Joni Lee Mabe has turned fandom into an artform and bring a stan into a business. After his death in 1977, the Mississippi-born American singer Elvis Presley had become a quasi-religious figure for Mabe. She began making artwork inspired by the singer, which she then traded for rare Elvis-themed memorabilia and purported relics he had allegedly left behind. In graduate schoo at UGA, Mabe’s final graduate project was comprised of Elvis-related artworks, which often employed appropriated images, glitter, and sequins to create mosaics reminiscent of religious icons. “It was sort of a scandal!” Mabe says now. “Nobody had ever done their master’s on Elvis.” In 1984, her work was included in a group exhibition at Nexus Contemporary (now known as Atlanta Contemporary) called I Wanted to Have Elvis’s Baby But Jesus Said It Was a Sin.
Joni Lee Mabe, The Official Elvis Prayer Rug,
1988. Lithograph. Morris Museum of Art, Augusta,
During the late 1980s, Mabe journeyed across the United States showing her Traveling Museum of Obsessions, Personalities, and Oddities, a zany, kaleidoscopic sideshow that
grew out of her fascination with Elvis. In November 1992, upon returning to Georgia from Los Angeles, she discovered her mother had sold the family boarding house (located in Cornelia, Georgia, approximately an hour and a half northeast of Atlanta) to the people operating the hardware store located next door. Horrified, she immediately began trying to purchase the dilapidated house back from its new owners. After finally settling on a price of $22,500, Mabe moved back into the house in January 1993. “I ordered the National Historic Places plaque way ahead of restoration,” Mabe says. “I was determined. I worked like a dog.”
It took Mabe nearly seven years to restore the property, and she re-opened the house to visitors in 1999. “I installed it on the idea that when you build it, they will come,” Mabe says. Her travelling show, once called the Panoramic Encyclopedia of Everything Elvis, is now permanently on view as the Everything Elvis Museum, just a staircase away from the historic boarding house museum below. “Maybe people will come here instead of me travelling all over the place,” Mabe says.
The Everything Elvis Museum occupies every inch of the second story of the 1908 building, enveloping you in an immersive cabinet of curiosities devoted to Elvis culture, fandom, and Mabe’s own Elvis-inspired art. From downstairs, you see that something colorful and bright awaits: the staircase is lined with photos of Elvis, teddy bears, license plates, knickknacks, and at the top, a glittery artwork showing the King himself. Like Mabe’s work, the collection incorporates artistic prints, tinsel, lace, fake flowers, newspaper clippings with headlines such as “Picture of Elvis Cured My Cancer,” old photographs, candles, and every imaginable object emblazoned with Elvis’s image, including an apron, a blow-up doll, a flip book, mittens, and dresses made by Mabe.
Comprising just four rooms and a hallway, the collection takes an intensely physical yet
spiritual form. You’re asked to believe that you’re seeing the actual wart from Elvis’s hand, a vile of his sweat, a few strands of his hair, dirt from his grave, and a shirt he once loaned someone. There is something visceral—even freakish—about the kind of Elvis worship depicted in Mabe’s Everything Elvis Museum.
Your interaction with the Elvis paraphernalia upstairs is an unsupervised, immediate experience, with nothing separating you from what’s on view. Beyond the visual and tactile elements of the collection, songs by Elvis play in the background of every room. The experience is comparable to that of a pilgrimage to a Catholic cathedral… although one adorned with kitschy relics from pop culture.
Moye, A. (2019, May 24). Baby, Let's Play House: Joni Mabe in Georgia, from https://burnaway.org/joni-mabe-elvis-babe/
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