"Great and Mighty Things": Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection

March 3 - June 9, 2013

Wall text from the exhibition


The exhibition is sponsored by Comcast Corporation and Duane Morris. Generous support for the exhibition is also provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts, Capital Solutions, Credit Suisse, William B. Dietrich Foundation, Dolfinger-McMahon Foundation, Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation, Christie's, PNC Bank, Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest, Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer and Joe Neubauer, Ralph and Suzanne Roberts and Brian and Aileen Roberts, Erik and Tammy Bonovitz, Christopher Bonovitz and Kate Dunn, John Alchin and Hal Marryatt, Steve and Gretchen Burke, Christina and Lance Funston, Lynne and Harold Honickman, Dr. Sankey V. Williams and Constance H. Williams, Catherine R. and Anthony A. Clifton, Marjorie and Jeffrey Honickman, John J. Medveckis, Mrs. J. Maxwell Moran, Lisa S. Roberts and David W. Seltzer, Peggy and Ellis Wachs, Margie and Bryan Weingarten, and other generous individuals. Support for the catalogue is provided by Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz.
The free exhibition app is made possible by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for education, by the Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and by supporters of the exhibition.
What Is Outsider Art?
What is different about "outsider" art that it should be given this confusing designation (outside of what?), be treated as a separate entity from mainstream art, and often be shown only in specialized museums or sold by particular galleries? Simply put, it is art made by people who have not gone to art school, who usually do not operate professionally or earn their livings as artists, and who create, for the most part, with limited or no connection to the art world and its dealers, galleries, collectors, critics, schools, and museums. Not categorized by styles, movements, or trends, it is art made by individuals who are driven to create by their own particular inner compulsions, which may be visionary, derived from memories, evangelical, or popular-culture inspired. It is almost always strongly influenced by local or regional cultures and often is made from found, homemade, or unusual materials. It occupies a critical position parallel to but not identical with mainstream modern and contemporary art.
The most remarkable work of this type is out of the ordinary, edgy, imaginative, and, at times, obsessive-compulsive. It is frequently raw or crude in execution but masterful in color choices and composition. Many self-taught artists create large-scale "environments," some of which derive from the southern African American yard-art tradition. Recognized as a specific field in the early twentieth century in Europe -- at that time associated with the art of the mentally ill -- and in America since the 1930s, outsider art is now a global phenomenon, and is one with a growing and increasingly appreciative audience.
Collecting Outsider Art
There are a number of fine private collections of outsider art in the United States, and that of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz is among the country's best. The couple has been pursuing work by self-taught artists for three decades, focusing on American material. They have acquired only pieces that they love, without attempting to form a geographically or historically complete survey of the field.
Outsider art can speak in interesting ways to twentieth- and twenty-first-century collections such as those housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as self-taught artists have adopted many of the same approaches and strategies used by their mainstream counterparts -- such as the use of collage, assemblage, and found materials; a tendency to render figurative images abstractly; excursions into the surreal, dreamlike, or otherworldly; and the incorporation of texts. Yet only a handful of museums in this country collect outsider art in depth, and none genuinely integrates work by the self-taught with that of mainstream artists in installations of its permanent collection. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has been acquiring work in this field for twenty years, welcomes the promised gift of the Bonovitz Collection as a splendid contribution to the strength and diversity of its distinguished holdings of modern and contemporary art.
Felipe Benito Archuleta
Born Santa Cruz, New Mexico, 1910; died Tesuque, New Mexico, 1991
A novel woodcarving tradition began in 1964 in the New Mexican community of Tesuque, near Santa Fe, when fifty-four-year-old Felipe Archuleta received a vision from God that he should make sculpture. Archuleta had always been poor; his father abandoned the family of six children when Felipe was young, and the boy left school to work as a field hand and later as a stonemason and cook, then for many years as a carpenter.
As he did not feel worthy to work in the long-established santero practice -- creating carved and painted religious figures -- Archuleta turned to carving animals. These animals were so distinctive and compelling that he quickly gained considerable success and reputation. During the 1970s the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe showed his works, and soon collectors were enthusiastically acquiring them. The artist's son and grandson often assisted in the work, and thus Felipe established a lively animal-carving tradition in his locale.
[Tour stop] 578
Eddie Arning
Born Germania, Texas, 1898; died McGregor, Texas, 1993
At the age of thirty Eddie Arning, who lived and worked on his family's farm near Travis, Texas, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalized, and he spent most of his remaining days in mental hospitals and nursing homes. When Arning was sixty-six years old, an occupational therapist encouraged him to draw, and for years he drew during much of the day. At first he depicted single subjects from memory, such as animals, cars, or farm equipment. As his work evolved, his compositions became more complicated; they were usually taken from illustrations or advertisements in popular magazines, which he simplified and abstracted. In 1973, shortly after he was forced to leave his nursing home to live with his sister, he stopped making art.
Arning's work became known beyond his immediate community through the efforts of an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who began collecting it in the 1960s and became the artist's primary supporter.
[Tour stop] 581
Emery Blagdon
Born Callaway, Nebraska, 1907; died Callaway, 1986
After Emery Blagdon, who was raised on a farm in Nebraska, watched his mother (in 1936) and then his father (in 1951) succumb to cancer, he spent the rest of his life constructing an amazing "machine" for healing the sick. This consisted of hundreds of sculptures, like the three shown here, housed densely in a shed on his farm and accompanied by small, colorful paintings and numerous hanging jars and bundles of minerals, the whole apparatus lit with strings of holiday lights. All of these elements were intended to channel the electromagnetic energy of the earth, so that anyone who entered the shed could benefit from the machine's healing powers. The visual effect of the forest of dangling sculptures -- with light reflecting from the shiny surfaces of objects incorporated into them -- was magical.
Blagdon thought of his ensemble as a curative device; today we would call it an artist-made environment. The machine was unfortunately unable to cure the artist's own cancer, from which he died in 1986.
[Tour stop] 580
David Butler
Born Good Hope, Louisiana, 1898; died Moran City, Louisiana, 1997
David Butler is one of several artists in this exhibition who began making art after life-changing events. His various manual labor jobs -- in sawmills and on road construction -- ended in 1962 with a work-related injury, and his wife died in 1968. In the early 1970s, when he was in his mid-seventies, Butler began adorning his yard in Patterson, Louisiana, with colorful, cut-metal sculptures, mostly of fanciful subjects such as whirligigs and whimsical "critters," and with decorated objects like birdfeeders, mailboxes, and bicycles. This kind of yard art is part of a long tradition in the rural African American south. In addition, Butler made cut-metal window screens for the outside of his house, both to control the light inside and as "spirit shields" against evil forces. Two of these spirit shields are shown here.
[Tour stop] 594
Miles B. Carpenter
Born Brownstone, Pennsylvania, 1889; died Waverly, Virginia, 1985
Miles Carpenter grew up working at his father's farm and sawmill in Waverly, Virginia, and had little formal schooling. By 1912 he had purchased his own lumber mill, which he operated until 1955. During a lull in business in the early 1940s he began to whittle small animals and other objects, but it was not until his wife died in 1966 and he found himself in need of a diversion that he seriously turned his attention to carving. The small pieces that Carpenter initially crafted became much larger works as the artist's skill developed. His animals evolved into fantastical, brightly painted creatures, often embellished with found materials, their shapes growing from the tree roots or limbs from which they were carved.
[Tour stop] 590
James Castle
Born Garden Valley, Idaho, 1899; died Boise, Idaho, 1977
Unlike other artists represented in this exhibition, James Castle worked at his art from the time he was a child until the last day of his life. He was born completely deaf to a hardscrabble farm family in rural Idaho, and despite five years at a special school he did not acquire the tools of language such as lip-reading, finger spelling, or writing, though he may have learned the allure of words and the making of books.
Over decades, Castle explored a variety of creative modes, using for his drawings a type of ink that he invented -- a combination of soot from the stovepipe, spit, and water, applied with sharpened sticks and wadded paper wipes -- and always working on or with found papers such as envelopes, food packaging, and even his nieces' school homework pages. Among his most admired works are the "constructions" that he created from pieces of cut and torn papers stitched and tied with string. The Bonovitz Collection contains a number of fine examples of these.
[Tour stop] 574
Bruno Del Favero
Born Princeton, Michigan, 1910; died Greenwich, Connecticut, 1995
Bruno Del Favero's paintings are delicate and mysterious and just as unrevealing as the few facts we know about the artist himself. After spending his childhood and youth in northern Italy, he settled in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he made his living as a mason, chauffeur, and landscape gardener. We do not know exactly when or why he began to paint his dreamlike landscapes, which often feature bodies of water with sailboats or fantastic architecture.
By the early 1970s, Del Favero was exhibiting his work in local shows and took himself seriously enough as an artist to join the Greenwich Art Society. After his death, his family promoted his work, introducing it to New York dealers Shari Cavin and Randall Morris. The first one-man show outside Greenwich of Del Favero's paintings was held at the Cavin-Morris Gallery in 1998.
[Tour stop] 573
Sam Doyle
Born St. Helena Island, South Carolina, 1906; died Beaufort, South Carolina, 1985
Sam Doyle grew up on St. Helena Island, off the coast of South Carolina, in a Gullah community with a distinctive African American linguistic and cultural heritage. In his twenties and thirties he left the island for a number of years and held jobs as a porter and laundry worker, returning in 1943. When he applied himself fully to making art in his early sixties, Doyle chose to represent figures of importance to the African American people as a whole and to record individuals living on St. Helena who were significant to its character and history, such as its first black embalmer, medical doctor, and policeman. He also depicted national heroes and famous sports or cultural figures.
Doyle's colorful gallery of personalities filled his yard. Like many of the African American artists represented in the Bonovitz Collection, his inclusion in the Corcoran Gallery of Art's 1982 show Black Folk Art in America, 1930­1980, in Washington, DC, established his reputation.
[Tour stop] 593
William Edmondson
Born Davidson County, Tennessee, 1874; died Nashville, 1951
Of the several individuals in this exhibition who began to make art because of signs or commands from God, William Edmondson's experience is the best documented and the most dramatic. A retired hospital worker and a devout Primitive Baptist, Edmondson had a vision sometime between 1930 and 1933 in which he said God appeared and talked to him about the gift of stonecutting he was going to confer. In a later vision he saw a tombstone in the sky that he believed God intended him to make.
In response to these spiritual events Edmondson began carving tombstones and outdoor stone ornaments. These might never have been known beyond Nashville had not New York photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe introduced Edmondson's work to Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the director of the Museum of Modern Art. Barr perceived in them aesthetic qualities in common with modernist art and held a small, one-man exhibition in 1937 showcasing the artist's carvings. Edmondson is today considered one of the iconic self-taught artists the United States has produced.
[Tour stop] 575
Howard Finster
Born Valley Head, Alabama, 1916; died Rome, Georgia, 2001
Some self-taught artists remain undiscovered during their lifetimes; others, like Howard Finster, capture the popular imagination and become quite well known. As a revivalist preacher in Georgia, Finster had a message to spread and he was not shy about doing it. When God appeared to him in 1976 through a paint smudge on his finger and told him to make "sacred art," he created paintings and small constructions filled with texts, mainly passages from the Bible and various religious exhortations.
Finster numbered his pieces sequentially, and they reached into the thousands (by the 1990s he solicited the help of family members to help make them). In many of these works, the artist engagingly combines the mundane with the divine: bulldozers and angels, a Ford motorcar and the Hebrew Bible, Uncle Sam and "visions of other worlds." His work soon became popular among collectors, and in the 1980s he designed album covers for musical groups such as R.E.M. and Talking Heads, and even appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
[Tour stop] 582
Lee Godie
Born Chicago, 1908; died Chicago, 1994
Dressed in colorful makeshift or cast-off clothes and wearing heavy makeup, Lee Godie was a well-known sight on the streets of downtown Chicago from the 1960s through the 1980s, peddling her art at prominent locations -- for many years on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago but also in parks, bus terminals, and train stations. She drew birds, still lifes, and people. The people -- shown bust-length in profile or front-face -- often sport fancy hats, stylish garments, and remarkable eyelashes. At times she used discarded window shades as her canvas, and she frequently inscribed short, quirky texts on her compositions (such as "Chicago We own it . . ." on the drawing Mr. Blue Bird displayed nearby).
Perhaps more because of her colorful persona than her art, Godie was profiled in the early 1980s by the Chicago Reader, People, the Wall Street Journal, and Art in America.
[Tour stop] 585
Consuelo González Amezcua
Born Piedras Negras, Mexico, 1903; died Del Rio, Texas, 1975
Consuelo ("Chelo") González Amezcua lived most of her life in Del Rio, Texas, never marrying and working in the S. H. Kress 5 & 10 Cent Store. In contrast to this rather sedate life, and despite her lack of formal art training, she created drawings inspired by, and reflecting on, the art of the past and the present from all over the world. The sources of her inspiration -- including Mexican filigree jewelry, Spanish Colonial architecture, nature's flora and fauna, and Middle Eastern miniature paintings -- are evident in the images and patterns in her work. She referred to one of her subjects as "born in the garden of my imagination," an apt metaphor for the lush and exotic motifs she depicted.
González Amezcua's art was first shown outside Del Rio in 1968 when Amy Freeman Lee, an artist and writer in San Antonio, Texas, curated a show featuring her drawings at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio.
[Tour stop] 592
William Hawkins
Born Union City, Kentucky, 1895; died Dayton, Ohio, 1990
William Hawkins, raised on a farm and with only a third-grade education, settled in Columbus, Ohio, and held various jobs that ranged from plumber to truck driver to brothel manager. He began making art sometime in his thirties, frequently using magazines, newspapers, textbooks, and other print media as sources for his imagery. He also reinterpreted famous works of art and current events and depicted animals and Ohio landmarks.
Found plywood and Masonite panels and house paint were the artist's primary materials, and he manipulated his paint with worn, stubby brushes. He sometimes incorporated collaged reproductions of works by other artists, actual pages cut from his print sources, and found objects such as strips of wood into his compositions. When Hawkins was around eighty-six years old, he won first prize for a painting he submitted to the amateur artist division of the 1982 Ohio State Fair. After this success, he painted full time until his death in 1990.
[Tour stop] 587
Shields Landon Jones
Born Indian Mills, West Virginia, 1901; died Hinton, West Virginia, 1997
Born into an Appalachian sharecropping family of thirteen, S. L. Jones left school sometime after the eighth grade to work on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. He rediscovered his childhood hobby of woodcarving when he retired from the railroad and soon after that he lost his wife. The small figures he initially created grew until they were almost life-size, exuding personality through their brightly colored clothing and the addition of "real" embellishments, such as the belt on the preacher shown here.
In 1972, collector Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., spotted a piece by Jones in the West Virginia State Museum in Charleston and began to buy his carvings. By the late 1980s the artist was known as one of the most important regional woodcarvers in the country, with works in the American Folk Art Museum in New York and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia.
[Tour stop] 570
Justin McCarthy
Born Weatherly, Pennsylvania, 1892; died Tucson, Arizona, 1977
Justin McCarthy's father was a wealthy and respected Pennsylvania newspaperman, until his death in the early 1900s brought financial ruin to the family. McCarthy?who had the most education of any of the artists in this exhibition?attended law school at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia for two years before suffering a nervous breakdown. During his confinement at the State Homeopathic Hospital for the Insane between 1915 and 1920 he discovered drawing. After his release, McCarthy worked as a farmer, warehouse employee, chocolate mixer, and steelworker to support himself, although he continued to create art. His drawings, watercolors, and paintings depict everyday events and popular imagery of the day, their subjects pulled from books?including the Bible?magazines, film, fashion, and sports competitions.
[Tour stop] 596
Sister Gertrude Morgan
Born Lafayette, Alabama, 1900; died New Orleans, 1980
Sister Gertrude Morgan was a colorful personality, a street preacher and gospel singer in the French Quarter of New Orleans from the 1940s through the 1970s who established her own Everlasting Gospel Mission in a small house in the Lower Ninth Ward of the city. In the mid-1950s Morgan began to use visual images to support her spiritual messages. Her works are often filled with long biblical texts or mix visionary religious subjects with images from modern life: for example, the New Jerusalem, the divine recreation of Israel's holiest city, in Sister Gertrude's imagination becomes a multistoried apartment complex flanked by streaming hordes of angels.
New Orleans art dealer Larry Borenstein showed Morgan's work at his gallery from 1960 onward, and she gained a considerable reputation. Many of her pieces were included in the landmark exhibition organized in 1982 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980.
[Tour stop] 579
Elijah Pierce
Born near Baldwyn, Mississippi, 1892; died Columbus, Ohio, 1984
Someone has to "discover" self-taught artists for their work to become known, and it is surprising how often that person is another artist or an art student. This was the case with Columbus, Ohio, barber Elijah Pierce, who made remarkable small bas-relief carvings with simple tools -- a pocketknife, a chisel, a piece of broken glass, and sandpaper.
Pierce showed in local exhibitions, but his work did not provoke wider attention until 1968, when the artist was in his mid-seventies. A graduate student in sculpture at Ohio State University spotted his work and became a strong advocate, and Pierce enjoyed a growing reputation from the 1970s on, with his pieces being shown at galleries and in museums. It is hard to imagine today, when he is recognized as one of America's best-known woodcarvers, that for much of his life Pierce was better known as a barber and Baptist preacher whose uncle had taught him to whittle as a child on a Mississippi farm.
[Tour stop] 576
Martín Ramírez
Born Rincón de Velázquez, Mexico, 1895; died Auburn, California, 1963
Of the several artists in the Bonovitz Collection who have now become well known, Martín Ramírez has come the closest to shaking off the tag of "outsider." Born in Mexico to a sharecropper family, he emigrated to California in 1925 in search of temporary work, which he found with the railroads and mines. For reasons not fully known, in 1931 the police committed him to a mental hospital. He spent the rest of his life in institutions in California, diagnosed with schizophrenia.
It was in these circumstances that Ramírez began to create remarkable drawings on pieces of found paper, which feature semi-abstracted and perspectivally mysterious trains, tunnels, Madonnas, horsemen, animals, and landscapes. The first recognition of his talent came in 1948 when his work appeared in a number of regional exhibitions. National attention came twenty years later, after artist Jim Nutt, his wife Gladys Nilsson, and Chicago art dealer Phyllis Kind purchased nearly three hundred of Ramírez's compositions, and subsequently his work became an influence on the Chicago art scene.
[Tour stop] 591
Ellis Ruley
Born Norwich, Connecticut, 1882; died Norwich, 1959
Ellis Ruley -- a construction worker untrained in art and with little schooling -- began at the age of fifty-seven to paint colorful, often edgy pictures. His favorite subjects -- wild animals, bathing beauties, pastoral scenes, and cowboys and Indians -- were most likely taken not from life experience but from imagery in popular magazines such as Life and National Geographic.
At the time that Ruley, a black man, was creating this work, he was living in an all-white section of Norwich, Connecticut. Years of hostility from the racially prejudiced neighborhood led to the suspicion that his son-in-law's death in 1948 and his own in 1959 were actually the results of murder, although nothing was ever proved. Adding to the mystery, Ruley's house burned down a few weeks after he died, with much of his work inside.
[Tour stop] 572
Jon Serl
Born Olean, New York, 1894; died Lake Elsinore, California, 1993
Jon Serl's many lives -- vaudeville performer, female impersonator, and voice-over actor -- led to an itinerant existence before he began painting in his mid-fifties. Born into a family of vaudevillians, he learned to dance and sing at a young age, and later recorded voice-overs for the film industry in Hollywood. It was not until around 1949 or 1950, after he settled in southern California, that Serl applied himself to making art. He repurposed wood and Masonite panels, onto which he applied paint in streaky brushstrokes, often squeezing it directly from the tube onto the board.
The rubber-limbed, bug-eyed people in Serl's pictures are frequently engaged in theatrical or musical performances, no doubt a reflection of his childhood. The artist earned a reputation for eccentricity when he moved to Lake Elsinore, California, in his late seventies, sharing a ramshackle house with his chickens and Chihuahuas and often wearing layers of mismatched clothes or a Catholic priest's vestments.
[Tour stop] 586
Herbert Singleton
Born New Orleans, 1945 or 1946; died New Orleans, 2007
Herbert Singleton grew up in a predominantly African American neighborhood in New Orleans. In his late teens he worked construction and also carved and sold wooden canes, but his life took a drastic turn when a relationship with a drug dealer led to jail. After almost fourteen years in prison, Singleton returned to carving, and in the late 1980s he expanded his art making with large-scale bas-reliefs that he crafted from found wood panels which he painted with house enamel or automobile paint.
Singleton addressed the historical African American experience or events from his personal life in his art. Often raw or violent, but arresting in their brilliant color contrasts, the scenes he created include slave life, the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, drug abuse, gambling, and ceremonies typical of New Orleans culture such as jazz funerals. Not all of Singleton's themes are violent, however; many draw from the Bible and reflect the importance of religion in community life.
[Tour stop] 584
Simon Sparrow
Born West Africa, about 1925; died Madison, Wisconsin, 2000
Simon Sparrow spent his first two years among the Yoruba in Africa and the next decade on a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina, which may explain the spiritual messages embedded in his work. The faces and figures in his busy compositions are not just visual motifs but spirit figures, the metaphysical essences of people who lived long ago and or whom he had never met, whose images came to Sparrow from God.
Sparrow, who worked as a house painter, singer, and cook in Philadelphia and New York, began painting in the 1960s, and in the 1970s added assemblages, or constructions, to his body of work. It was not until the mid-1980s, living in Madison, Wisconsin, that he created art on the grand scale and with the complexity of found materials seen in the pieces shown here, which contain a vast assortment of small objects adhered to large pieces of wood and enhanced with glitter and paint.
[Tour stop] 577
Bill Traylor
Born near Benton, Alabama, c. 1853; died Montgomery, Alabama, 1949
The suddenness with which Bill Traylor began to make art, his advanced age (his mid-eighties), and the briefness of his artistic activity (three or four years) are unique among the artists in the Bonovitz Collection. He had no discernible motivation to make art; perhaps it was to chronicle his memories of farm life -- he was born a slave on a plantation and remained on the land as a farmhand for most of his life -- or to record the characters around him, or simply to amuse himself and his friends.
Whatever the reason, the drawings Traylor made between about 1939 and 1942 while living in Montgomery, Alabama, often on the street, reveal his genius for composing shapes on a page. His subject matter?people, animals, household objects, and what he called "exciting events," lively scenes of people engaged in activities such as shooting, fighting, and drinking?provide glimpses of long-gone African American lives in the rural Deep South. A young Alabama painter fortunately saved much of Traylor's work and eventually shared it with the world.
[Tour stop] 583
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein
Born Marinette, Wisconsin, 1910; died Milwaukee, 1983
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein's extant works, produced after 1943 and unknown to the public until after his death, are boudoir-style photographs of his wife, Marie; colorful, apocalyptic oil paintings; and ceramic and chicken bone sculptures. The manifesto below -- from a metal plaque in his kitchen -- is the only guide to how Von Bruenchenhein, a Milwaukee baker, viewed himself as an artist:
- Eugene Von Bruenchenhein
- Free Lance Artist
- Poet and Sculptor
- inovator [sic]
- Arrow maker and Plant man
- Bone artifacts constructor
- Photographer and Architect
- Philosopher
The most unusual creations by the artist are his "bone artifacts constructions," tiny, almost magical chicken-bone towers and thrones mounted on wire. His best-known works, however, are his hand-built ceramic vessels and crowns that usually feature applied leaves and layers of luminous colors -- true poetry in clay. With these pieces densely clustered on every available surface in his small home, the walls and ceilings of which he painted with colorful plants and flowers, he transformed the house into an exotic environment.
[Tour stop] 571
George Widener
Born Cincinnati, 1962
George Widener is the only living artist currently represented in the Bonovitz Collection and one of the most unusual. A numerical savant who was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome about a dozen years ago, he can mentally calculate long sequences of numbers and dates, and he turns these mathematical equations into minutely rendered, patterned compositions. He is also fascinated by disasters, especially the 1912 sinking of the Titanic.
Widener's childhood was difficult and his youth peripatetic; in his twenties he spent time in mental health facilities and, at one point, in a homeless shelter. In 1994, however, he began studies at the University of Tennessee, where he earned a liberal arts degree. He now lives in Waynesville, North Carolina. Since Widener was discovered by British art dealer Henry Boxer, he has enjoyed an increasing reputation and, although Widener is largely self-taught, one could argue that he is no longer "outside" the art world.
[Tour stop] 595
Joseph Yoakum
Born Missouri, 1890; died Chicago, 1972
An elusive figure, Joseph Yoakum may?or may not?have led an exciting life in his youth, traveling to far-flung places with circuses, the military, and steamship crews. Most of these adventures cannot be verified, but we do know that he worked on the railroads and as a coal miner, served briefly in the army, and settled in Chicago, where for a year in the mid-1940s the veterans' hospital treated him for a psychiatric ailment.
Probably sometime in the mid-1960s Yoakum began to draw. His initial fairly realistic landscapes turned into dreamlike scenes in which the natural world flattens out, its rivers, mountains, trees, and clouds presented in a stylized but organic system of patterning. No one knows whether these images arose out of the artist's imagination, were inspired by memories, or had their source in books, magazines, and other printed materials of the day. A Chicago college teacher saw Yoakum's drawings in 1967 and introduced the work to the city's art establishment. Yoakum's reputation grew quickly thereafter.
[Tour stop] 589
Purvis Young
Born Miami, 1943; died Miami, 2010
Purvis Young grew up in Overtown, Florida, a once-thriving, historically black neighborhood in Miami that had turned into a slum. Not receiving much education, he began his artistic career with drawings he made while serving a three-year jail sentence for breaking and entering. Upon his release Young decided to dedicate his life to creating art and bettering his community. Inspired by urban murals that he had seen in books and magazines, the artist began his own mural project at a spot in Overtown called Goodbread Alley, hanging dozens of his paintings edge to edge along a dilapidated stretch of the street. He addressed issues of racism, poverty, suffering, communal redemption, faith, and hope for salvation. Horses and trucks permeate Young's work -- representing freedom -- along with boats, musicians, dancing figures, buildings, and large blue "all-seeing" eyes.
[Tour stop] 588


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