Where does the work of outsider artists fit into the art world? First, some general background information about these artists is important to establish. Some outsider artists were prisoners who used art not only as a means of expression but also as a pastime. Others were patients in mental treatment facilities usually possessed with the same motivation mentioned above. They tended to be elderly and isolated and surrounded by the fear of oncoming death. Perhaps the largest group of outsiders were from the Southern, rural areas of the country. They witnessed the economic and political changes in history and basically had little faith in the government. Many sought their energy from religious fervor and they often incorporated their visionary experiences within their religious systems. This group of artists generally led restricted lives because of finances so they used their imagination as their mode of travel and escape from routine. Most were lower middle class, unskilled manual workers, who had a desire to establish self-worth and conquer the feelings of isolation.
In the deep south minorities were already considered outsiders from the mainstream culture. The minority artist begins his or her work at any age because it is a means of satisfying his or her personal needs. Black outsider art acquires a great deal of energy from its African antecedents. This is seen in the works which often depict rock paintings, sacred trees, water holes, shrines, carved and painted houses and ceremonial architecture and dance grounds or monuments. “ The inspiration originates from the inability of society to meet the needs of every individual, especially the universal needs for identity, self-worth and the control over one’s life. Their works are mortal signs and wonders, manifestations of man’s capacity to come to terms with, reflect upon, describe and interpret the everyday experiences and the deeper and mysterious spiritual resonance that define the form and meaning of the human condition.”(4)
Southern folk art has deep ties to the environment. It is usually a personal expression which was not designed for museums. This group of artists watched the country evolve into the space age from a pre-industrialized society. They saw the social and technological changes evolve. A sincere respect for elders and tradition is a constant theme in their work. Many used their art as a visual response to this change and so their work merges both their literal and imaginary worlds.
Isolate or naive art is a type of folk art in which the artists use the art for their own purposes. They possess a need to express deeply felt feelings and usually do so in untraditional ways. Their works are alive with originality and are appealing because of the emphasis on color, rhythm and design. Even though they are considered to be unskilled, their works are sought after by most folk art collectors. Isolate artists are generally from the rural areas of the deep south and their work gives us a perspective into American history. Their pieces usually are not signed because they don’t think it’s important. Three artists who fall into this category are Bill Traylor, Moze Tolliver and Jimmy Lee Sudduth.
Bill Traylor was born into slavery in 1854 on the George Traylor plantation near Benton, Alabama. His drawings depicted the black experience in the south. Bill and his wife had twenty children and after her death in 1938 he moved to Montgomery, Alabama. After working in a shoe factory for only a short period of time illness forced him to retire. In 1939 at the age of 85 his drawing career began and ended in 1942 after completing approximately 1500 pieces of work. Charles Shannon, another southern artist, befriended Traylor and brought him materials with which to work. He drew simply about plantation and street life. Unable to draw three-dimensionally he developed his own style in order to add depth to his paintings. His subject matter clearly stood out from his background as illustrated in slide #1(untitled). Traylor drew on whatever materials he could find such as cardboard shirt boxes. Using pencil stubs to outline he then painted in the outline with any paints available. Geometric forms became visual reminiscences of incidents he recalled. Red tongued dogs, spotted cats, green goats, yellow birds and purple rabbits are depicted in his paintings. In 1942 he moved in with some of his children where he remained until his death in 1947. Through his work one can see how much he enjoyed life’s vigor even in the face of hardship. Some of his work has recently been exhibited at the Museum of Folk Art in New York City.
Moze Tolliver was born in 1915 in Pike Road, Alabama. He was one of twelve children and he fathered fourteen of his own. Tolliver began to paint in 1970-71 after a former employer took him to an exhibit and encouraged him to take art lessons. Prior to this he worked in the shipping industry until an accident crushed his feet. He began to devote his time to painting after this and has been known to produce over ten paintings a day. His style conveys unusual color choices and fantasy subjects. Tolliver lives out his fantasies in painting, using purple colored birds and green faced people. His work is flat, simple and opaque with a central figure surrounded by a contrasting field of color. The paintings range from sweet to demonic as illustrated in slide # 2 (Self Portrait and Plant Form) with endless imagination and works of high quality.
Jimmy Lee Sudduth was born in 1910 in Carnis Ridge, Alabama. He was married; however, he did not have any children. Sudduth is known for his colorful mud paintings of Alabama architecture and life, having spent many years working on farms, in grist mills and as a gardener. Sudduth claims that he has been doing mud paintings since he was three years old, creating mud renditions of people, buildings, and animals as well as some self portraits.(refer to slide #4, Self Portrait with Jim and Self Portrait with Guitar.)
For the most part paintings are done on manufactured plywood as well as other woods and occasionally cardboard. Designs of a painting are blocked in and then outlined with dye rock. Dye rocks are soft stones that are dipped in water so that they leave a heavy, earthy line when pressed against a hard surface. Next he mixes mud and sugar water together which keeps the mud permanent. When the mud dries various weeds and other vegetable matter are rubbed over the surface to obtain the colors. Sudduth gained national attention with an appearance on the Today Show in 1980.
Another category of outsider work is Visionary art which is frequently based on dreams, visions and voices and is used as a preaching technique. It is extremely original in its form and messages. Sister Gertrude Morgan and the Reverend Howard Finster are two well known visionary artists.
Sister Gertrude Morgan was born in 1900 in Lafayette, Alabama and was known as one of the nation’s first black visionary painters, conveying spiritual messages through her creative artistic expression. At the age of 37, Sister Morgan heard a voice which said, “Go and preach, tell it to the world. “ Having followed this command she became a street evangelist for a fundamentalist sect. In 1956 the Lord told her to teach the gospel in a different manner so she began painting and in 1957 another voice told her “You are married to the lamb, Christ.” Having heard this message she shed her black habit and surrounded herself with the color white and soon thereafter built an orphanage with other missionaries.
In the late 1960’s Sister Morgan rented a small building from a local art gallery owner and named it “ The Everlasting Gospel Mission.” The front yard was completely covered with four leaf clovers which seemed to affirm Sister Morgan’s special relationship with the diety.
Each painting consisted of colorful visions of biblical events, of heaven and hell, religious figures, angels and children and contained messages scrawled in either a childlike fashion or in a type of calligraphy both personal and biblical. She painted on anything she could find including paper board, toilet paper rolls, window shades, styrofoam trays, plastic utensils, jelly glasses and funeral parlor fans outlining with pencil and pen and then filling in with acrylics, watercolors, pastels, crayons or tempura, using whatever was available to her at the moment of inspiration.
Her work was based on the Book of Revelation and she paid particular attention to the 21st chapter of John’s vision of the New Jerusalem(refer to slide # 5, Revelation 7). Appearing in most of her paintings, Morgan’s obsession was communication and the paintings often spoke of the conflict of good and evil. “When GOD speaks to me, he talks in family fashion as if speaking to a neighbor. His voice is loud and heavy.”(5) Interestingly, GOD is always depicted as white in her paintings and she is represented as an African American. One of her favorite subjects was an open airplane where she and Jesus were flying as husband and wife(refer to slide #6, Jesus is my Airplane). An original poem is part of the painting and reads as follows:
“Jesus is my air
Plane, you hold
the world in your hand, you
Guide me through the land
Jesus is my air Plane I
say Jesus is my air
Plane We’re striving for
that promise land. Come
on, Join our Band let’s make
it in that Kingdom land.(6)”
These pictures and poems represent her desire to create visual aids for her missionary teaching. “ I guess my paintings spread the word. They represent something. They get me a living, of course, and help out the mission here . . . I am a missionary of Christ before I’m an artist. Give all the fame to some other artist. I work for the Lord. Now don’t forget to give him credit.”(7) Perhaps one of the greatest tributes to Sister Gertrude Morgan’s work came when poet Rod McKuen illustrated his book, GOD’s GREATEST HITS, with thirteen of her paintings.
The Reverend Howard Finster was born in 1916 in Valley Head, Alabama. He was married with five children and he now resides in Summerville, Georgia. Reverend Finster is one of the country’s most talked about white, outsider artists and he is best known for his sermon art and for his Paradise Garden environment(refer to illustration #1) which is an ongoing expression of his religious convictions. In 1965 he heard a voice from the Lord which told him to transform two acres of land into a ‘Paradise Garden.’ Using junk, broken dolls, tools and clocks he embedded these materials in concrete walls which surround a tower thirty feet high built of bicycle parts and his own church called” The World’s Folk Art Church.” “Paradise Garden” is an ongoing project expressing his religious conviction and creativity and he explains that he assembled the pieces for a purpose-”to mend a broken world.”(8)
In 1976 he had a vision of a tall man at his gate in which the Lord directed him to begin painting “sermon art” because, “preaching don’t do much good; no one listens- but a picture gets on a brain cell.”(9) The voice commanded him to paint this sacred art and to create individual paintings and portraits of personal heroes, religious and patriotic images and to pass on his spiritual messages to the world (refer to slide #7,8, No One has to Cross Jordan Alone and Traveling Show).
Finster’s paintings have evangelical themes and inspirational images which come from his own interpretations of the bible. Angels and saints as well as earthly characters are portrayed. All of his paintings contain witty, printed quotations known as “Finsterisms.” Several of his paintings show how he was influenced by the imagery on postcards or popular magazines. Some of his creations have joined the contemporary world through his paintings for the album covers of the rock groups REM and The Talking Heads.
(figure available in print form)
Finster makes art out of nail heads, gourds, bottles, mirrors, plastic, snow shovels and even an old cadillac, however the majority of his works are usually made out of plywood or heavy canvas with the works ranging in size from a few square inches to 8-9 feet in height. His art is original, innovative and expressive. He believes he came from another world and is often referred to as “This Stranger From Another World.” Finster believes the more he paints, the more people he can save. The works are presented in many forms, sometimes called “paintings in tongue,” visions of other worlds where people live in harmony.
Finster has his visions for the future. “A day when one computer will run the earth and the final day when giant tidal waves will cover the world. And then the time will come for G-D to create men again- men like the Reverend Howard Finster.”(10) Finster is regarded as a superstar in the outsider art world.
Environmental art is a sculptural type of outsider art. The works are usually constructed outdoors in public or private places and are created entirely for display purposes with the artist usually working with readily available materials- junk and found objects. The artists who fall into this category, such as James Hampton and Simon Rodia are generally obsessed with a passion to create a great masterpiece on which they work for many years.
James Hampton was born in 1909 in Elloree, South Carolina and never married. Known to be a very quiet and reclusive man he moved to Washington D.C. where he began to work for the Federal Government at the age of nineteen. In the early 1950’s Hampton rented an old garage from a man named Meyer Wertlieb and paid fifty dollars a month rent which Wertlieb considered strange because Hampton did not own a car. Each month he paid his rent promptly and told his landlord that he was storing things in the garage. In late 1964 Wertlieb grew concerned because Hampton was behind in his rent and someone was sent over to the garage to check out the situation. When the garage door was opened, an unbelievable masterpiece was seen for the first time and it was then learned that James Hampton had died. Inside the garage was a wall of an elaborate construction of wood and cardboard and pieces of old furniture completely covered with silver and gold foil. This was a homemade rendition of the interior appointments of a church or cathedral. There were thrones, altars, pulpits, standards, offertory tables, icons and crowns. (refer to slide #9, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation’s Millennium General Assembly). Attached to a bulletin board on the wall was a paper containing the message, “where there is no vision, the people perish.” For fourteen years Hampton worked privately in his garage collecting junk, scraps of gold wrapping paper, used kitchen aluminum wrap and tinfoil from cigarette and gum wrappers. Through the writings found in the garage it was indicated that GOD came to him through a vision and directed him to build the throne. Thus after his death from cancer in 1964, “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation’s Millennium General Assembly” was discovered. Hampton’s landlord, Wertlieb, sold it to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.
The central throne of this symmetrical creation is constructed of 180 pieces which rise seven feet high and are crowned by the words, “Fear Not.” The pieces on the right of the throne are related to Moses and the Old Testament and on the left the pieces relate to Jesus and the New Testament. “The throne was the result of a sustained, intense and solitary involvement.”(11) The amazing fact about the throne was that Hampton worked totally with junk and found objects consisting of old furniture, wooden planks and supports, cardboard cutouts, scraps of insulation board, discarded light bulbs, jelly glasses, hollow cardboard cylinders, Kraft paper, desk blotters, mirror fragments and electrical cables. Everything was covered with various types of gold and silver tinfoil.
Hampton designated himself as “St James” and his efforts are based on the New Testament Book of Revelation. “The third heaven refers to the entire Biblical abode of GOD. The first heaven is the region of the clouds, the second is of the planets and the third of GOD. This last is the heaven of heavens. The Nation’s Millennium alludes to the day of judgment for all nations, which will be called together at a General Assembly. The throne thus envisions the appearance of GOD before the multitudes and is surrounded by Jesus, Mary, Moses, Adam and Eve, the Prophets, the Apostles and a host of angels.”(12) Even though James Hampton is considered an environmental artist his work also fits into the visionary art category because it seems that he intended his throne as a monument to Jesus.
Simon Rodia was born in 1875 in Italy and came to the United States at the age of 10 or 11, subsequently working in logging and mining camps and also as a telephone repairman. He married but had no children. Rodia was uneducated except for his constant reading in the Encyclopedia Britannica with his heroes being Marco Polo, Columbus and Galileo. In 1921 he moved to an area in south Los Angeles called Watts where he began working on the famous “Watt’s Towers.” often referred to as that crazy old man, Rodia began working with fragmented and whole bottles, broken dishes, mirrors, seashells, tools, corncobs, boot bottoms, cement and broken tiles. In 1954 he finished his monumental work of folk art.
“The Watt’s Towers” (refer to slide 10, Watt’s Tower) are built on a triangular lot surrounded by scalloped, mosaic walls which add tremendous color to the drab neighborhood. Within the walls there are seven towers, ranging in height from 11 to 99.5 feet, a gazebo, a fountain, birdbaths, a water tank and several other structures. on the outside gate “Questro Pueblo”, or “Our Town”, is etched. The Towers themselves are constructed of steel reinforcing rods and wire mesh covered with cement. Rodia shaped these by hand using the rails of a railroad track. Where the two walls meet, Rodia called it, the ship of Marco Polo” or the ship of Columbus.” Year after year, Rodia’s towers continued to grow in height and complexity with the structures literally being built in the air and not held together by a single bolt, weld or rivet. The rings circling the towers were evenly spaced so that Rodia, who was less than five feet tall, could climb them.
Simon Rodia alone created the amazing Towers beginning at the age of 40. He once commented “ You have to be good or bad to be remembered. I had in mind to do something big and I did. Some of the people say what was he doing . . . Some of the people think I was crazy and some people said I was going to do something. I wanted to do something in the United States because I was raised here you understand? I wanted to do something for the United States because there are nice people in this country.”(13)
In 1954 Rodia stopped his work, deeded his property to a neighbor and left Watts without any explanation. It was felt that he sought immortality as an artist and that he no longer needed the Towers for his personal needs. He was discovered five years later in Martinez, California.
Simon Rodia died in 1965. The Towers have been praised worldwide. “The Towers are a unique monument to high energy, consistency and skills; a gigantic flower of folk art . . . Rodia is a genius.. this is a unique work of art, a fantasy merging sculpture and architecture.”(14)
The works of all of the aforementioned outsider artists illustrate an individual’s capacity to interpret everyday experiences and to describe them to the world using a technique that comes naturally to each of them.
As stated earlier, the goal of my unit is to explore the category of folk art called outsider art as a means of understanding cultural history. It is my hope to enhance the student’s knowledge of this type of art, allowing them to create and take pride in their own work. Through imagination and creativity they can learn to bring beauty into their world which is often surrounded by violence and ugliness.