Monthly Archives: November 2013

Emery Blagdon’s healing machine

I have seen a lot of things in the outsider art world. I like some things; I don’t like others. But some works are mind-blowing and beautiful. Such are the creations of Emery Blagdon’s healing machines, on exhibit at the Kohler Arts Center.

Emery Blagdon (1907-1986) grew up in Nebraska. He inherited an uncle’s farm in 1955 and set about to harness the earth’s energies. Both of his parents had died from cancer and Blagdon hoped he might discover how to cure pain and illness. He began building healing machines in the barn, using scraps of wire, metal, beads, foil, vial of dirt, and mirrors. He worked continuously on this project for the next 30 years.

The healing machines were later installed in an adjoining shed that could house the entire machine. (See photo below.) He invited people in to receive the healing powers of his creation.

In 1975, Blagdon went to a pharmacy in search of “elements” to add to his machine. Pharmacist, Dan Dryden, was curious about Blagdon’s project and went out to the farm to see it himself. He (obviously) was astonished, and followed Blagdon’s progress for the rest of his life. Dryden moved away, but 11 years later on a return trip to Nebraska, he discovered that Blagdon has recently died. (Sadly, he died of cancer.) The farm and the healing machine were up for auction. To keep the entire work intact, Dryden and a friend purchased it. Parts of it were occasionally exhibited nationally and internationally, but the bulk of it was stored for 18 years.  In 2004, the Kohler Foundation took over the entire masterpiece and it is now part of its permanent collection.

It is hard to describe what it’s like to walk through a room of Blagdon’s creations. The magnitude of the project is awe-inspiring. The intricacy and shimmer of the hanging pieces are as beautiful as chandeliers. The room is quiet as visitors gaze at the magical display, swaying ever-so-slightly, as someone walks by. It feels like a sacred place.


Ray Yoshida at The Kohler Arts Center


Intuit: the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, organized a bus trip to Sheboygan, Wisconsin to visit the Kohler Arts Center. Kohler’s current exhibit is called Yoshida’s Museum of Extraordinary Values. Here is a short bio about Chicago artist, Ray Yoshida:

Ray Yoshida (1930–2009) taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for nearly four decades and had an indelible influence on generations of artists, including the Chicago Imagists. With his guidance, students learned to look beyond the confines of Western art, to explore source material that would propel their work into something unique to their experience. Whether it involved examining form in the array of African masks at The Field Museum, contemplating color in the weird and wonderful treasures at Maxwell Street Market, or understanding line in the works of self-taught artist Joseph Yoakum, Yoshida’s idea was to instinctively follow the eye to whatever ignited artistic sensibilities.

Yoshida was an obsessive collector of many, many things. His entire collection was on display in his home – lining shelves, on the walls, on the floor. Yoshida considered Chicago to be a city of objects and images, all of which triggered creative ideas. He encouraged his students to look and value objects and works of art in a new way, even if they were not appreciated by the art community. He removed folk art, manufactured goods, fine art and tribal pieces from their usual context and placed them on display in his home. “Once “rescued” into his home, the previous lives of the objects dissipated, new interpretations arose, and exciting conversations ensued.”

When Yoshida died in 2009, the Kohler Arts Center received the contents of his home – 2,600 objects and works of art. They are displayed in the museum as they were in his home. Over 60 of Yoshida’s own paintings are incorporated into the exhibit.  It challenges visitors to study their daily surroundings, be “voracious observers”, and train the eye to see everything. That is what sparks creativity.

Here is some of Yoshida’s own artwork:




Hello Canadians in Chicago!

I have to take a minute to say hello to my fellow Canadians in Chicago. I have met so many who have arrived at Intuit on a quest to see Outsider Art. It is heartening to know that I am not the only one in Canada who is interested in the subject. And it confirms that my research endeavours will not go unnoticed when it comes time to reveal the work of Canadian artists.

My colleagues at Intuit are a bit suspicious about why so many Canadians come into the Center when I am there.  I don’t know either, but it was delightful to meet every one of you.

There aren’t many of us, but we’re taking over the art world, eh?

Outside the outsiders – Joe Coleman in Chicago


If you have read my previous blog, you will know that I am in Chicago, spending some time with Intuit: the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. Every year Intuit has a Visionary Ball – an art auction to raise funds for their not-for-profit organization. Artwork for auction is donated by generous members and supporting galleries. This year’s visionary award winner was Ann Nathan, who has been collecting outsider art even before it was recognized as art. She was commemorated for her leadership role in establishing Intuit and for increasing our knowledge and appreciation of self-taught and outsider artists.

Ann Nathan has always championed the work of Joe Coleman, a very well-known and controversial New York outsider artist. Coleman was at the Ball to give his thanks to Nathan for her unflagging support. I never thought I would have the opportunity to meet Coleman, but there he was, standing around with everyone else, shooting the breeze, getting his photo taken, and having a lot of fun. I don’t find it easy to engage in small-talk, especially with strangers, but I plucked up enough courage to introduce myself and ask him a few questions. He is an absolutely delightful person – warm, friendly, direct, and engaging.

Coleman spends a lot of time praising Nathan for her support. He says his work would have gone unrecognized had it not been for her vision and persistence. She introduced the art world to his work with an exhibit where nothing was for sale; she simply asked the public to stop and take note of his work. Like all outsider artists, Coleman has no interest in marketing or promoting his work. He only wants to make it. He is as absorbed in his work as every other artist I have met. Having achieved international recognition does not seem to have affected his work or style.

I asked Coleman about the big scandal at the New York Outsider Art Fair a few years ago. (See my earlier blog about this.) Coleman was “kicked out” of the Fair because was “too commercial.” In other words, he had gone from outsider to insider (that is, part of the commercial art world) in the committee’s view. Coleman smiled and rolled his eyes at this question. He thought it was funny and ironic that he was outside the outsiders now! We wondered where that put him. Is there a name for the outside-the-outsider category? I don’t think he has thought about it much since it happened. He doesn’t care what’s going on as long as he is able to create his art.

I also asked Coleman for his thoughts on the decision to include outsider artists in the Venice Biennale this year. He had some definite views on that. Coleman thinks that outsider art is the new and trendy thing in the art world. He views this action as just another move for the commercial world to cash in on the next trend. He might be right.

He also wished me luck in introducing the art world to Canadian outsider art. It is nice to have his good wishes.


Reporting from the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago

Intuit: Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art

Intuit: Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art

If you have not seen a new blog posting for some time, it’s because I am in Chicago now, doing an internship at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

If you are a Canadian reader, you know that there is no dialogue about outsider art in Canada. In fact, my motivation in starting this blog and entering graduate studies was to understand and document outsider art activities in Canada. I suffer from a lack of outsider art colleagues in Canada and I wanted to be in an environment where I was immersed in outsider art culture. So, a few emails later, the kind folks at Intuit in Chicago invited me to spend some time at their organization. I arrived one week ago.

Chicago is THE centre for outsider art in North America. Its roots go back as far as Jean Dubuffet’s post-war lecture in Chicago – Anticultural Positions – where he declared:  “Personally I believe very much in values of savagery; I mean: instinct, passion, mood, violence, madness.” The private collections of outsider art in this city are enormous, or so I’ve heard. I am just on the brink of discovering them for myself. I hit the jackpot.

Intuit is a not-for-profit art centre. Not only do they exhibit outsider art, they are dedicated to educating the public
about it:

Established in 1991, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art (Intuit) is the only nonprofit organization in the United States that is dedicated solely to presenting self-taught and outsider art — with world class exhibitions; resources for scholars and students; a Permanent Collection with holdings of more than 1,100 works of art; the Henry Darger Room Collection; the Robert A. Roth Study Center, a non-circulating collection with a primary focus in the fields of outsider and contemporary self-taught art; and educational programming for people of all interest levels and backgrounds.

The most interesting thing happened on my first day at Intuit. Two groups of Canadian tourists walked in to see the current exhibit. I was as surprised to meet them as they were to meet me. Then yesterday another Canadian visitor came in. The best news is that there are Canadians who are interested in exploring outsider art. Sadly, they have to come to the USA to find them. (That will all change once we get our act together. Right, Canada?)

Eddie Harris in his garden. Photo by Cheri Eisenberg

One exhibit at Intuit is of Chicago artist, Eddie Harris. It is called It Takes a Hard Heart. Harris, 78, has been living in Chicago for nearly 50 years. His work reflects the black experience of living in the US. As a child, he picked cotton in Arkansas; as an adult he supported the Black Panther Party. His varied work of bas-relief wood carvings, carved and painted canes; paintings; pencil drawings; and community garden at his home speak to his belief in the inseparability of art, political activism and the search for beauty.


The other current exhibit is the work of Albert “Kid” Mertz (1905 – 1988) is called OHYOUKIDMERTZ. Mertz, once a prize-fighter and autoworker, lived in Michigan. When he retired, he started creating signs with off-beat sayings. The signs are painted on found material: cardboard, wood, shovels, old shoe soles… you get the idea. Some signs will make you laugh out loud and some will make you pause and think, yeah, he is so right.

Intuit also houses a recreation of Henry Darger’s one-room apartment in Chicago, where he lived for 40 years. His living and working space was crammed with paint, tracings, magazines, newspapers, comic books, children’s books, colouring books, broken eyeglasses, religious icons, fixtures, and balls of twine. It’s hard to know where to look first. The intention was to provide a window into Darger’s world. For those of you don’t yet know Darger’s work, it’s worth spending the time to explore his world. His 15,000 page story of the Vivian Girls, which his magnificent artwork illustrates, was written in this tiny, claustrophobic room.