[A number of years ago, on a visit to Baltimore with my mother, we checked out a new museum. I’m not sure what made us go to the American Visionary Art Museum—it may have been a recommendation from someone, though I don’t believe so—but we drove out of downtown Charm City in search of the rather obscure exhibition space in a part of the city to which neither of us had ever been. It was a real kick! I’ve recommended a visit to this odd art collection to others, especially if they have kids or grandkids anywhere from 7 or 8 to ’tweens, as a great half-day outing. I’ve never been back, but I occasionally note mentions, listings, or reviews of AVAM—and I continue to tell people who’re heading to (or who live in) Baltimore about the museum, encouraging them to have a look, too. One Friday while I was in Bethesda, Maryland, on a visit to my mother, the Washington Post ran the following review of an exhibit at AVAM, so I thought I’d post it and then add a little piece afterward about the history of the place. Michael O’Sullivan’s review below appeared in the Weekend magazine of the Post on 7 November 2014; my brief history of the museum will follow.]
by Michael O'Sullivan
Quirky Baltimore museum turns over its galleries to visionaries new, old and odd
How fitting that the American Visionary Art Museum has, on the occasion of its 20th thematic exhibition, chosen to unpack the word that lies at the heart of its mission — and its name. “The Visionary Experience: Saint Francis to Finster” takes a look at the vision thing from several angles, resulting in a show that is, as devotees of the quirky Baltimore institution have come to expect, full of surprises — and a few familiar faces.
Among the surprises also is a familiar face: Terrence Howard (yes, that Terrence Howard). The Academy Award-nominated actor’s geometric constructions of acetate and glass aren’t showstoppers; they have a dated feel, halfway between op art and a kid’s science project about molecular structure. But give the guy a break. They were, after all, made in the mid-1980s, when he was still a teenager.
It’s not even clear they were intended as art. Legally emancipated from his parents at age 16, Howard briefly studied chemical engineering in New York before turning to acting. Although he has spoken publicly of his ongoing interest in science and his plans to produce synthetic diamonds, doubts remain about the extent of his academic bona fides, not to mention his artistic credentials.
Of course, that shouldn’t disqualify him from being in this museum. AVAM is notable for its championing of those with less pedigree than passion. Another artist better known as a performer is the late musician Jimi Hendrix, who is represented here by a few trippy psychedelic drawings and a self-portrait.
While taking in the show, a definition of “vision” gradually emerges from the haze. It encompasses many things: the hallucinatory results of overindulgence in drugs and alcohol; mental illness; religious enlightenment/ecstasy; the dream state; brainwashing by cults; extrasensory perception; and simple artistic inspiration. Some of the featured artists are trained. Many are not. A few are arguably not even artists.
One of the show’s most fascinating galleries is devoted to such late-20th-century cultists as Velma and Orval Lee Jaggers of the Universal World Church; Ernest and Ruth “Uriel” Norman of the Unarius Academy of Science; and James Edward Baker, a.k.a. Father Yod, who founded a commune and a famous vegetarian restaurant in Hollywood. (Look for it in the movie “Annie Hall,” when Woody Allen’s character orders a plate of “alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast.”)
Although this gallery features artifacts — jewelry, costumes, record albums, video and other ephemera — its focus is almost more anthropological than artistic. The room is slightly creepy, with some of the video and photographic material evoking memories of the Heaven’s Gate cult, several of whose members committed suicide in 1997, believing that their souls would be picked up by a spaceship that was trailing the Hale-Bopp comet. All the same, I could have devoured a whole show on this topic alone.
Some of the best works in “The Visionary Experience” are a couple of mysteriously evocative paintings by Christine Sefolosha (who also was in AVAM’s “Home and Beast” show) and two massive drawings by architect Paolo Soleri. Soleri, whose works here come from a 50-foot-long scroll, is best known for designing the utopian community Arcosanti, which has been under construction in the Arizona desert since the 1970s. A sculptural assemblage by Odinga Tyehimba also is quite powerful, evoking a religious totem.
As for the first name in the show’s subtitle, the Roman Catholic saint Francis of Assisi was no artist. He’s included as a representative of the visionary experience, for his decision to renounce his family’s wealth and follow his inner light, a theme echoed throughout this diverse show. (An alcove at the museum features a devotional icon of Francis, surrounded by animal sculptures made by Claude Yoder and other artists.)
Nowhere is that theme of answering a higher calling better expressed than in the work of Howard Finster, whose name also graces the show’s title. His art — both whimsical and inspirational — fills almost an entire gallery.
The late Georgia folk artist and Baptist minister, who often signed his work “Man of Vision,” is an AVAM favorite as well as one of the best-known creators of American visionary art. Finster said that at age 60, he received instructions from God to “paint sacred art,” to which he replied, “I can’t. I don’t know how.”
God’s comeback: “How do you know you can’t?”
This show takes that argument even further: No matter where the call to art comes from, those of us who hear it should at least give it a try.
The story behind the work
One of the most fascinating displays in “The Visionary Experience” is devoted to the work of Paul Koudounaris. Taken from the author, art historian and photographer’s 2013 book “Heavenly Bodies,” the four images on display at AVAM document a macabre yet little-known folk practice of the Catholic Church: bedecking human skeletons in jewels
The Los Angeles-based Koudounaris, who specializes in photographing mummies and other human remains, stumbled on the phenomenon quite by accident during a 2008 research trip to Europe, when he was led to a decrepit German chapel in the woods. Inside a boarded-up display case, the photographer found a human skeleton done up in the raiment and gems of a king. Since then, Koudoularis has tracked down many more such examples of this art form, in which the skeletal remains of those believed to be early Christian martyrs were re-assembled, preserved and decorated, often by nuns, as a kind of ghoulish good-luck charm.
The works can be hard to find. In the late 18th century, when their superstitious nature became an embarrassment to a modernizing church, many of the skeletons were destroyed or removed from public view. Koudoularis’s creepy yet beautiful art gives them a second — or maybe a third — life.
[The Visionary Experience: Saint Francis to Finster will be on view through 30 August 2015.
[Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at the Washington Post, where he covers art, film, and other forms of popular culture.]
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What is “visionary art”? Also called “outsider art,” Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum defines visionary art as “art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without any formal artistic training, whose works arise from an intensity of innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself.” That covers the basics as far as AVAM is concerned, but the museum continues with a few further considerations:
As such, it is not inherently created for sale or merchandising through developed or formal commercial channels. Except that they have discovered in themselves the ability to accomplish something extraordinary, visionary artists are often otherwise ordinary people from a wide variety of walks of life, including as well many who have been institutionalized, or who are elderly, disabled, or from industry not traditionally associated with the creation of art.
“In short,” AVAM elucidates, “visionary art begins by listening to the inner voices of the soul, and often may not even be thought of as ‘art’ by its creator.”
But is visionary art different from folk art? (The Smithsonian American Art Museum, in fact, has a department for “folk and self-taught art” that comprises the work of visionary and outsider artists along with art by folk painters like Grandma Moses, Josephus Farmer, and Albina Felski.) Though the two may use similar methods and materials, AVAM insists that it is. The principal distinction is in the “self-taught” aspect of outsider art. “Folk art is ‘learned at the knee,’” observes AVAM, “and passed from generation to generation, or through established cultural community traditions,” which isn’t the same as teaching yourself how to create art. Folk art, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, comes “out of a specifically identifiable tradition”—religious, cultural, ethnic, regional, or whatever—whereas visionary art is sui generis. While folk art, especially examples from similar groupings like, say, Navajo kachina dolls, sailors’ scrimshaw, or Amish hex signs, shares aspects in common, outsider art doesn’t necessarily line up with anything else you’ve seen before. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography (sorry), AVAM asserts of visionary art: “you know it when you see it.” Furthermore, most folk art traditions go back decades and even centuries, often with little change through the generations as the tradition’s passed down. Visionary art, however, can be as new as last week, reinvented and reimagined with each new outsider artist—few of whom have any connection to those who went before.
The term “outsider art” was coined in 1972 by art historian Roger Cardinal to describe work by artists who were outside the mainstream by virtue both of their mental or psychological disabilities and their existence at the edges of society. In the Huffington Post, Priscilla Frank defined the genre thus:
Outsider artworks are often extreme, obsessive, raw and bizarre. Rather than depicting the world around them, outsider artists tend to render worlds of their own, using art to provide the order, comfort or beauty their lives often lack. While each outsider artist works in a radically different mode, all outsider artists create art that seemingly emerges outside of time, space and history, at least outside the dimensions occupied by most humans.
All of this art, whether the creator is insane, incarcerated, disabled, or just isolated, begins with a personal and private revelation, a vision, as it were, of a different, and usually better, world. Then the outsider artist sets about creating (or recreating) that world, often in his home or backyard. The work is often done in secret, without an audience of any kind. It’s not done for praise or applause, the artists don’t seek attention for their work or themselves, and, as AVAM notes, most don’t even recognize what they make as art. It’s just something they do—to exorcise demons, to praise God, to connect with another universe. The artists’ motives are usually entirely private and often unknowable.
Usually the work is discovered by amazed friends, relatives, coworkers, or even strangers after the artist’s death. The response of the niece of one visionary artists is typical, after a nephew, an artist himself, saw the aesthetic value of his uncle’s creations: “I realized that it might be more than just what Uncle Jim did.”
Since each visionary artist, by definition, is a one-off, self-taught, intuitive, and independent, there’s really no such thing as one outsider artist influencing or inspiring another. Many visionary artists are supremely nonsocial, living and working alone, often in secret, so few are even aware of other artists at all. “Unlike folk art,” notes AVAM “visionary art is entirely spontaneous and individualized.” Outsider artists “don’t listen to anyone else’s traditions. They invent their own.” As AVAM points out, visionary artists “hear their own inner voice so resoundingly that they may not even think of what they do as ‘art’ . . . . It is this listening to one’s inner voice with such focused attention that contributes to the unusually large number of visionary artworks, many of which took decades to create.” Nonetheless, there are commonalities, such as the recreation of the Garden of Eden and other utopian visions in the artists’ backyards, the most common theme of visionary artists worldwide—literally creating a vision of heaven on earth.
By Resolution of the Congress, the American Visionary Art Museum was designated the nation’s official museum and education center for self-taught, intuitive artistry. Since it opened in 1995, AVAM has striven to encourage recognition of untaught, autonomous creation as an important historic and essential part of a valued legacy of humankind. The unique American Visionary Art Museum’s three restored historic industrial buildings, including a copper paint factory and a whiskey warehouse, are located on just over an acre of land near Federal Hill Park on Baltimore, Maryland’s Inner Harbor. AVAM houses marvels created by students, laborers, dyslexics, misfits, recluses, mental health patients, farmers, housewives, mechanics, retirees, the disabled, the homeless, as well as the occasional neurosurgeon—all inspired by an inner light. “From carved roots to embroidered rags, tattoos to toothpicks,” reads an AVAM release, “the visionary transforms dreams, loss, hopes, and ideals into powerful works of art.”
In 1984, Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, then director of People Encouraging People, a program of the Department of Psychiatry at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, had the idea for a museum of outsider art. Her program was aimed at helping psychiatric patients to return to their communities, and her original thoughts were focused on the art work of the patients in People Encouraging People. In 1985, Hoffberger visited the Collection de l’art brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, established in 1976 by French artist Jean Dubuffet as a collection of “raw art” or “unrefined art”—the French term for outsider art. The artist defined this as art which is “totally pure, raw, entirely reinvented in all its phases by its author solely by means of his own impulses.” “Art,” declared Dubuffet, “doesn’t lie down in the bed made for it; it runs away as soon as we pronounce its name; what it loves is being in disguise. Its best moments are when it forgets its name.” This visit inspired Hoffberger in her own vision for an outsider art museum in the United States.
Two years after her visit to the Collection de l'art brut, Hoffberger and the owner of the George Ciscle Gallery in Baltimore mounted an exhibit called American Outsider Art to gauge the public’s interest. The first of its kind in Baltimore, the successful show was the opening event of a fund-raising campaign for a museum devoted to visionary art at which Hoffberger announced her plans for AVAM. In February 1989, Hoffberger incorporated the American Visionary Art Museum as a non-profit organization and the City of Baltimore gave AVAM the rights to the Key Highway property and the State of Maryland ponied up $1.3 million in financing. Relying heavily on small, individual contributions and donations, Hoffberger began fundraising in earnest and over six years raised $7 million. (Hoffberger’s husband sold off his personal collection of German Expressionist art to put the fund-raising over the top and assure that AVAM would be debt-free at its inception.) Architects Rebecca Swanston and Alex Castro agreed to collaborate on a design.
In 1992, U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland led the entire Maryland Congressional Delegation plus Kansas Senator Robert Dole in the effort to pass the unanimous Resolution of Congress designating AVAM as the United States’ official national museum, education center, and repository for intuitive, self-taught art. Builders J. Vinton Schafer & Sons broke ground for the new construction on Thanksgiving Day 1993 and metal artist David Hess designed the cast-tree Central Stair and all the ornamental railings and benches. After a gala opening celebration on 11 November 1995, the American Visionary Art Museum opened to the public on 24 November, the day after Thanksgiving.
From its start, AVAM had a stated mission, which it maintains today:
· Expand the definition of a worthwhile life.
· Engender respect for and delight in the gifts of others.
· Increase awareness of the wide variety of choices available in life for all . . . particularly students
· Encourage each individual to build upon his or her own special knowledge and inner strengths
· Promote the use of innate intelligence, intuition, self-exploration, and creative self-reliance.
· Confirm the great hunger for finding out just what each of us can do best, in our own voice, at any age.
· Empower the individual to choose to do that something really, really well.
Drawing an allusion to the traditional Native American Vision Quest, AVAM asserts:
We seek to draw attention to America’s history as a mecca for forward-looking innovators, optimists, dreamers and doers—highlighting the sense that America is at her best when she actively remembers that many of her greatest citizens were very much self-taught, self-made pioneers.
The statement of goals goes on:
We believe that being overly indoctrinated with ideas of what is not supposed to work, or what cannot work, only stifles human innovation and idea making. A freethinking educational environment opens the self-taught innovator to a greater range of dynamic possibilities. It is this total openness to the many potentialities of change that remains at the heart of true invention—and it is in this spirit that we offer these educational goals, which we believe apply equally well to people of every age and background.
Among the artists AVAM displays are Wayne Kusy (a replica of the Lusitania made of toothpicks), Steve Heller (robots constructed of found objects like junk car parts), Patch Adams (devices to cure pain with laughter), and works by the likes of Ho Baron, Nek Chand, Howard Finster, Ted Gordon, Gregory Warmack (aka “Mr. Imagination”), Clyde Jones, Leonard Knight, William Kurelek, Mary Proctor, Leo Sewell, Judith Scott, Vollis Simpson, Ben Wilson, and many others of whom you’ve probably never heard making art you’ll surely never see anywhere else. (One visitor called it a “crazy, wacky and oddly goofball art museum.”) In addition to its changing exhibits, making use of borrowed pieces, AVAM has a permanent collection of over 4,000 pieces. The practice is to rotate objects on exhibit on the first floor Permanent Collection Gallery in the Main Building (as well as elsewhere in the museum and its grounds) displaying about 50 items at a time. Other spaces include the Third Floor Gallery, Tall Sculpture Barn, and the 45,000-square-foot Jim Rouse Visionary Center. There’s an extensive collection of whirligigs of every imaginable kind and shape—a sure-fire delight for kids of all ages—and a building filled with “art cars,” vehicles entirely covered with fanciful decorations, transforming them into fantastic mobile sculptures. (AVAM also conducts workshops on a variety of topics, holds special events throughout the year, and can be booked for events such as weddings. The museum cafe, Rain’s Fun House, is a “neverland dreamworld of a restaurant,” in the words of one visitor, and Sideshow, the museum gift shop, is unique.)
A Washington Post 2006 review of the museum adds a dimension to the report on AVAM’s history and collections. The facility itself is, in it’s own way, part of the experience:
An acre-plus compound along the southern edge of the Inner Harbor, the Visionary Art Museum itself is a unique statement on the Baltimore waterfront, a geometric brick-and-concrete edifice covered with fragments of mirror and tile and adorned with a looming Masonic eye. A three-ton windblown whirligig by North Carolinian Vollis Simpson spins and twirls beside the old warehouse that serves as a tall-sculpture gallery. Next door is the museum's newest space, a converted whiskey storehouse that now contains hands-on mechanical toys, jaw-dropping "art cars" and a re-created block of Baltimore's famous painted window screens. At the rear of the building, a massive sculpted hand supports a rolled movie screen, which in summer is lowered to show outdoor films to crowds seated on Federal Hill.
[The American Visionary Art Museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (closed Christmas and Thanksgiving Days); admission is $15.95 ($13.95 for seniors, $9.95 for children ages 7-18 and students; members and children 6 and younger are free). Group rates and special arrangements are available (consult the website for further information as well as guidance concerning directions and parking). AVAM is located at 800 Key Highway, Baltimore; (410) 244-1900; www.avam.org.]