Monthly Archives: March 2012

Environmental sites in Europe (again)

I’m suffering jetlag from hopping from Canada to Europe so many times this month. It is impossible to resist following up on comments from readers on the other side of the globe…

I just got a note from Henk, a blogger in the Netherlands. He has an amazing blog, called Outsider Environments Europe It has a comprehensive list of strange and wonderful outsider sites in Europe. He describes “an environment” as a relatively large-scale creative construct, related to and redefining the place of living of the maker”.  Have a look at some of the photos and you will be packing your bags for a trek  through these sites. This photo is the “Shelled Mountain” by French artist Joseph Duffour.

If you read my blogs about Canadian Maud Lewis’s painted house, you may have detected that I was writing about it from a sense of obligation, not passion. Compared to the remarkable outsider environments across Europe, Maud’s house is…well…boring. It’s why I would put Maud’s house into the folk art category. Her house is charming, but it lacks the scope and vision of many projects that are definitely “outsider”. (I know this will trigger a flurry of hate mail from ML fans. Bring it on. I would like someone to teach me how to appreciate folk art – and I am sincere about this.)

I am disappointed that I have a lively dialogue with readers in Europe and the United States, but not Canada. C’mon you guys. There must be some Canadian outsider art – environmental or otherwise – that you can tell me about. Are we really that dull north of the 49th?

Maud Lewis’s painted house

The buzz about Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis seems to focus on her tiny (3 x 4  metre) painted house. It was painted inside and out with garden scenes. (Note: this photo shows a replica of her house.)

One site describes it thus:

Lewis lived in a garden, summer  and winter. In the mean little cabin, without central heating or indoor  plumbing, she painted a fantasy world of cheerful children, pretty seascapes  and cherry red songbirds. She  splashed bright butterflies and birds across the  front door; she filled her windows with pink and blue tulips; she decorated the  dustpan with daisies and the stove with big red flowers. No surface escaped her brushes.

Lewis may have painted and sold as many as a  couple of thousand pictures in her bold, happy style, but it is her house that  confirms the inner brightness of this remarkable woman whose life was one of disability, poverty and ill health.

Maud passed away in 1970;  her husband, Edgar, lived there until he died in 1979.The Maud Lewis Painted  House Society was formed in 1984 with the intention of rescuing it from ruin. Eventually the house was sold to the Province of Nova Scotia and then, in 1995, the house was disassembled, restored, and reconstructed at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. It is on permanent display there. You can watch a short video about the  house restoration.

Maud’s paintings are now highly collectible and prices are climbing. Prices at auction are typically in the $10,000 range, with two fetching between $16,000 and $22,000. It is noted that some paintings are remarkably similar because when Maud liked a subject, she repeated it a few times. There are, for example, multiple paintings of “Two Deer in the Snow”. But there is an “issue” about authenticity. She printed her name on her paintings in a simple way, which has been remarkably easy to copy. And, to make matters worse, her husband, Edgar, made some paintings after her death and signed them with her name.

I happened to check what might be for sale by Maud Lewis on eBay. (It’s an obsessive habit of mine.) I found a watercolour painting for sale by the artist “Maud Lewis”, listed by someone in England who probably picked it up at a garage sale. I have never seen a painting that looked so-NOT-like-Maud-Lewis’s-style in my life. Yet someone had written to ask the seller if it was by the Canadian painter Maud Lewis. The seller said he was “Not familiar with the artist. Best wishes, Roger.”  There are 2 bids on the painting, and the price has now escalated to $13.43 (Cdn). I apologize profusely for laughing (out loud) (a lot). I am tempted to throw a monkey wrench in to the works and submit a random bid for $15.

This summarizes the Canadian phenomenon of folk artist, Maud Lewis.

Back to Canada and Maud Lewis

Whenever I bump into a likely suspect I ask, “Name some Canadian outsider artists.” After searching the sky for an answer, the only response I have ever gotten was “Maud Lewis”. Not a long list, but it’s a start. I have to confess that she was the only Canadian folk/outsider artist I knew when I started my research. In fact, I was more familiar with Maud’s painted house than her paintings.

Maud Dowley (1903 – 1970) lived in Nova Scotia her entire life. She was a loner (sound familiar?) because she was small and didn’t look like the other children. She developed rheumatoid arthritis in her childhood, which made all movement painfully difficult. She left school when she was 14, after completing grade 5. Her mother taught her to paint, and she began creating Christmas cards which she sold to family and friends.

She later married a fish Peddler, Everett Lewis, and lived the rest of her life in a one-room primitive house near Digby, Nova Scotia. Her arthritis worsened, but she was still able to paint. She sold cards and posted a sign outside “Paintings for Sale” to contribute to their income. She created hundreds of paintings. Those who stopped to buy a painting (for about $2.00) report that she was a quiet, delightful person. Her pleasure came from the enjoyment she gave those who viewed her art.

As stories often go in the outsider art world, Maud’s painting moved from small 8 x 10 boards to painting every surface of the house, inside and out, including the staircase to the sleeping loft, the wood stove, the dustpan, and cookie sheets. Most days she could be seen painting by the front window because they had no electricity.

What did she paint? Flowers, children, trees, churches, houses, winter scenes, water scenes, roadside scenes, cats, horses, and oxen. She used mainly primary colours straight out of the tube because, she said, she didn’t know how to mix colours. She used any paint around, including house paint, marine paint, cheap craft paint.

She is called “Canada’s most  beloved folk artist”, a phrase that I find too kitschy to be taken as praise. But that’s just me. Was she folk or outsider? More on that later

A quick jaunt to France

This blog is for the girl with ruby slippers who asked me about other artists, like Danielle Jacqui, in France. There is a wealth of information in a book, Fantasy Worlds, by Deidi von Schaewen and John Maizels (who publishes Raw Vision Magazine of outsider art).

You’ll be happy to hear that there are so many visionary artist sites in France that I can list only a few of them here.

The work of Raymond Isidore in Chartres, is most like that of Danielle Jacqui. He has covered his entire house and furniture in mosaics. Zillions of pieces – quite a mind-boggling and magnificent sight.  All the photos are of his home.

I have always wondered why the south-east of the USA was such a breeding-ground for quirky artists. But it looks like France has cultivate its own stock. Here is a partial list of some other visionary artists scattered around France.

Lucien Favreau’s sculputure garden (and house) in Yviers. His garden is dedicated to the public figures and events that marked his life.

Jean Linard’s “Cathedral” in Neuvy-Deux-Clochers. Ceramicist and potter, Linard has constructed a very large, tiled and mosaic cathedral in his yard. (BTW: it’s for sale.)

Ben Vautier in Nice collects graffiti and found objects. The exterior of his house is almost unrecognizable, and it looks like he’s still going at it. (He has made one of the best quotable artist statments ever: I would like to be a cactus into the ass of art.)

Jean Tinguely in Milly-la-Foret, uses found material to create sculptures and machines. His garden is dominated by a gigantic one-eyed Cyclops.

Roland Dutel in Dieulefit has transformed his farm into a sculpture garden.

Franck Barrett, in Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, was a former medium and clairvoyant. He has filled his house with clay sculptures of monsters and supernatural images. (I wish he could meet Annie Hooper – hell meets heaven!)

Jean Prosper Gillis, near Bergerac, created brightly painted cement animals in his garden. Elephants and tigers cohabit with dogs and snakes.

Jacques Warminksi in Saint-Georges-des-Sept-Voies has sculpted incredible, swirly, cave dwellings from cement. His intention is to have visitors experience the unity of inner and outer worlds. Looks cool.

Bodan Litnianski in Viry-Noureuil, restored his house with found material, like glass and shells. Pillars are created with waste objects that caught his eye, including dolls, plastic toys, and batteries. Hmm. Photos look remarkably like an episode of the Hoarders…

Charles Billy (former corset maker) in Civrieus-d’Azergues created a small city of Asian and medieval-style buildings in his yard. Dutch windmills sit next to Thai castles.

Fernand Chatelain in Fye, created a garden of creatures from chicken wire, newspaper and cement. If he were alive, I would take Clyde Jones (North Carolina) to meet him!

Emile Taugourdeau in Thoree-les-Pins, France, started his cement sculpture garden when he decided to immortalize his pet duck when it died in 1974. The garden now looks somewhat like Noah’s ark before they boarded.

The list goes on (and on). Buy the book!

The art of being a voyeur

After writing about Larry Williams, it’s time to talk about voyeurism. Although voyeurism used to be all about the sexual thrill of spying on someone engaged in an intimate act, our culture has taken it to a new level. No longer is the subject unaware of our eyes upon him. In fact, the subject invites us into his world, strange as it may be. Who’s getting the thrill now – us or them? As Long John Baldry says, a thrill’s a thrill.

I confessed earlier to watching a few (ok, 5) episodes of The Hoarders because I was struck by the similarities of their stories to those of outsider artists. They could pinpoint the moment when the hoarding began. But there are even stranger behaviours being filmed for our entertainment – addictions you can’t even imagine that people foster. Although I still have a sense of discomfort watching these people wrestling with their personal demons, I have to remind myself that they have agreed to be onstage for the world to view, to ridicule, to denigrate. Why do they agree to this? Does money change hands? My point is that we no longer feel shame in casually observing what used to be a closely held secret.

But what about people who haven’t agreed to their most intimate creations being put on the market for sale, for display, for exhibit? I often think about two of my outsider art heroes – Morton Bartlett and Henry Darger – who worked in secret their whole lives. Their artwork sprung from intimate and personal stories that only they had heard before. As Renaldo Kuhler says – I am Rocaterrania. Maybe they thought their rooms would be cleared out and deposited in a dumpster when they died. I sometimes wonder if they held on to their collection because they didn’t care if anyone saw it. Or maybe they just couldn’t part with it. I don’t know.

So, what have I concluded after all this self-flagellation about being a voyeur? I have sidestepped the issue by focusing on the art. I say, “Why should the world be deprived of another Mona Lisa?” And it makes it a lot easier that these two artists are dead. I don’t have to look anyone in the eye and account for myself. But in the case of living artists who choose to be reclusive, whose “artworks” are only intended for their eyes… maybe it’s best to honour their privacy. They don’t think of it as art, but rather an intimate conversation with themselves. It’s akin to therapy. If it were me, I wouldn’t want anyone listening in on my therapy sessions and then speculating about the stories I tell to heal myself.

Visionary artist Larry Williams

I learned about Larry Williams in an edition of Raw Vision magazine when author Laura Thompkins let us into Williams’s private world. Her interest in his work was, I suspect, the first time anyone had recognized his paintings as “art” or acknowledged that they were remarkable.    Williams lives in a small town in the interior of British Columbia, Canada. He has chosen to live a reclusive sort of existence “outside the world” as he calls it. His stated purpose is to live as simply as possible, and that he does. He has only two of items that he would need if someone came to visit – two plates, two cups, two knives, two forks, two spoons. Other than an old TV that plays a few channels, he has no other electronic gadgets. No watch, no clock, no radio. With the wilderness close by, the wild animals and forest inform his life. He has never seen an art book and has no knowledge of other artists.

Williams had a harsh childhood. His mother died when he was 11 and he was left to care for his invalid father. He turned to alcohol when he was 12 and began creating his own inner world. He still dwells, he says, in his “innerness”. His inspiration for painting began in the most unusual way. He developed a technique of staring into the sun; after the blackness came an explosion of beautiful colours, which formed the basis of his art. His work began with cheap felt pens on found cardboard. He never thought to sign his paintings because he doesn’t consider himself an artist.

I have only one photo to show you. When asked to describe his work, Williams said it is about innerness – the eye within. His third eye is a critical part of his artistic process. If you
happen to pick up the spring/summer 2011 edition of Raw Vision, you can see an amazing collection of his work. It is freestyle, colourful, and tranquil.

Williams’s artwork came to the attention of  Gallery Gachet – a Vancouver centre for dissident and visionary artists. He was reluctant to attend his own exhibit, but did come into town to experience the event. Sadly, Thompkins told me that Williams has not picked up a paintbrush since then. I have often worried about exposing artwork that was not intended for our eyes. Is this what happens when we do?

In my own ‘hood

It's all a matter of happenstance

A funny thing happened (as all good stories start) when I went out to buy coffee from a shop at the end of my street. I was in line  behind two people who were buying coffee. I settled in for a long wait while  they answered a long list of questions to prepare their perfect brew.   “Yes or  no” to regular, decaf, size, kind of milk, whipped or not, toppings,  temperature, and on it goes. You know the routine.

An unlikely protector

I gave myself up to daydreaming, and noticed that I was standing before a box of small artworks, along with a donation box. The style  was unmistakably outsider. I took some time to shuffle though the collection of  8 x 12s and was quite impressed with what I saw.

Two or three hours later, when it was finally my turn to order coffee, I asked the young woman making coffee who had done the artwork. She looked surprised, but told me she was the artist. Lucky me. She didn’t know, of course, but I went through my outsider-art-verification-checklist and she scored a perfect 10/10.

My questions went something like this… and Megan’s answers:

Q:  Are you an artist?

A:  No. It’s just something I’ve always done.

Q:  Have you ever studied art?

A:  No.

Q:  Have you ever tried to sell your

A:  No. I just had so much stuff at home
that I thought I might try to sell some prints.

Q:  What materials do you use?

A:  I like to use crayon pencils and felt
markers. (Sound familiar?)

Q:  Have you ever heard of outsider

A:  No

Q:  Well, you are one.

Here’s what caught my attention with Megan’s artwork.  At first sight, it looked like Scottie Wilson’s  work – swirly, organic doodles that fill the entire canvas. (See 3 earlier blog postings.) The more you look, the  more you see. Beautiful balance of colours. Fine details. Cross-hatching. Playful  images. Hidden figures.

I found Megan’s site:
and was pleased to read her own artist’s statement. Here are some statements  she makes, which I know will sound familiar to you:

–  Drawing  was a huge part of my identity growing up.

–  I  draw every day, I draw while music is on. I draw while I’m talking to people  … I draw when I’m happy, I draw when I’m sad.  I draw after a long day at work, I draw on my day off.  Just like when I was a kid, I don’t think too hard about why I feel so driven to do it. I just let it happen.

–  If I  make something now, I’d prefer to give it away if someone likes it. And when I  make a drawing for a person that doesn’t know they’re getting one – I couldn’t  care if they never hung it up and it lived out its life in a closet or in the  garbage. It’s just art. It’s just a bunch of pen on some paper that felt  satisfying for my hand and eyes to make.

This last image:
Q: Scottie or Megan?
A: Scottie

I know that Megan would enjoy sitting down for a tete-a-tete with Scottie Wilson if he were alive. Although I don’t think either of them would want to talk about their artwork, I suspect they would recognize a kindred spirit. I wonder what they would talk about? Maybe nothing at all.

The Morton Bartlett exhibit in Berlin


Back to the remarkable Morton Bartlett (see earlier posting). I first saw Bartlett’s work at the Outsider Art Fair in NYC in 2010 – Marion Harris owns the collection.  In his very private life, between 1936 to 1963, Bartlett created sculptures of half-size-to-scale children and made the clothes to dress them – from frocks and hand-knit sweaters for the girls to shorts and caps for the boys. The aim of Bartlett’s remarkable project seems to have been to photograph his children doing things that ordinary children do. But we’ll never know for sure. His work was done entirely in private, and only became public after he died in 1992.

The Bartlett collection is being exhibited in Berlin from May to September. The Bahnhof Museum has an incredible 2-year exhibit underway, called Secret Universe. Every 4 months, the exhibit will profile the work of 6 outsider artists who created their work secretly.  The children-sculptures, along with the photographs will be on display.

This video clip, called Family Found tells you more about Bartlett than I can:

This 9-minute clip, takes you to Bartlett’s large family home in Boston, where he lived on only one floor, making and photographing his imaginary family of 15 children. Marion talks about how she found his collection of photographs, negatives, and dolls at an estate sale. Kahlil Gibran, a downstairs neighbour of Bartlett, talks about the reclusive artist, and what they remember of his private life. His photos, not the dolls, were the whole point of his creation about loss and yearning. As one interviewee expresses, we are thankful that Marion was there to appreciate the worth of Bartlett’s collection. Indeed. Thank you, Marion.