William Warmack’s biggest problem as an artist is his low supply of materials. He’s a weaver who makes garments and objets d’art, but the cigarette packages he works with are a scarce commodity. He smokes Newport cigarettes himself, which supplies him with one or two wrappers a day. But he says it takes 2,000 wrappers to do an entire vest. Even a small picture frame requires 52 wrappers.
Friends and a few local bars provide him with some, but he says he needs more. He has tried contacting cigarette companies for wrappers, but so far has had no success.
Warmack started weaving in prison, where there was no shortage of his medium. “When I was incarcerated,” he says, “I put bags in the end of the halls for the guys to put the cigarette wrappers in, and I’d pick them up at the end of the week. But now that I’m out, they [prison officials] won’t let me do that. Someone might write information or put something inside the cigarette wrapper that they might not want to get out.” He last tried to get wrappers from prison in December, when he wanted to make a vest and G-string using a color of blue only found on packages of generic cigarettes–a popular brand in prisons. But he said the warden told him no, that it would be too dangerous.
“If the guard has to spend his time going through cigarette wrappers, making sure there’s nothing in there,” Warmack adds, “then he might miss something else going on, something else being smuggled in.”
While Warmack was in prison, he explains, “I realized that I was learning a craft, a talent that could help me financially.”
Since his release in March 1988, Warmack has been selling his cigarette-package creations at Nonpareil and Strange Cargo, chichi Clark Street boutiques. He and his brother Mr. Imagination, a better-known Chicago folk sculptor, set up booths at summer art fairs all over the city. And his market is expanding; he recently sent a shipment of work to one of Manhattan’s funkiest and hippest shops, Mythology.
Warmack works systematically. First he carefully tears the cigarette package completely apart, dividing the cellophane, the printed part of the package, and the lining. He folds all the pieces he thinks he’ll need before he begins the actual weaving.
“Yeah, I make a living doing this,” he says as he covers the paper portion of a cigarette package with cellophane, then begins a series of folds. “But not as much as I’d like to. It’s 1989 and there’s no ’89 car of mine sitting outside.” He looks outside the window down at Clark Street. An el train passes by and drowns out his laugh.
Warmack won’t say exactly what he was in the pen for, except to say that it was for “violence.” Whatever it was, he says he’s innocent.
“I was falsely arrested and falsely accused and falsely found guilty,” he says, with surprisingly little bitterness. “I was in prison for all that time for something I didn’t do.”
He was in three Illinois prisons; he became interested in weaving while he was in Lincoln. “I learned it from an elderly guy who was from Mexico,” he says. He explains that a lot of other people in prison were doing cigarette-package weaving and other crafts.
Lisa Stone of Carl Hammer Gallery, which deals in folk and outsider art, including Mr. Imagination’s, says it can be difficult to date folk art forms. “Everybody says ‘1930s’ when they don’t know when things originated,” she says. But she admits attributing many pieces to that decade herself.
“It was right after the 1929 Wall Street crash, and suddenly a lot of people had time on their hands,” Stone explains. “Tramp art and prison art are related in that they both involve making something from whatever was available.” Tramp art is usually made from materials such as cigar boxes, cheap wood, or matchsticks. “Weaving doesn’t take any special tools–just a lot of time–and that’s one thing prison inmates have plenty of.”
Warmack claims to be the first to extend his particular craft beyond the usual picture frames and purses to more unusual uses, including bracelets, shoes, jackets, ties, even bras and G-strings. He tried using other materials, such as construction paper and vinyl, but he says the demand is mainly for things made of cigarette packages.
Although cigarette-package weaving may have been around a long time, Warmack says he is the first to “take it to the streets.” His good marketing sense takes him even beyond shops and street fairs. When his brother’s work was featured recently at a group show at Prairie Avenue Gallery, Warmack was there at the opening, too. Wearing a cigarette-package vest and belt and carrying a bra on his arm, he mingled with artists, curators, and collectors, writing down names and phone numbers of prospective buyers.
Warmack says that once he finally gets enough cigarette packages, he can make a small frame in about two hours. That doesn’t count the time he spends taking apart the cigarette packages and folding them into strips–that takes another hour and a half. When he weaves a piece that has difficult angles or curves, such as a bra cup, he uses a homemade plastic “needle” to sew the wrappers together. He uses waxed dental floss for thread.
Warmack is as reticent about his age as he is about having been in prison. “They say you’re as young as you feel? I’m 16,” he says. He says he’s been married twice, was drafted into the Army, and has a 13-year-old daughter. He also says he’s a qualified cook. He once worked as a dishwasher at a Jolly Chef restaurant on South LaSalle.
“Our boss let us cook our own meals for breakfast, and one day he tasted my cooking. He said, ‘Wow, you ought to get off the machine and cook.’ So I did that for a while, before I was incarcerated.”
He grins as he talks about the time he and a few other inmates cooked for Governor Thompson. “I sat as close as me and you, shook hands with him. He even joked with me, said, ‘Glad you didn’t poison me.'” Although Warmack says he enjoys cooking, he prefers what he’s doing to a 40-hour-a-week job.
“I like my freedom. I like to mingle with people.” He says he would like to participate in children’s art workshops like the one at the DuSable Museum, where his brother teaches “sandstone” carving.
Warmack hasn’t always been so artistic. He says of his artist brother, “He was always creating something. Give him a spoon and he’d make something out of it. I thought there was something wrong with him.”
But he seems to have found his niche. “For now, I just want to keep doing what I’m doing, and make a living doing it,” he sighs. The sound of a skateboard on the sidewalk below catches his dog’s attention, and Warmack ambles to the window.
“Skateboarders drive Lashon crazy,” he explains, looking out the window with the dog. The dog leaps on the couch and lands with one paw in a box of Newport wrappers. Warmack gently guides the dog away. “Get out of my money, Lashon.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.