Palmerino Sorgente (Papa Palmerino, the Pope of Montreal) immigrated to Montreal from Italy where he supported his large family through various ventures. He had a vision in 1970, where the Virgin Mary told him that he was the Pope and his mission was to serve God. Sorgente opened an eccentric shop filled with hand-made and purchased religious artifacts.
To those who remember him, Sorgente didn’t think he was the Pope; he was the Pope. He struck a regal posture in his home-made capes, hats, and religious medallions. Customers came to receive his blessing and pray with him in the prayer room at the back of his shop. He was a prolific creator of jewel-studded hats, some of which reached 6 feet in height.
Scottie Wilson is an internationally-known Canadian outsider artist. Like all outsider artists, Wilson took a circuitous route to creating his art. He was born in London in 1888, moved to Glasgow, and left school at age 8 to sell newspapers and patent medicines on the street. He served in WWI and it is believed he deserted the Black and Tans in Ireland because he could not, in good conscience, carry out their orders. Nothing else is known about Wilson until he turned up in Toronto, Canada 13 years later, in the 1930s. He eked out a living by selling odds and ends in a Toronto junk shop. He collected fountain pens, which he sold in his shop or stripped for gold. His life changed while doodling with one of his fountain pens one day; he found he couldn’t stop drawing the faces and shapes that flowed from his pen.
Wilson died in 1972. Although he complained of poverty his entire life, a suitcase full of money was found under his bed after his death, as well as large sums of money in various bank accounts.
Roland Wilkie was born in Montreal, Quebec. His life was marked by the trauma of his little sister’s death, life in foster homes, a childhood of physical and sexual abuse, and complete lack of education. Violence, prostitution, and drugs dominated his teenage years.
Wilkie was ultimately confined to a psychiatric hospital, with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. At the suggestion of his psychiatrist who encouraged him to draw whatever preoccupied him, Wilkie’s art-making became an obsession and he spent 15 – 18 hours a day drawing and painting. He denied he was creating art since he knew nothing about art, nor was he an artist.
The von Engelhardt family was displaced from Estonia after WWI and sought refuge in Germany. Friedrich (Serge) von Engelhardt found employment in a mass-production ceramic factory, where he made models of animals and lamps for sale in gift shops. Because the owner was not able to pay him, he acquired a kiln in lieu of wages. He built a small studio behind his parents’ apartment building from trees that he felled himself.
After the war, von Engelhardt immigrated to northern Canada where he worked as a farmhand to support his wife and children. Life was dire; they built a house from an old pig barn and eked out a basic living. The von Engelhardt family moved to Edmonton a few years later. Serge worked at odd jobs to support the family and spent the rest of his time in a studio he built in the basement of their house. He taught himself to make ceramic and porcelain sculptures, and through trial and error he created 400 different glazes for his ceramic wares. He sold a few sculptures, but the public took little interest in his creations of fantasy worlds.
The most spectacular of von Engelhardt’s work is his Atlantis collection, with re-creations of buildings that he imagined on the lost island. He intended them to be illuminated, and they are usually displayed with back-lighting.
Henriette Valium (aka Patrick Henley), is a comic book artist and painter living in Montreal. Valium gained some recognition in the underground comic scene in Europe and North America in the 1980s, but his outrageous style has kept him on the margins of the comic book industry.
Much of Valium’s work is self-published; it can take him up to six years to produce one comic book. He creates his own outlandish characters and stories and illustrates them with paintings that often take months to complete. L’Association, a highly-regarded French publisher of comic books, is working on a complete anthology of Valium’s comics.
Alma Rumball (1902 – 1980) was born to a family of Muskoka, Ontario pioneers who settled there in the 1870s. She spent a lot of time drawing as a child, and eventually left home to work as a painter in a ceramics factory in Toronto. She returned home in the 1950s and lived a reclusive life. Jesus appeared to her, with a panther, and commanded her to draw and write in order to help humanity. She understood there were other levels of spiritual existence and began to communicate with a ‘genius’, who was a turbaned spiritual guide named Aba.
Alma’s spiritual energy manifested itself in ‘the Hand.’ She watched as it chose art materials and drew detailed drawings and images on its own. It drew images of unfamiliar forms and faces, as well as Joan of Arc, Tibetan gods, and images of Atlantis. Rumball produced over 5,000 drawings; the estate collection can be seen at York University Art Gallery in Toronto.
A documentary film, The Alma Drawings, created by filmmaker Jeremy Munce examines the mystery of Alma’s life and art. The film won the award for best direction – Short to Mid-Length, 2005 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.
Nancy Ogilvie lives in Montreal, Quebec. She did not complete high school and enrolled in art college for a brief period of time before her mental health issues surfaced. Although she has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Ogilvie prefers to manage her condition by creating art, not by taking medication. Ogilvie is a prolific painter.
David Ogilvie lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. He worked in an assortment of jobs before he retired, including dishwasher, cook, farmhand, millworker, infantryman, warehouseman, press worker, and janitor. His obsession with drawing began in his 50s, during recovery from a lengthy illness. He taught himself to draw, mainly with ink, and has surrendered to the imperative to create art all day.
Laurie Marshall had always doodled a bit with pencil and paper, but first picked up a paintbrush at an art drop-in center when he was about 50 years old. Marshall grew up in farming country, hence the appearance of cows, horses, and other creatures in his paintings. He applies paint in thick layers and often scratches images through the paint. He uses a palette knife or his hands to work – he doesn’t like paint brushes. Sometimes he has an idea of an image he would like to paint, but usually he just starts painting and good things happen.
Marshall paints on thin pieces of particle board. He signs them “elbo”, which is a nickname he uses for artwork. His life changed dramatically one day when an art collector saw his work; that meeting led to a successful exhibition.
Jahan Maka (1900 – 1987) was born on a farm in Lithuania in 1900. Although the details are unclear, his family lost their farm during WWI, and Maka left for Canada in 1927, hoping to make enough money to return and buy another farm. The Depression thwarted his plans and he worked as a labourer in the Prairie provinces. He eventually settled in Flin Flon, Manitoba.
Maka’s friends recalled him as a bit of a loner, introspective, but sociable with his close circle of friends. Maka began painting at age 68, improvising with his own products like commercial enamels, airplane paint thinned with lighter fluid, appliance touch-up paint, wax crayons, and carpenter’s chalk. He rebuilt worn paint brushes with hairs from his own moustache and painted on walls or doors of his apartment when he ran out of canvas. Motifs that he wanted to recreate, like forests, were carved from wood or linoleum and stamped onto the canvas or board. Later a family member encouraged him to paint and supplied him with professional art supplies.
Art critic, Michael D. Hall, holds Maka in high regard as one of the great symbolists.