Steward of island house ponders what to do with late artist’s ‘masterpiece’
Los Angeles may have the Watts Towers and Houston its Orange Show Center, but Galveston has its own claim to that special genre of creative self-expressionism known as visionary art installations.
With massive murals created in slivers of broken mirror, lamps made from vintage automobile parts, biblical and mythological scenes both saintly and salacious, and walls covered with a variety of print elements, the island’s two-story Decoupage House just off Seawall Boulevard was created by the late Karol Virag.
Virag had emigrated as a political refugee from what was then known as Czechoslovakia in 1952 and lived in several places in the United States before landing in Galveston. He came into ownership of what eventually became his Decoupage House through a bequest from a former landlord, and lived in the house in the 1970s. He worked sequentially for two of the island’s family-owned hardware stores. Many of the “found” elements he incorporated into the house were pulled out from the trash thrown away by those stores.
Virag later moved to East Texas, and since that time, the house, complete with its vintage Servel gas-powered refrigerator and Roper range, has sat uninhabited and its interior unexplored for several decades.
It was the uninhabited part that initially attracted the attention of the current owner, Recie Kraemer, who lives nearby.
“I had no idea what was actually inside when I first began making inquiries about purchasing the house,” Kraemer said. “I just knew no one was living in it, but had heard that the house had historic merit, and I didn’t want it to fall into the wrong hands.”
And what did Kraemer think once she stepped inside the house?
“I hardly knew what to think,” she said. “It was more what I felt — surprise, maybe even shock. And I wasn’t really sure what I was really seeing as it was night, there was no electricity and the interim owner, who was showing me the house, had only a flashlight.”
Although she had only seen the front room that evening, Kraemer went ahead with the purchase and later asked a friend along to help her explore a little deeper, but this time in daylight.
“Oh, girl,” the friend said as they made their way through the home’s inner recesses with its upstairs and downstairs wall-to-wall decorative exuberances. “I think you’ve really done it this time. This is going to be a challenge.”
Kraemer’s curiosity had been aroused, however, and she embarked on learning more about visionary art and its history and proponents. She also struck up a long-distance correspondence with Virag, who was then living in East Texas in a similar house. The two exchanged letters and occasional phone calls over a brief period of time, during which Virag told her about his life, how he came to Galveston, and his thoughts on the home he occupied on the island.
With regard to those who question whether such an exuberance of visual creativity is actually art, Virag offered his own take on the subject in one of the letters he wrote to Kraemer soon after she bought the property:
“Art? When I started to do things in the house, I never thought about art per se,” he wrote. “I was simply remaking the house to my own liking, my own private world in which to live.”
Others very much consider it true art, and Houston’s Orange Show Foundation featured the Decoupage House on one of its “eye-opener” tours. Kraemer still remembers the huge buses full of visitors pulling up in front of the house, and the excitement the tour generated.
“There are a lot of people who think folk art installations are weird, but others maintain that such visionary creativity gives insight into an artist’s true soul,” she said. “Although I never met him and he passed away in 2010, I do feel Mr. Virag’s presence in the Decoupage House — and although this is not what I intended, I am now feeling that I am being called to be the steward of his ‘masterpiece.’ I just don’t know what the best and wisest use of it should be — a museum, a coffee house? I don’t know, but I am open to ideas. Help?”