Monthly Archives: April 2012

William Anhang – playing with light


I’ve never met anyone quite like Bill Anhang. He is an octogenarian living in  Montreal, and has a long and interesting life-story to tell. He moved here from Poland with his parents in the 1940s and was, as he describes it, a typical Polish farm boy. After attending university in Winnipeg, he did his stint as an engineer in Canada and Israel.

Bill had no exposure to art, other than looking at another university student’s collection of drawings. It wasn’t until he took his own children to a demonstration of copper enameling that he was inspired to create works of his own. The pivotal point, it seems, is when a Guru told Bill to be an artist. He felt he had no option but to become an artist, and so he abandoned engineering and began his new life. That was around 1975, and he’s been experimenting with copper, painting, and fibre optics ever since.

The art on Bill’s website doesn’t show at its best, and I imagine it’s a dazzling experience to walk into his space. He hangs his artwork everywhere in Billsville, including the ceiling.

Bill’s art is a collaborative process because it is so complex. He designs an image and hands it over to assistants who help him execute the work. Glen Luckock and Mark Reid have been working with Bill for a long time. They paint the image on board, then Bill drills hundreds of holes into it and wires it with fibre optics. He talks about fractal designs in his work. (I had to look up the meaning of “fractal” and still don’t understand the mathematical explanation.) I can’t imagine anyone but an engineer being able to do this kind of work. He is eccentric, but he is brilliant. This Youtube video gives you a peek into Bill’s world.


Bill has a series of work called “Bill Illuminates Crepin”. Joseph Crepin (1875 – 1945) was a businessman in France, who discovered that he had powers of a divine healer. He produced drawings while in a trance-like state, and believed that he could end World War II by creating 300 paintings. Crepin’s works (directly above) are flat(ish) images, brightly coloured, and covered in paint dots. Bill has always admired Crepin’s work and his series is just as described – it is a fibre optic version of Crepin’s creations.


Another series is called “Bill Illuminates Mandelbrot”.  Again, I had to research something else in Billsville. Who or what is a Mandelbrot? Here’s what I learned from Wiki: The Mandelbrot set is a mathematical set of points whose boundary is a distinctive and easily recognizable two-dimensional fractal shape (directly above).The set is named after the mathematician, Benoit Mandelbrot, who studied and popularized it. Oh. I can’t comment on this remarkable piece of information because I don’t understand it, but I do love the images. Perhaps it will make more sense to some of you.

It isn’t possible to talk to Bill about his art without discussing God. Bill’s faith drives his work. He believes that preachers have had their day, and now it’s up to the artists to use whatever tools they can do to convey the message that there is another level of existence. Art is the light of the infinite and Bill is one of its conduits.



Meeting Menno Krant

Sometimes you’re just lucky. I sent Menno Krant an email out of the blue last week, and we set up a time to talk on the phone.  I realized when I started talking to him that it was a rare event for him to (1) talk to someone making inquiries about his art, and (2) talk on the phone.  I understood his dilemma. I would be happy if I could use a pay phone up the street if it meant I didn’t have to answer my own phone at home, but alas, phone booths are disappearing fast. (A friend of mine says they are all in Tofino, BC now.)

Menno has an incredible story. About 20 years ago, when he was in his early 40s, Menno was homeless, and lived in his car for a year. Time dragged and he started to doodle while he sat in the car in the dark. Later he started painting with anything on hand, and on any discarded material he could find, like cereal boxes and cigarette packages. He thinks he must have always been creative, but never had the opportunity to express himself artistically. His life turned on a dime (two weeks, actually) when a friend of his took a couple of his paintings to sell at a flea market. Gallerist Joy Moos saw them, bought a few, and took them to outsider art shows. The next thing he knew, his work was in high demand and many exhibits followed.

Menno stays away from the commerce of the art world. He doesn’t like to go to his own exhibits, he doesn’t like publicity, and he doesn’t like most art dealers. There are very few pictures of him on the Internet. His neighbours don’t know he is an artist.  Other artists don’t like him, he says, because they struggled for years to “make it” and he arrived on the scene without paying his dues. He doesn’t care. Whatever. He wants to be left alone to paint.

What is his life like? He paints all day, every day. His choice of materials is still random (to me). He uses whatever paint is at hand, and whatever recycled materials are around. The day we spoke he had been busy painting cigarette boxes before I called. Painting is vital to him. It’s self-nurturing.

Menno tries to stay out of the public eye. His website was created and is maintained by a friend. He has no interest in its existence. He just wants to paint. He doesn’t want money for his paintings because he doesn’t want his lifestyle to change. He is doing exactly what he wants to do, which is to paint. He hates it when people ask him what his paintings are “about”. He just wants to paint. Painting for him is playing and experimenting and through that process, he grows artistically. If it  isn’t clear already – he just wants to paint. Every day. He has thousands of paintings in his home.

In addition to talking about the artistic process, we shared a few amusing stories. I told him about other outsider artists that I had met, and he told me about the day a busload of senior citizens turned up unannounced on his doorstep to see his art. (He left and went out for coffee.) We agreed that we had both learned a lot. Menno about other outsider artists. Me about him, and what it’s like to have a compulsion to paint.

Who is Menno Krant? A guy who wants to paint.




Who said we’re boring?

Someone (actually, it was me) announced that the art scene is boring north of the  49th. I was wrong. I have hit the jackpot and unearthed ten more outsider artists working away here in Canada. One find leads to another and I was lucky enough to learn about an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Mississauga, called “Outside Coming In – A State of Freedom – Canadian Outsider Art.” The exhibit was curated by Duncan Farnan in 2006. There is very little documentation about this exhibit, but I do have a tiny catalogue with a photo  of each artist’s work. I am hoping to get more details in the future.

Here are the artists included in the exhibit:

  1. Anonymous
  2. Bill Anhang and Glenn Luckock
  3. Stanko Anicic
  4. Thomas Canning
  5. Manuel Da Rosa
  6. Richard Greaves
  7. Menno Krant
  8. Sorgente Palmerino
  9. Alma Rumball
  10. Rocky
  11. Jahan Maka (see earlier blog)
  12. Scottie Wilson (see earlier blog)

I started by contacting Menno Krant, and what an incredible talk we had. Details to follow in a subsequent post.

Guo Fengyi comes to Vancouver


I find it hard to stay on track and write about only Canadian outsider artists. The world is an (art) playground for me.  So, a quick detour to a Chinese artist, Guo Fengyi (1942 – 2010), who had an exhibit at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver last month. Guo Fengyi  came to world attention when she participated in the 2002 Long March Space – a Walking Visual Display – in Beijing. Since then, her work has been exhibited in Lyon, Taipei, Prague, Yokohama and VANCOUVER!

Guo Fengyi was involved in Qigong, a Chinese health maintenance practice that cultivates qi energy throughout the body as a way to alleviate illness. She also studied mysticism and it was during that time that she began having powerful visions that she felt compelled to put on paper. It was her way to balance her body and the spiritual world. She has been drawing since the age of 47. Her biography notes that the subject matter of her drawings “comes from traditional Chinese systems of thought, cosmology, acupuncture energy maps, divination, sage kings, geomancy and dynastic grave sites – all of which have become dispensable in modernizing China.” She preserves the “cultural memories” of Chinese society.”

The sheer size of Guo Fengyi’s work is impressive. She mainly worked on long scrolls of paper (some of them 16 ft long). The works in the exhibit were typically 2 x 10 ft vertical hangings, attached to the wall with push -pins. I cringe at the thought of trying to preserve these fragile works of art. The drawings are delicate and finely drawn in black ink and coloured pencil. You would need a magnifying glass and many hours to pour over the detail of each piece. The pieces are right-side-up and upside-down at the same time, covered in scrolls, faces, swirled patterns. The entire effect is hard to describe. Have a look at the Long March Space website and see for yourself.

Guo Fengyi talks about her work in a video. She says that people in  China don’t like her drawings. They are superstitious and wonder why she is in contact with the spirit world. “To them I am a monster,” she says. Guo Fengyi paints and draws until she gets a person’s “essence” on paper, and no two people are alike. She does not know people by looking at them; she knows them by drawing them.

The explanation that Guo Fengyi gives for her work reminds me a little of Madge Gill (1882-1961), a mediumistic artist, who is highly regarded in the outsider art world. After a long and severe illness, Gill was ‘possessed’ by Myrninerest, her spirit-guide, who directed her drawing for the rest of her life. Guo Fengyi does not speak of the spirit world in such a direct way. Rather, she explains it as getting messages from beyond that encourage her to continue her art work. As always, I was struck by the “normalcy” of this artist as she talked about her own work. She is certainly in touch with “something”, whether it is the spirit world or her own essence.







The outsider artist – Madonna or whore?

I’ve been having a lively exchange with Canadian artist, Leigh Cooney. (More about Cooney in another blog.) The discussion began with a question about how he categorizes his art. (He has  taken himself off the “outsider” list and placed himself in the “Pop Folk”  category.) Do artists label their own work, or is that something imposed by others?  This led to a discussion about the “purity test” for outsider artists.

One of my first blogs was about who is “outside” and who is not, and it seems that I am still wrestling with that fundamental question.

Who is a “pure” outsider – a Madonna – in the world of commercial art? They used to be only those poor souls locked up in mental institutions, but now  they walk among us. The editors of Raw Vision support the purist view. They  regret the use of the “outsider artist” label to just anyone who is self-taught. It’s not about clumsiness or naiveté. Outsider art, they say, is “synonymous with Art Brut in both spirit and  meaning, to that rarity of art produced by those who do not know its name.”

Here’s the conundrum. As Cooney points out, the purposes of outsider art fairs and galleries are to bring attention to the work of outsider artists, living or dead. But does plucking outsider artists from obscurity cause them to lose the purity and naiveté that made them outsiders in the first place?  Are pure outsider artists only those who don’t know they are outsider artists?  What happens when others scrutinize their work and tell them they are real artists?

And then there are the bad boys (and girls) of the outsider art world, like Joe Coleman. Coleman is one of the BIG success stories  in the outsider art world. He is well known, prolific, produces remarkable art, and is very, very good at marketing his work. He used to be an outsider before  he was stripped of his title. He had been exhibiting at the Outsider Art Fair in NYC for 6 years. Then, in 2003, he was barred from the fair because it was discovered he had done a stint at art school (actually, he was thrown out), thereby removing him from the self-taught category. Coleman has another version of the story. He says he was ostracized for being “too aware of the whole business process of selling” his work. “They seem to want to promote an art in which they’re dealing with people who are either emotionally or physically incapable of protecting themselves. Or dead.” Writer,  Jesse Walker, notes that Coleman is not the only artist in the fair with such a background.  Alex Grey, for example, teaches art!

I like the way Walker has summed up the controversy:

The conflict is important for a different reason: because it exposes certain assumptions about “primitive” art. One reason outsider art is increasingly popular is because it seems so unmediated, as though it tumbled directly from the creator’s mind onto the canvas. The  discovery that the creator actually guided its fall with some skills—skills, worse yet, that he deliberately honed—can feel like a betrayal, at least for those who’ve romanticized the artist as an untutored primitive without any self-awareness.

Do outsider artists turn into whores of the art world when they achieve recognition through marketing?   Not necessarily. Not unless they take the next step and start pandering to their audience. We have enough artists who produce paintings to match the couch. They are the ones, in my opinion, who have sold their souls for fortune and fame.