Roland Knox earned a modicum of fame for making glittering art from discarded jewelry. His clients included the House of Blues restaurant group.
But that was before the disenchantment set in. Complaining he was cheated, the 80-year-old Knox, a retiree, has quit the art game.
During a break from solitaire at his south Atlanta home, Knox claimed a gallery owner underpaid him, an auction house made assurances that did not pan out, and the House of Blues was slow to honor a promised large purchase.
Only after Knox made up a story about having to move did the House of Blues show up and pay up, he said.
Knox is not an artist who is compelled to create; he made art because he wanted the dough. His jewel-encrusted pieces, many of them crosses, were like found money as collectors snapped them up.
And while the dollar fueled Knox’s output, he took pride in creating art that is distinctive and beautiful.
Some of the jewelry Knox used came from the wife of Coca-Cola founder Asa Candler. Mrs. Candler gave surplus jewelry to her maid — Knox’s mother — who left them to her son.
Inspired by button-covered artwork he had seen in Germany while serving in the military, Knox experimented with gluing the jewelry to boards and other things.
The former IBM worker grew into a self-taught artist.
As he gained notoriety, Knox sensed he was not being treated fairly, a complaint that other unschooled artists have made before.
In 1993, Alabama’s Charlie Lucas said on 60 Minutes, “I’ve been treated like a dog.” The episode explored Atlantan Bill Arnett’s unusual contracts with several of the South’s African-American artists. (Another artist, Thornton Dial, praised Arnett on the show.)
Knox and the Atlanta dealer he was working with eventually had a falling out over how much money the artist was due.
After that, Knox said, an auction house misled him by assuring a big payday if he submitted two pieces to an upcoming sale. Together they sold for $400, far short of what Knox was expecting after investing so much time in them.
Knox’s art career took off in the early 1990s after his wife, Rosa, also a maid, showed one of Knox’s early pieces to her employer.
The employer contacted a neighbor, the mother of the art dealer, who alerted her son.
The dealer was so impressed he encouraged Knox to ramp up production and stoked the fire by offering serious money. Art was a lot more lucrative than mowing lawns and building stages, which Knox had done to earn extra income.
The money came and went, however, and the happiness it bought was fleeting.
The few objects remaining at his home were made years before he became disillusioned with the business of art.
While Rosa watched a soap in their toasty home, Knox wanted to know if the people he was railing against were my friends.
He did not believe me when I insisted I would return with a wad of cash to buy a jeweled cross and vase.
When I did return he said I was the only buyer he would deal with, so don’t send over any of your friends.