Last Friday, on one of those beautiful sunny, city days, I visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art where the featured show, “Great and Mighty Things,” was a collection of “Outsider Art”– art created by individuals who are not traditionally schooled in art (or, sometimes, not schooled at all) and who are often fringe members of our society–the mentally ill, the homeless or those living in remote, rural areas of the country or abject poverty. What struck me most about these artists was that, embedded in their personal stories was what appeared to be an absolute compulsion to create their art.
James Castle, whose assemblage you see here, was born completely deaf to a hardscrabble farm family in Boise, Idaho. He did not acquire the tools of language such as lip-reading, finger spelling, or writing but, over decades, worked with found objects, food packaging and used papers which he adorned with pieces of string. He made marks on these pieces with an ink that he made of stovepipe soot and spit and applied it to the art with a sharpened stick. His colors are muted and soothing and I found his designs simple yet lovely to study, particularly in regards to his use of string.
Emery Blagdon, born on a farm in Callaway, Nebraska in 1907, watched both his mother and father die of cancer and spent the remainder of his life constructing an amazing “machine” for healing the sick. He made hundreds of wire sculptures which were crammed into a shed where they hung among jars full of minerals and small paintings that he lit up with strings of holiday lights. According to Blagdon, anyone who entered the machine would receive the electromagnetic energy of the earth and be healed. The entire installation must have been gorgeous and otherworldly, however, Blagdon, himself, also died of cancer in 1986. The wire pieces are delicate and whimsical and remind me of something you might be delighted to see hanging from a tree branch in a quirky, little garden.
George Widener, who is still alive, is a numerical savant from Cincinnati who can calculate unbelievably long sequences of numbers and dates. He is also fascinated by disasters, the sinking of the Titanic in particular. The piece you see above here was composed of thousands of miniature sequences of numbers on many pieces of paper that were attached with tape to make this large image. The Titanic is featured in the top left and the artist has gone back in and circled a variety of dates throughout the sequence. When I stood in front of it, it felt mesmerizing and unsettling at the same time.
Sister Gertrude Morgan was a street preacher and gospel singer in the French Quarter from the 1940s-70s. She began the Everlasting Gospel Mission in a small building in the Lower Ninth Ward where she created images to support her spiritual messages. With only a third-grade education and using mostly discarded materials with ballpoint pen and paint, Morgan created a menagerie of characters that were a blend of those from her daily life and those from Biblical stories. In 1974 she stopped making art completely at God’s directive. Her works are beautifully childlike and filled with spiritual verve.
These are just a few of the artists from the exhibit. You can find the entire listing, along with slide shows for each artist on the Philadelphia Art Museum’s web site.
I took away a few things from this experience. First, that the creative call must be answered. Whether it shouts loudly inside your skull each day of your life or, like mine, whispers in the corners of your subconscious persistently for years until you begin to listen, it must be answered. Whether you make a life of its gifts or keep and protect it as a place of spiritual exploration and respite, it must be answered. Second, we must trust that our personal, artistic style will reveal itself and we must be open to how that might happen and what it might look like. Each artist in this exhibit had a vibrantly unique voice that clearly sang out from their work. In a moment where we are flush with ticky-tacky commercial art studios and expensive Balinese retreats that teach large groups of people a homogenous method touted as soul-searching creativity, but that result in a class picture of everyone holding up virtually the same painting, this collection of wonderfully incongruous images was deliciously visually stimulating.
And, finally, there is a part of every artist that no one will ever be able to fully understand. Not their family, not their spouses, not their agents or managers, not their collectors or curators. It is what makes us, the viewer, ask things like: Why do they do that? What were they thinking? What does it mean? This is the compulsion; the thing inside that is so personal, so deeply within the artist’s soul that, often, the artist might not even be able to fully acknowledge or understand it him/herself. In the “outsider artists,” a group that often includes art that is never seen by others until after their death, this energy is unfettered by the need to produce for an audience or a customer. It is like the art of the child who, when presented with a box of crayons or pencils grabs them and begins to draw because she is simply…. compelled to do so.
TRY THIS WEEK: Think about what compels you and honor that.