“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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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