home a reading assignment for school: Homer's Odyssey.
"All my life I'd felt a little out of place with my name and all," said Renshaw. "Didn't know anyone else named Homer. Folks thought I was named Homer 'cause my father was a baseball fan. But when I saw that book, it was like finding a little piece of myself that I didn't know was missing."
Spurred by this sudden revelation of other Homers in the world, Homer Renshaw avidly devoured any and everything he could get his hands on, gradually transforming his home into a living shrine to his namesakes. However, his uncritical approach and the resulting conflation of his findings has resulted in a somewhat peculiar marriage of disparate artistic creations.
"That house was so pretty, and now it looks like it's been beat with an ugly stick," said Myrna Coyle, Renshaw's next-door neighbor. "Folks keep tellin' me he's an artist. I say my cat makes better art in the sandbox."
Almost every wall in the House of Homer is covered by murals, all done by Renshaw himself. They are rough around the edges, but surprisingly accomplished ("I always was a fair hand at drawing," said Renshaw). Most of them are copies of American landscapes by Winslow Homer, or stark scenery from the city of Homer, Alaska, into which figures from Homer's Odyssey and Iliad have been inserted somewhat willy-nilly.
"The marriage of ancient Greek literature with Winslow's quintessentially American simplicity is a simply marvelous meta-textual comment on our cultural roots," gushed Miranda Kent, a professor of art history at Yale. "Mr. Renshaw may be unschooled, but he has wrought in his innocence a living masterwork of cross-cultural commentary."
Not all agree. Some find the sight of ancient Greek longboats traversing the American plains simply strange. And in Renshaw's latter works, the most ubiquitous and best-known Homer of modern day America takes an increasingly central role: Homer Simpson.
"I'm sorry, but that beer-swilling microcephalic corporate-created cartoon oaf simply has no place in Winslow's 'Mending the Nets,' even an amateurish copy like the one Renshaw's managed," sniffed Paul Asper, of the New York Arts Society. "I mean, come on. Renshaw's just slapped together a potpourri of disparate elements which coincidentally share a name. I hear he smokes Homer brand cigarettes, too. What are his admirers calling that now - tobacco-based performance art?"
For Homer Renshaw, whether critics like it or not is a moot point.
"I don't know if it's art," he admitted, adding the finishing touches on Homer Simpson disembarking from Achilles' ship before the walls of Troy next to a fishing shack in Maine. "But I know what I like. And I guess I like myself plenty."