Gregory Warmack, 64: Called ‘Mr. Imagination' for his creativity in art

Gregory Warmack, known simply as Mr. Imagination on the international art scene, moved to Atlanta in 2009 to regain something he’d lost.

A 2008 fire at his home-studio, in Bethlehem, Pa., destroyed much of his life’s work, and he needed to start over. Here in Atlanta, it seemed like he’d found everything he was looking for: He had a show at Barbara Archer Gallery last year and he’d been asked to be part of an installation in Venice, Italy. The move had been just what he needed at the time, said Ramona Austin, a friend and the curator of the Baron and Ellin Gordon Art Galleries at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

“Coming to Atlanta was part of the transformation of his grief,” she said. “He’d found the place that would best suit him, best nurture him, while he created art. And he had to create art.”

Gregory Warmack, of Atlanta, died Wednesday at Harbor Grace Hospice from complications of a blood infection. He was 64. A funeral service has been planned for 1 p.m. Monday at the West End chapel of Willie A. Watkins Funeral Home, which is also in charge of arrangements.

Mr. Warmack’s life began, and almost ended, in Chicago. He was born the third of nine children, and he nearly died in 1978 when he was robbed and shot in the stomach. While on the operating table, he had an out-of-body experience, according to his artist biography on the website of the Judy A Saslow Gallery in Chicago.

“It was all very peaceful, almost as if I was traveling through history and looking at ancient civilizations,” Mr. Warmack said in the piece. “If you look at my work, it has the feeling of being both ancient and timeless.”

Mr. Warmack’s art is really re-invention, in many ways. He takes castoffs of others -- industrial sandstone, old bottle caps, paintbrushes, wood and cement -- and turns the pieces in to masterful works of art, said friend and fellow artist, Paul Flack, of Smyrna.

“He can take a mop, turn it upside down, spray paint the mop head black, add some shells and somehow create the most beautiful African mask,” Mr. Flack said. “It’s just unbelievable!”

His art has traveled the globe and can be found in the permanent collections of a few well-known places, including: The Smithsonian American Art Museum; the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore; the American Folk Art Museum in New York; and right here in Atlanta at the High Museum of Art. Local pieces done by Mr. Warmack include the 11-foot Coke bottle he decorated for the 1996 Olympics and several pieces on the walls of Hottie Hawgs BBQ, off Bolton Road.

“He was part of our community,” said Brian Fernandez, sales director at the restaurant. “He sold, he gave away, he just wanted people to be happy.”

Mr. Flack, couldn’t put his finger on what made Mr. Warmack’s art so special, but he knew it when he saw it.

“If I could describe it, I’d do it, too," the fellow artist said. “But when you looked at his art, it just made you feel good.”

Mr. Warmack is survived by his mother, Margaret Warmack, of Merced, Calif.; sisters, Cynthia Swopes of San Jose, Calif., and Carolyn Dennis, Valeria Cohen and Sandra Warmack, all of Chicago; and two brothers, Dairao Warmack and Sherman Warmack, both of Chicago.