Elvis, Warts and All

This was in Georgia Music Magazine:

If you study early close-ups of Elvis Presley, you might spot an often overlooked detail. Shift your focus, if you can, away from those spaniel eyes and bee-stung lips, and there it is on his right hand: The Wart.

Its curious absence in later photos can be explained at “Joni Mabe’s Panoramic Encyclopedia of Everything Elvis,” a museum/shrine in Cornelia where the wart, which looks like a fleck of putty, is preserved in formaldehyde and cradled in red velvet, the crown jewel in her trove of more than 30,000 treasures related to the King. When Presley joined the Army in 1958, Mabe says, pointing to a nearby photograph of the military barber clipping the wings of that famed ducktail, a doctor removed the tiny tumor, and perhaps with a presentiment of eBay, saved it.

“I borrowed money to buy it from him,” says the artist-hagiographer known as “Joni Mabe the Elvis Babe” and “The Queen of the King.” But she will not reveal how much.

elvis The wart’s reputation for authenticity is such that it attracted an organization called Americans for Cloning Elvis, whose mission intrigues Mabe, but not enough for her to part with any genetic material. (“The King is Gone, But the Wart Lives On,” announces a T-shirt in her gift shop.)

Admittedly more dubious is another artifact, scavenged when she slipped away from her Graceland tour group to explore behind the velvet ropes.

“I wanted to touch everything Elvis had touched — the walls, the floor,” Mabe says. “So I was stroking the shag carpet of the Jungle Room when something snagged my finger. At first I thought it was a rhinestone, but when I realized what it was I thought it could be from Elvis … so I call it the ‘Maybe Elvis Toenail.’”

Whether the nail clipping — or, for that matter, the vial of “Elvis sweat” and the snippets of black hair gleaned from a barbershop floor — derive from Presley is arguably beside the point. They are props in a sprawling, coruscating tableau of “found objects” and Mabe’s original work, which, taken together, constitute a singular artistic enterprise. The collection, cited in the Guinness Book of World Records, toured the world for 14 years before its permanent installation in northeast Georgia (imagine the packing and repacking). In Notes on Camp, Susan Sontag, who would have adored Mabe, theorized, “Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity even…” Galvanized by Presley’s voice, Mabe tunneled deep down into the sequin mines and forged her own aesthetic.

Mabe, a lanky blonde with a soft twang, seems destined for this role. Born in Mt. Airy, she grew up “playing with crayons and Elmer’s glue” around the Loudermilk House, her grandparents’ boardinghouse, with tenants she likens to Tennessee Williams characters. Her rock ‘n’ roll epiphany came when she was a 19-year-old studying art and print-making at the University of Georgia. The day Presley died, his songs were all over the radio.

“There was something about his voice,” she says. “I couldn’t stop listening. I started trading my prints for memorabilia, and one thing led to another, as it does with obsessions.”

She made history by doing her master’s thesis on Presley, a presentation that included, among other things, a jukebox, a keg of beer, a gyrating impersonator, and her signature mixed-media “glitter portraits,” which, at first glance, evoke Andy Warhol by way of Nashville. “At the time, Warhol was the only one who’d done Elvis portraits, besides the black velvets from Mexico,” she says.

Word spread among solicitous curators, and Mabe summoned the showmanship of another icon who figures into her painting: P.T. Barnum. She wore poodle-skirts studded with Elvis buttons, and slept for a time during her tour on the bed in the exhibit, becoming sort of an outsider-y performance artist and go-to girl for Southern Gothicka.

“Her campiness appeals to a broad audience, but her work has more significance and longevity than some might realize, with its depth, dimension, and historical context,” says Mary Stanley, an Atlanta curator who met Mabe at a Mick Jagger look-alike contest. “Every phase of Elvis Presley’s existence is documented in her work, and all of the research and eccentricities feed into her highly skillful compositions.”

Accordingly, Mabe’s bio is a mix of pop culture and high art. Her work has been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Yale University Library, and she also has appeared on the Howard Stern show and The O’Reilly Factor.

In 1993, Mabe began restoring her family’s property, eventually gaining National Register status for the Loudermilk Boarding House Museum, which she has feathered like a bower bird’s nest with her spangled reliquary. The basement quarters are modeled on the Jungle Room and provide a lounge during the annual “Big E Festival,” a sweaty competition for ETAs, or Elvis Tribute Artists, who briefly add some hip-swiveling Vegas flash to sleepy Cornelia. It has been rescheduled this year for September 26 instead of August. (“Polyester jumpsuits don’t breathe in the heat,” she says.)

Twirling at the juncture of tabloid kitsch and museum-lit respectability, Mabe is neither totally ironic nor completely earnest when she talks shop. “I’m drawn to Elvis because he was so complicated, so full of contradictions — the black and white influences, the sex and religion,” she says. “He was so beautiful but also deeply flawed.” The wart from that talented hand proves her point.

Nearby, a rhinestone winks.