Monthly Archives: January 2013

The one trick pony



Photos: Gregory Crewdson, August Walla,  Cindy Sherman

Sometimes people ask me about certain outsider artists. They comment that all his/her work looks the same and ask if the artist ever does anything different. I usually comment on the artist’s signature “style” and leave it at that. (But I certainly know what they mean.. some of it does look remarkably alike.)

One of my favourite photographers is Gregory Crewdson, who creates elaborately staged scenes of small town America. I recently saw a documentary about him, called Brief Encounter. When talking about his own work, Crewdson remarks that every artist has one story to tell and he tells it over and over again. The images may be different, but the story is the same.

Is this true?  I decided to watch some interviews with artists that I admire to see what they had to say about the body of their work. Kara Walker was quite explicit about the narrative of her work. Her silhouettes of Deep South slavery scenes are instantly recognizable, but she describes them as being about an exchange of power. And sculptor Kiki Smith describes her work as being about morbidity.  Walker talked about her experience of being an African American female artist and Smith talked about death masks of family members being around the house when she was growing up. It made perfect sense how and why their personal narratives were so integral to their artwork.

This pattern is even more exaggerated in the world of outsider art. I look back to Kuhler’s Roccaterrania where justice is done in his fantasy world. Darger’s children avenge evil adults. Morton Bartlett mourned the absence of children in his solitary life. The artists’ styles are consistent, and little is done to explore other ways to represent that theme. Why is that? Perhaps they are not interested in exploring other techniques. Or maybe it doesn’t matter to them. Their artwork is for themselves, not the public, so there is no need for Kuhler, for example, to find a new way to represent “justice.” The story is of primary importance, not the image.

I can only think of one outsider artist who has explored a variety of artistic methods – August Walla, an artist at Gugging in Austria. He collects and converts trash, he does calligraphy, and he paints. He installs symbols and signs in the landscape, on trees, and on roads. He poses for photographs in different places, with self-produced objects in different places. (Wait a minute, haven’t we heard this before? See photos above.)

What other outsider artists use a variety of techniques and styles in their work?




The colourful 5 percent


I just returned from a trip to Whitehorse, Yukon Territories, in Canada. For those of you who live far, far away, and don’t know the geography of Canada, I was waaay up north. I thought I was close to the Arctic Circle, but on closer inspection of a map, I realized that I wasn’t quite that far on top of the globe.  Anyway, I went there to find out what it would be like to be in a place that was dark all day and to see the Northern Lights. (Yeah, I know.)

The truth is often surprising. In fact, it was NOT dark all day, but the day was short. The sun peaked over the mountains around 10:30 a.m., which is a helluva good time to wake up anyway. The sun made a shallow arc through the sky, and set around 4:30 p.m. And the sky was brilliantly blue all day. For someone who craves sunshine, it was a good place to visit.

Tales are tall in the North Country. I seemed to have arrived in a “heat wave” and daytime temperatures were a moderate -12 degrees Celsius. It dipped to -27 degrees around 2:00 in the morning the night I stayed up to watch (look for) the northern lights. In my mind, I would experience a psychedelic light show every night, from the confines of a warm cabin with a fire, but alas, it didn’t happen that way. In fact, the lights are sometimes elusive, and all I saw was a white strip that grew across the horizon around midnight. When photographed, the light showed up green (for reasons that were explained to me, but didn’t understand). I have photographs of me standing in front of some version of the aurora borealis, but it wasn’t really like that in reality. I will have to return another time for the full blown experience. However, I did get to go dog-sledding and that, is something that EVERYONE should do at least once in their lifetime! It was more fun that I have words to explain.

I was told that the month before, in December, the temperature dropped to -57 Celsius in a near-by town, but another local told me that it dipped to -67 degrees! I have no idea if this was truth or hyperbole, but I was happy to have arrived in the tropical season.

What does this have to do with outsider art? Well, forever on the search for outsider artists, I asked a few locals if they knew of any people who were a little out-of-the-ordinary, and created artwork, in private, in their homes. This question always got a similar answer: “You’re talking about just about everyone who lives here!” I learned that Yukoners call themselves “the colourful 5%” because they are the 5% of the Canadian population who live up north because they don’t fit in with the rest of the population. Well, this is the perfect breeding ground for outsider artists, but I didn’t manage to identify anyone who was the type of artist I was seeking. But I know they live there.

So, if any of my readers can provide me with further details, I’ll follow up. Thanks.


The Art Room

Computer problems. Need I say more? Finally back on track.

After  learning about the Coast Mental Health Association’s art workshop in Vancouver, I wandered into the space – called the Art Room – to see what it was all about. There were about 6 men in the room, sitting around a large table. Several were painting, one was socializing, and one was flipping through magazines to get some ideas for a new painting. I was greeted warmly and invited to join the group. Professional artist, Jeanne Krabbendam, volunteers at the Art Room. She was available to answer questions, like how to paint shadows on a geometric design, but does not “teach” the group or guide their work. She had some curious onlookers when she picked up her own paintbrush and doodled a design on an old canvas. The atmosphere was pleasant and fun, and I got the impression that the group enjoyed being together as much as they enjoyed doing artwork.

I chatted with one regular artist, who dropped by for a visit. The others were quick to advise me that he was a talented  sculptor and carver. They kept saying, “You gotta see his stuff!” When I asked if this were so, he modestly agreed that he enjoyed doing his artwork and said that he had hundreds of pieces at his home. I asked if he had any pieces at the workshop. “No.” I asked if I might be able to see some of his work. “No,” but with a smile. I have had that reaction so many times that I wasn’t offended. So many “outsiders” are protective of their privacy and keep their creative endeavours behind locked doors. Maybe one day I’ll get to see one of his pieces. Or maybe not.

One artist, Leef Evans, was gathering some of his own work to take to an exhibit (photo above). I had seen one of his pieces before but was not aware that he was so prolific or so gifted.  Before taking up painting, Leef led a fragmented and chaotic life on the streets. His life was consumed by depression, which landed him in the hospital for long periods of time. He says that if he did not find the Art Room and this community of artists, he cannot imagine where he would be now. To meet Leef at this juncture in his life, it is hard to imagine what he describes of his past. He is open, kind, funny and dedicated to his art. Leef has a loyal and supportive group of collectors and has made quite a name for himself in the Vancouver art world. It is well deserved.