Best of show – Morton Bartlett

I had arranged to meet Marion Harris, a NY dealer in untraditional art and antiques, at the Outsider Art Fair. She was exhibiting drawings of my friend, Ian McKay, and I promised to see the display and take some photos.

Meeting Marion was worth the trip to the Fair. She has an eye for the exquisite and is one of those people with whom I would be happy to be stranded on a desert island. And she has a heart the size of the moon. I was surprised to learn that Marion discovered the work of Morton Bartlett, one of my outsider art heroes. I had a chance to see a collection of 12 enlarged black and white photographs, made directly from negatives that were found in Bartlett’s collection.

Morton Bartlett (1909 – 1992) was born, an only child, in Chicago and became an orphan at the age of 8. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard, where he studied for two years and left without graduating. It is thought that the Depression interrupted his studies. He then worked in a series of jobs, from advertising photographer, gas station manager, and travelling furniture salesman. He did not study art professionally and never married.

In his very private life, between 1936 to 1963, Bartlett created 15 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. Except for an interview he gave to Yankee Magazine in 1962, his work was done entirely in private. His work only became public after he died in 1992.

Bartlett was a plaster-sculpting hobbyist who consulted his collection of anatomy and costume books and children’s growth charts in the creation of his intricately detailed pieces.  Apparently it took him 50 hours to create a head, and a year to complete each body. They were posed in dreamy states – reading books, snuggled in bed – or playful scenarios like dancing or playing with a dog. But why did he do this? Of course we’ll never know, but the art historians speculate that he simply created the family he wanted but never had. His photo album is testament to their existence.

Bartlett’s photo collection is mesmerizing and beautiful. At first glance, they appear to be photographs of real children, except… something’s not quite right. The children are so studied and still – that’s the only way I can describe them.  It’s touching to see the photograph of a crying baby, but it’s also a bit heartbreaking.  His children are set in plaster and frozen in time. They will never squirm out of focus. They will never grow up. But they were loved; there is no doubt of that.