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 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 barber clipping the wings of that famed ducktail, a doctor removed the wart, and perhaps with a precognition of eBay, saved it.
“I borrowed money to buy it,” says the artist-hagiographer known as “Joni Mabe the Elvis Babe” and “The Queen of the King.” But she won’t reveal how much.
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 her gift-shop T-shirt.) Admittedly more dubious is another artifact, scavenged when she ducked 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. 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, [even] a badge of identity …” Galvanized by Presley’s voice, Mabe tunneled deep down into the sequin mines and forged her own aesthetic.
Spirit of ‘77
Mabe, a lean blonde with a soft twang, seems destined for this role. Born in nearby 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 epiphany came when she was a 19-year-old studying art and printmaking 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 a folk/outsider/performance artist and the 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 appeared on The Howard Stern Show and The O’Reilly Factor. One of her portraits graces the cover of Greil Marcus’ Dead Elvis. Mogul Malcolm Forbes scrawled “Extraordinary!” in the guestbook at one of her exhibits, which includes a green shirt Presley once gave to Buford Pusser.
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 dressing lounge during the annual “Big E Festival,” which this year, on the first weekend of August, marks its 10th anniversary as a sweaty, pelvis-swiveling competition for ETAs, or Elvis Tribute Artists (to the hard-core, the word “impersonator” is derogatory), who briefly add some Vegas flash to sleepy Cornelia. “It’s more than just the jumpsuits,” says Walter E. Busby, an ETA who competes every year. “There was only one Elvis. I don’t think there is anyone that can ‘impersonate’ the King, but it is great to carry on his name.”
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. And a rhinestone winks.
Visit Loudermilk Boarding House Museum’s Facebook page.