Gee’s Bend quilter Louisiana Bendolph

Louisiana_Bendolph,_History_0I was last blogging about  Gee’s Bend quilts and my introduction to the work of the remarkable women who make them. I met two quilters, Louisiana Bendolph and her mother, Rabbit, at Lonnie Holley’s workshop last fall. I sat beside Louisiana, a modest and reserved woman, and looked through a beautiful book about the quilts, as well as the autobiography she contributed to the book.


When I closed the book, Louisiana asked me what I thought about it. I was at a loss for words. You see, her biography reads like something I would have expected from an African-American woman over a hundred years ago, not someone who was born in 1960. As I’ve said before, my knowledge of American social history comes from books; I have not lived there or experienced the truth of racial oppression. It looks quite different in real life.


But Louisiana was patient and waited for me to speak. I said how sad I felt to learn about her childhood. From age 6, Louisiana worked with her family in a cotton field, from sunup to sundown, every day except Sunday, which was saved for church. She felt wistful as the school bus passed her by. She went to school only on rainy days (not many) and from the end of November to March when it was time to start planting crops again. She didn’t have much of a childhood, and says her life was hard, but they had to work in order to survive.


Louisiana watched the women in her family make quilts, but didn’t make her own until she was 12, and only then because it was something to do. Her life was busy with children, a husband, and a low-paying job. In 2002, she went to Houston to see the Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibit and admits that she didn’t know what to expect other than seeing some old quilts. She was shocked to see her name in a book beside a photo of one of her quilts. She was profoundly moved when she saw her great-grandmother’s quilt on display, realizing that she had created something important and continued to live through her artwork.

Louisiana had always thought her quilt-making days were over. She had made enough quilts to keep her family warm. But on her way home from the exhibit, Louisiana started having visions of quilts. She says the visions have never disappeared and she keeps making more and more and more quilts. Sometimes she holds the design in her mind and sometimes she draws it on paper. It’s mainly about colour for Louisiana and her quilts are a testament to her exquisite sense of design and colour.

LB imageI met Louisiana and her mother a few days later at a  music event featuring Lonnie Holley. I had a visit with her before the concert began and she told me that she was going to be on stage with Matt Arnett (their manager) and participate in the introductory lecture. She hadn’t planned what she would say; she was a storyteller and the story would unfold as she said the words. Unfortunately, Arnett dominated the session, telling stories about himself and his father who began collecting outsider art many years ago. Listening to him was painful. His words were fuel for his own ego, not for the artists and musicians who were the stars of the event. Time ran out. Louisiana didn’t have an opportunity to speak.

Read paragraph 2 again. Just sayin’.




The Gee’s Bend Quilters

images (3)I have no excuse for my blog silence since I finished my degree.  Laziness, perhaps. Recharging, probably. Anyway, I have been prodded along by some of my readers, so here we go.

I left off writing about artist Lonnie Holley and his visit to Vancouver. He came with the Gee’s Bend Quilters, and that was an eye-opening (and eye-popping) experience for me. I had heard of these quilters, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Unfortunately, I missed the lecture they offered about their work, but I did get to meet them at the workshop with Lonnie Holley.


Gee’s Bend is a very small, riverside community in Alabama.  As you might have guessed, the community has a long, and inexcusable history of plantations and slavery. Perhaps the only good news to come out of that area is that the quilting collective has carried on their quilting traditions, with skills passed down through the generations. Notice was taken of the work in the 1960s; now their quilting masterpieces hang in museums and are recognized as one of the most important African-American visual and cultural contributions to art history in the United States. Documentation suggests that their unique abstract style evolved because of their geographical isolation and unusual degree of cultural continuity.

This blog serves only to introduce you to the quilters’ stunning work. Enjoy.



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Lonnie Holley, the musician

2015-10-23 14.11.53When Lonnie Holley came to Vancouver for an art workshop (see previous blog), it was pretty much what I expected. I was familiar with his work from books and websites and enjoyed meeting him while I was creating my (small and peculiar) mobile from found objects.

HOWEVER, Lonnie is also a musician. And from seeing him perform, I think music forms as much of his DNA as art. Lonnie and his band performed when he was here in Vancouver. While I might be able to explain counterpoint in a piece of classical music, I simply don’t have the expertise or vocabulary to describe Lonnie’s improvisational music to you. It was very much like his visual art: an assemblage of ideas and forms. And, like art, Holley is a self-taught musician.

Before going on stage, I wa26holley1-master675tched Holley fidget like a Kindergarten child – he was almost vibrating with anticipation and excitement. The introductory lecture and endless set-up were clearly a torture to him. He was visibly relieved when he was finally called up on stage. With no introductory words, he began to play.

Holley performed with two percussionists – one played a keyboard; the other played every percussion instrument in a musician’s repertoire. If you appreciate the complexity of jazz, you would understand the woven tapestry of Holley’s pieces. I learned that Holley doesn’t perform the same piece twice (why bother because it’s already been done?) and his performance was pure improvisation, for both him and his accompanists. Like all professional musicians  they were completely connected to Holley during the performance and I doubt that anything could have distracted them from the urgency of the moment. Holley played on a keyboard and sang; they responded with riffs and diversions that could only make sense to one completely plugged into the moment of music. It made traditional jazz look like a contrived and staged undertaking.

I am at a loss for words to tell you about Holley’s performance. It was like sung/spoken poetry. It was about slavery, the universe, his personal dreams. It was entirely foreign to me, but I settled into it. Watch this video, and you can decide for yourself:

I don’t know anyone else like Lonnie Holley, and I doubt I will ever meet another like him.

Lonnie Holley comes to Vancouver

IMG_0251Much to my surprise and delight, outsider art superstar Lonnie Holley was in Vancouver last week. He came with the Gees Bend quilters (more about that later) to conduct an art workshop and perform with his band. (Who knew he was also a musician?) I became aware of Lonnie’s work some years ago through my personal journey in outsider art. I mainly knew about his sculptures, but happened to see a painting of his last year in New Orleans. (Dynamite. Absolutely gorgeous.) This year I got to meet him. And here is  holding my sculptural creation.

Lonnie’s biography can be found easily on the Internet, but he is happy to share the details of his life with people he meets. Lonnie, AKA The Sand Man, was the 7th of 27 children (!), born in Alabama in 1950. He told us that his art career sprung from a horrific event, when his sister’s two children died in a house fire. Not having enough money to buy headstones, Lonnie carved them himself from discarded material near the foundry. He says that after that he wasn’t able to stop creating and having seen him in action, I caught a glimpse of what he meant.


Lonnie showed his work to the Birmingham Museum of Art and they were immediately received by the director. Things snowballed from there – people came to see his yard full of sculptures and the outsider art world took notice. Thank heavens for those who recognized his artwork as more than bits of trash.

IMG_0252Like many outsider artists, Lonnie is prolific. We were asked to bring a collection of “personal things” to the workshop and without much introduction, Lonnie asked us to assemble something from the piles of material on the table. One person brought objects from her family, including old tools from her grandfather. Lonnie became absorbed in her personal story and what the objects had to tell. He spent a lot of time helping her hammer things together until a final sculpture took shape. It was obviously a collection of ‘stuff’ that struck a chord with him. I was intrigued to watch the process of a sculpture coming together and got little done on my own project. In fact, he told us that it is the process and how it feels, not the end product that matters. This is something I have heard over and over (and over) from outsider artists that I have come to know.

It is an important reminder to stop and smell the roses on your life’s journey.

I would never approach a superstar in the contemporary art world. I am intimidated in those settings and find myself shrinking into a corner, tongue-tied. (Remind me sometime to tell you about the time I thought* (*fantasized) that I saw Ai Wei Wei in an art museum in New York.) But it’s different with outsider artists. They are always approachable, interesting, and interested. So it was with Lonnie. He is talker, and likes to talk about what he is doing as he works on his art piece, tell stories about himself, and generally shoot the breeze.

Lonnie enjoys engaging with others and hearing what they have to say. He is kind, personable, and funny. Meeting him was another reminder that in the end, we are all just *people* with our own troubles, epiphanies, sorrows, triumphs, and memories. My personal story is different from yours, but we have all walked the same path at some point in our lives.

Outsider art in Montreal

Old Montreal

My apologies for no blogs coming from two weeks in Montreal. Shortly after I arrived I had major problems with my laptop (again) and couldn’t add photos. And, what’s the point of a blog about art if there are no photographs of art…?

As I suspected, there is a lot going on in the world of outsider art in Montreal, Quebec. At least more than the rest of Canada. For those of you outside of Canada, the province of Quebec is an eastern province that is predominantly French-speaking. It has a long history with France and is still connected by more than language to that country. To visit a city in Quebec is like visiting a city in France – the language, culture, and food would fool you into thinking you were somewhere in Europe. In short, it is an incredible city for those who enjoy history and the arts.

The purpose of my trip was to connect with artists and galleries with whom I have been corresponding through my blog. I kept a frenetic pace for two weeks, as there was a lot to see, people to meet, and much to learn. One of the things I wanted to understand is how others in Canada define outsider art. Unfortunately, I have to report that the definition is as muddled there as here. However, because Quebec is still closely aligned with France, much credence is paid to the concept of art brut as it is understood in Europe – that is, art that is outside mainstream art and (perhaps) created by disabled artists or those who are not closely aligned to art culture. It is sometimes referred to as “art singulier” or “art insubordinaire” (insubordinate art).

I did not leave with a clear definition of outsider art, but I enjoyed long hours of conversation with art colleagues and collectors there. The blogs that follow will introduce you some amazing artists. Stay tuned.



Outside of what?

›‰hThe roots of the terms “art brut” and “outsider art” can be traced back to the writings of Prinzhorn, who studied the creative output of psychiatric patients, and then Dubuffet who believed such art was unadulterated by the socio-cultural environment.
(Painting by August Natterer at right.)

Dubuffet’s original art brut collection was ultimately housed in the Collection de L’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland and remains there today. As Dubuffet’s collection grew, it became clear to him that some artwork did not quite “fit” into the narrowly defined category of art brut. Although the work was powerful and inventive, the artists’ contact with society and their awareness of their own work precluded their inclusion in the art brut category.

These artworks were moved to the Annex Collection, and re-named neuve invention. Dubuffet described these as works which, though not characterized by the same radical distancing of mind as art brut, are never the less sufficiently independent of the fine-art system to constitute a challenge to the cultural institutions.

It is said that Dubuffet created a paradox he hoped to avoid. In deciding what should be included in the art brut collection he had to exclude artists whom he admired. Without intending to do so, he created a new orthodoxy of inclusion. Beginning with a subversive attitude towards art, he ended up establishing a new set of rigid criteria. So, in respecting the parameters of art brut, he undermined its fundamental principles and housed it in a tight box.

Dubuffet  added to the problems of taxonomy in setting up a two-tier and elitist distinction between first and second class outsiders. Some works have been moved back and forth between the art brut and neuve invention collections. The margins of art brut began to blur as soon as the genre was named.

Art brut continued to exist, for the most part recognizing the two categories that Dubuffet defined: art brut and neuve invention. In 1972, Roger Cardinal, a professor at the University of Kent, set out to write about art brut. His publisher insisted on a catchier title, and so Outsider Art went to press.  Cardinal explains:

Well, it all happened when I produced this book. I wanted to call it ‘Art Brut’, and I had studied the Dubuffet collection, and had a lot of examples from the collection and some that I’d chosen myself, but fitting into the general rubric of Art Brut. And with that, with Dubuffet as the coiner of that particular concept, and his definitions fairly clearly in mind, I showed the publisher what I wanted to do, and I said, ‘Well, you’ve got Art Nouveau, and you’ve got Art Deco, now you’ve got Art Brut and everybody will get on with it.’ But the publisher was very worried about this particular title and wanted something more easy to get on with for the English ear and said, ‘Well, shouldn’t we call it something else?’ And we went through hundreds of titles: ‘The Art of the Artless’, I remember was one of them…

This was where the terminology problems started. Although the term “outsider art” was not used in the text of the book, Cardinal intended it to be synonymous with art brut, and from the outset it encompassed the categories of both art brut and neuve invention. Cardinal defined outsider art (and art brut) as strictly un-tutored and exists outside of the normal concept of art. “Not hooked up to galleries and certain expectations. It should be more or less inwards-turning and imaginative – self-contained as it were.”

At this point, the narrowly-defined and closely-guarded world of art brut was turned upside down. In the years that followed, European scholars loosened the parameters of art brut but Americans took the concept much further. The term “outsider” was taken literally and begged the question: outside of what?

The definition of outsider art unravelled from this point on.

It’s about the process


I am on another writing retreat in the mountains (it’s snowing here!) and I have been silent, not because I am goofing off, but because I have been completely absorbed by the task before me. In other words, I am blissed out.

The sad truth is that I have no idea what I think about something until I write it. I know some well-known writers have expressed this same feeling, but I have lost track of those quotations. Anyway, that’s my reality.

In the process of exploring the topic of what “self-taught” means, I wrote myself to the edge of a cliff. This is not to say that I felt like jumping off a cliff, but that I had nowhere to go from there.  I became so disenchanted with the multitude of definitions of outsider art, and their *reasons (*excuses) for defining it so, that I thought I might have to throw this entire  project in the garbage. Egad. What now?

No matter how we define outsider art, it has grown from Dubuffet’s plea to look at art in a new way, to yet another power-dominated field of art. How can I write about this without it turning into a hysterical rant? This is, after all, an academic exercise, not an opinion piece for a rag newspaper…

But, when all is said and done, and in spite of the headaches it causes me, I absolutely love the art that I encounter in my research. It never fails to punch me in the gut. And I always say to myself, “so this is another way to look at the world…” It leaves me with a sense of awe.  And really, what more could you ask of art?

I have always believed that outsider artists – in the process of creation – are in the midst of a soliloquy, as opposed to a dialogue with others. That soliloquy takes them to a deeper place and a deeper truth. Filmmaker, Werner Herzog, calls this the ecstatic truth. As he says, one can reach a deeper stratum of truth in the arts – a poetic, ecstatic truth, which is mysterious and can only be grasped with effort. One attains it through vision, craft and style. By engaging in the art-making process, sometimes obsessively, I think these artists find their own deep truths. It’s not about the product. It’s about the process.

So, I am signing off tonight with a promise to get down to details in a future blog.


The self-taught artist

I am now writing about one of the most difficult subjects and it’s about self-taught artists. *Self-taught* is such a simple and common word, yet it takes on a whole new meaning in the world of outsider art.

circle-16_42910_lgI tried to create a pictorial representation of how the various labels overlap in the United States: folk art, contemporary folk art, outsider art, art brut, and the work of African-American Southern artists. It gets confusing. I have concluded that the best tactic is to use any one of these terms, say it with confidence, and wait to see if you are challenged.  (Not likely.)

The first thing that comes to mind are the amateur painters who you may see at the park with an easel. They take their endeavors seriously and may actually be quite good at it, but they are not the self-taught group of artists that we talk about in the world of outsider art. These hobbyists are aware of the world of cultural art and may attempt to mimic their favourite styles.

I like the way one writer described the distinction between artists. An artist who is part of the contemporary art scene is called *an artist.* He or she has studied in an art school, is aware of art trends, and may explore  the limits of known art genres. However, a  *[fill in the blank] artist* is outside of that art world. They may be called a self-taught artist, an outsider artist, a folk artist, etc.  I stumbled upon a photo of a interesting painting recently. The local artist called himself a *working class artist* – a term I had not heard before. I tried to contact him to see more of his work, but sadly he has not responded. Very frustrating.

scottieIn the United States, a self-taught artist can be a folk artist, a contemporary folk artist, an outsider artist, a visionary artist, or an African American Southern artist. To complicate matters, the term *outsider artist* has fallen out of use because it is felt to be a derogatory term. Instead, outsider artists are now called self-taught artists. You see what I’m saying, right?  It might be easier to use a tangled ball of string as a pictorial representation instead of overlapping circles. (Outsider artist Scottie Wilson photo above.)

So, here is a warning that a long discussion about self-taught artists is about to begin. I am trekking back to the mountain top tomorrow for another focussed writing session. Stay posted.






My niece recently gave me a book by Jeanette Winterson, called “Why be Happy When You Could be Normal?” I wonder what she meant by giving it to me???

But I digress.  This blog is about outsider art.

I happened to see a film called Marwencol last night. I had seen it before, but it was good timing to bump into it again. Mark Hogencamp was badly beaten up some years ago by five men leaving a bar. It left him in a coma and severely brain damaged; his mother said it was like watching her son grow up again – taking his first steps and learning how to do everything for the second time. Mark said he had every memory kicked out of his head. He doesn’t remember anything prior to the attack. He only has a photograph album that shows his childhood, his wedding, his friends, his life.

Obviously, Mark was traumatized by the incident and has since avoided contact with the outside world. Instead, he built his own fantasy town, called Marwencol, in his back yard.

02_890_668Marwencol is a 1/6 scale town where events from World War II take place. It is populated by soldiers (himself included) and some women who do heroic acts and have relationships with the soldiers.

The Nazis appear from time to time and are inevitably beaten and killed. His real-life friends appear as doll-characters in the town, and he takes great comfort from having them participate in his adventures. When Mark sets up a scenario in Marwencol, he photographs the scene. Over the years he has collected boxes of his own photographs.


As often happens in the world of outsider art, Mark and Marwencol were “discovered” quite by accident. He was pulling a mini-jeep, filled with his action figures, along the road, something he did every afternoon. A neighbour, who happened to be a professional photographer, eventually asked Mark what he was doing.  He learned about Marwencol and felt compelled to document Mark’s incredible world and bring the photographs to the attention of the public. He explained how the photographs were beautifully staged and shot; he marvelled that an “amateur” could create such remarkable work. The film ends with Mark’s exhibit in a New York gallery. To tell you any more would spoil the film should you happen to see it.

Mark is candid about his loneliness and his wish for a wife. He puts people he knows in Marwencol so he can control the story and how they will behave. He prefers to be in Marwencol – life is predictable and safe there.

marwencol2The photographer-neighbour explained why he was so captivated by Mark’s photographs. In particular, he noted there was no sense of irony, like you might see in a contemporary art piece. It struck him that Mark’s photographs were “authentic” and served no purpose other than to help Mark fight “Mark’s war.” He poses a poignant question: what if your therapy became art?

It has been a difficult exercise for me to unravel the myths of outsider art, so much so that I had begun to question the premise for my entire thesis. Was there really something “different” about outsider art? Is it just something we have labelled for our own purposes?

Watching Marwencol brought me back to where I started. Outsider art is different. The creators do not set out to be artists, but instead create worlds for their own personal and particular reasons. I have blogged about other artists who did this:  Morton Bartlett, Henry Darger, and Renaldo Kuhler. (See earlier blogs.) They are remarkable individuals who have found their own creative way to navigate a painful and disillusioning world. Kudos to them.



Defining outsider art: the social issues


A discussion of outsider art must (to me) include social issues. When the term “outsider art” was introduced in 1972, it was intended to be synonymous with art brut, but many took the term literally. They asked: outside of what? Many thought it meant outside the world of commercial art (i.e., outside the canon of art history), while others said it meant outside of society (i.e., it was created by marginalized artists). This triggered an ongoing – and still unresolved debate – about who is “in” and who is “out”.

(It’s interesting that in the United States, “outsider artist” was felt to be a pejorative label and was recently replaced by the term, “self-taught”. That’s an entire chapter in itself. More on this later.)

In the past, outsider art (art brut) focussed on artists who suffered from a mental illness (see previous blogs). When I visited Galerie Art Cru in Berlin several years ago, I had the opportunity to learn about the German perspective on outsider art. Like many cities in Europe and North America, Berlin has ateliers (art studios) for people with mental disabilities. Although I did not have the opportunity to visit one, I think they operate like Creative Growth art center in San Francisco. (It provides art studio space to adults with developmental, mental and physical disabilities.)

hoferGalerie Art Cru exhibits the work of artists connected with these kinds of studios. (One of their artists is Joseph Hofer, whose artwork is pictured at right.) I explained that not all outsider artists in the United States suffer from a mental disability. I was thinking of reclusive and eccentric artists like Henry Darger. The gallery staff was shocked. If this were so, they questioned, how could a collector or gallerist ever determine who was a real outsider artist and where would you find artwork to exhibit? I had no answer to that. We clearly did not have a meeting of minds.

There has been an international move towards social inclusion, a topic that comes up frequently in Europe, particularly France and Germany. In fact, the EU has led the movement, striving to raise the standard of living and strengthen communities by providing opportunities for all European citizens. As I understood it, social inclusion in every facet of life, was the mantra of all Berliners. Hence, the desire to include those with mental disabilities in the art world. So now, in Europe generally, the category of outsider artists includes those with mental health issues (like schizophrenia), and also those who have mental or intellectual disabilities, like autism, developmental delays, or Down Syndrome.

This development puzzles me and led to an exploration of the issue of social inclusion and exclusion. Social inclusion is a laudable objective and should not be scorned. But for me, the issue of social inclusion/exclusion is inextricably linked to power.  How can one include people and groups into structured systems that have systematically excluded them in the first place? One author calls this the dance of the dialectic.

Shouldn’t we be challenging the hierarchies that create this dialectic instead of bringing (allowing?) people into “our” social group? Without reflecting on our acts of social inclusion are we, unwittingly, participating in the use and abuse of power? It’s still the ones who have power who decide who is allowed into the art world and who remains barred!

As for Joseph Hofer,  a German artist  with a significant intellectual disability, I would collect his work regardless of knowing his biography. So it’s not that I think it’s the “wrong” decision to re-define outsider art, but I struggle to understand the reasons behind the decisions. Are the decisions based on evolving views of art or are we simply responding to the imperative of social inclusion?