Outsider Art & the Furniture of Necessity

finster_lion_IMG_8392

“You can have art in your daily life if you want it, but you don’t. You prefer fountain-pens and motor cars.”

Eric Gill, the creator of the Gill Sans typeface, as quoted in “Country Craftsmen” by Freda Derrick (1945)

Since the day my wife and I started work as newspaper reporters, we have collected what is called “outsider art.” The broad definition of the term is that it’s art made by people who lack formal artistic training. Usually, these people also have some sort of quirk or disability that shapes the way they see the world.

We first learned about this style of art from Mary Praytor, who runs a gallery on Main Street in Greenville, S.C. My wife and I would walk up there from the office of The Greenville News and Mary would tell us about all of the artists from her rotating stock. We were captivated. And, just as important, we could afford a few pieces. And so Lucy and I ate hot dogs plus mac and cheese in box so we could purchase our first pieces – two magic marker drawings on Formica by R.A. Miller.

Twenty-four years later, our house is filled with the stuff. I know a lot of visitors think our taste is odd (“It’s so cool that you have your childrens’ drawings on every wall,” is a common comment.) But I find this work important to me as both a writer and a woodworker.

Here’s why.

Whether you know it or not, newspaper journalism is one of the most formal and highly structured types of communication. I find it suffocating, and yet I cannot for the life of me shake loose from my four-year brainwashing. Even as I write this condemnation, I am paring back the words as I type, selecting simpler sentence structures and arranging things in series of threes to regulate the cadence.

So the outsider art is a visit to a place I cannot go. What does it look like to be a painter who doesn’t follow rules of composition, color and perspective? What if you didn’t start out by painting a bowl of fruit? And – most importantly – what does it look like if you do all these things without trying to do all these things?

ra_miller_dino_IMG_8388

With my woodworking, I had a glimpse of this non-formal approach. When I made my first pieces, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, and I didn’t know that it mattered. I designed my pieces around my materials, my needs and what “looked kind of good.” I didn’t know there were rules for joints, unsupported spans or proportions.

Of the pieces I built, only about one in four was a success. The other three were recycled into something else or went to the fireplace. It wasn’t until I started work at Popular Woodworking in 1996 that I realized that .250 was a lousy batting average.

And so began my indoctrination into the rules of the craft. Like my journalism training, I am grateful for the knowledge. It puts food on the table, speeds my time in the shop and ensures my batting average is near 1.00. But the knowledge is also stifling to the design process.

The art around our house keeps me off-balance. I love it.

I don’t suspect these images will have the same effect on you, but I put them up here in the hope that you might think about the non-formal approach to the craft and how that relates to the “furniture of necessity.”

RA_Miller_pair_IMG_8393

R.A. Miller

We own four R.A. Miller pieces (actually three; my daughter won one from me in a card game). Miller lived a half-day’s drive from us in Greenville, and we tried to go visit him once. This was in 1990 (pre-GPS), and we got turned around and lost.

The two Formica pieces we purchased are my favorites. One is a self-portrait of Miller yelling “Blow Oskar” to his uncle – asking his uncle to sound his horn as he drove by. The second piece is of Satan.

Though we were never able to visit Miller, two of our friends managed to find his place and bought some pieces from him where the paint was still wet.

Miller is also known for his animal, snake and dinosaur cutouts in metal.

finster_self_IMG_8390

Howard Finster

Howard Finster is probably one of the best-known artists of this genre and his “Paradise Garden” is an amazing place to visit. Lucy and I went there one weekend in 1991 and spent the day wandering around. We hoped to meet Miller, but he wasn’t around that day. So we got to spend the afternoon chatting with his family.

We purchased these two pieces for $35 each (and I think they knocked $5 off the total).

Paradise Garden” is being restored and is open to the public. If you are ever in the Summerville, Ga., area you should go. It was built entirely by his hands and is jaw-dropping in its beauty and complexity.

b_moran_IMG_8399

Barbara Moran

I first encountered Barbara Moran’s work during a street festival in Cincinnati. The festival was put on by the Visionaries + Voices foundation, which seeks to cultivate artists with disabilities. In my view, the program is a stunning success, and it has made the city a hotbed of outsider artists.

Moran’s drawings were all in a pile – there must have been 50 or more. Many of them were of people who had their heads shaped as buildings. Or there were stoplights that walked. And a train with a person’s face, if I remember right.

I should have bought the whole pile. I was totally mesmerized.

But I just bought this piece, which hangs over me whenever I write.

thunder_sky_IMG_8401

Raymond Thunder-Sky

Raymond Thunder-Sky was one of Cincinnati’s best known outside artists. He was known as the “construction clown” because he would dress up in a clown outfit, don a hard hat and walk onto construction sites in Cincinnati. There he would record the events on the site.

I met Raymond once on the streets downtown. At the time I had no idea he was an artist.

I love his pieces, and I wish I could afford an original – they are hard to come by. My family bought me two prints from the gallery that now bears his name.

t7d_IMG_8407

T7D

This guy is a volunteer at Visionaries + Voices and outsider artist himself. I’ve met him a few times, but I cannot recall his name. This chalk image, called “fuel,” is in my office.

The artist is well-known for his paintings of elephants and superheroes. I hope to run into him again.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
This entry was posted in Furniture of Necessity, Personal Favorites. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Outsider Art & the Furniture of Necessity

  1. I recognize some of those pieces! Great collection. Have you ever seen the outsider art collection at the Museum of Appalachia in Tennessee?

  2. ramseyguitars says:

    Nice! We have a good “outsider ” exhibit at our art museum here in little ol Roanoke, VA. I highly recommend the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore. It’s amazing and includes a two story Vollis Simpson whirligig!

  3. Daniel Clay says:

    Miller’s work looks a lot like some of Bill Traylor’s drawings. And if you’re unfamiliar with their work – Thornton Dial and Lonnie Holley are two other living artists who are typically categorized as “outsider artists” and make complex, beautiful work definitely worth checking out.

  4. Ron Kanter says:

    There was a terrific exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art last year: “Great and Mighty Things”: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection. Here’s a link to some information about it and a terrible video of the show

    http://www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions/768.html?page=1

    I second the recommendation for the American Visionary Arts Museum. Terrific place with both a permanent collection and a regularly changing series of new exhibits.

    And I agree wholeheartedly with your comments about how learning to be a skilled journalist or woodworker has its own set of chains.

  5. ajsikes says:

    This is wonderful to see. Any creative profession comes with constrictions – from the material, the tools, canonical practices and methods – and thus demands an outsider perspective to keep the creative thinking alive. I spend as much time as possible around artists and makers who do things just for the doing, without any final aim towards satisfying a necessity.

    I also write fiction, and while not anywhere near as formalized as journalism, the tools and skill set for both tasks bear a lot of similarities. Great stuff, Chris!

  6. rondennis303 says:

    Chris – The paring, structures, and cadence is only part of what makes you so damn good at what you do. Regarding the art, thanks for sharing, everyone needs a Yin to their Yang.

  7. tsstahl says:

    I prefer the ordered proportions of logic and discipline. A well pitched military camp, or set of encyclopedias on a shelf is very reassuring. Something about the predictability and certain knowledge of purpose and design in life exists in the well defined borders of rigid structure.

    Yes, the preceding is humorous counterpoint to outsider art. :)

    I collect wood sculptures made by ‘untrained’ craftspeople. Awesome to see what they do with improvised tools.

  8. The ascendance of “outsider art” to mainstream acceptability is very much the result of a concerted effort by a professional class of culture merchants many of whom made significant profits by promoting (exploiting in some cases) the finds they made. Howard Finster didn’t make those silkscreens. Not that many artist actually pull their own prints, but at least they are in charge of the project.

    The irony of the whole thing is that much that’s good, great even, gets overlooked because it isn’t by a name “outsider” artist. I go to thrift shops all the time and have found and bought many surprisingly good artworks for a few dollars a piece. Their resale value is just about what I paid for them. I couldn’t care less and most would never be for sale, but they are by real outsiders, hence of no value.

    That’s a complicated and highly controversial subject, but I do have to wonder about the relevance of any of this stuff to a book on the furniture of necessity. I’d say most of the stuff depicted in this post fits right onto the line between #s 2 & 3 of the canonical 4 partite division of furnitures. http://blog.lostartpress.com/2012/06/03/four-kinds-of-furniture/ Division 4 is supposed to be where found the furniture of necessity.

    If towards ornament is the direction the book is taking, then the Gee’s Bend quilts, although again a much hyped commodity, make more sense to me as points of reference. Sumpter Priddy’s “American Fancy” at least shows well crafted “folk art” furniture. The quilts are arguably more a product of necessity though.

  9. hoppsj says:

    Can someone help me with the opening quote? I’m not following, were fountain pens too hifalutin to be considered art or inspirational? No snideness intended, maybe the quote is from a time when fountain pens were mainstream?

  10. Brad D. says:

    Regardless of the style or pedigree, the refreshing aspect is that it is original art. I am not going to say that I have never owned a van Gogh print, but I realized early on that reproduction art was not inspiring decor to me.

    But as always, people get inspired in many ways – one man’s Water Lilies is another man’s Thunder-Sky!

  11. I went to the ” musée d’art brut” in lausanne switzerland a few years ago and really enjoyed it. They were highlighting japanese artists ( outsider) at the time and there was one guy that would just draw rows and rows of front views of subways. He had thousands of pages full, it was awesome. I wish I could find the little post card I picked up at the time… You’ve got a nice collection, thanks for sharing.

  12. I quite like Daniel Johnston. His paintings/drawings have become insanely expensive I’ve heard, but you can still find his deliciously happy/sad music in most record stores.

  13. hughjengine says:

    Chainsaw carving is best done outside, too.

Comments are closed.