Scott Colin at Outsider Art Festival

I have always been fascinated with self-portraits. Although the modern version of the ‘selfie’ is ubiquitous, it is the artist’s rendition of himself in ink or paint that interests me. The artist knows his subject intimately or, as we say, warts and all. So, to render his image permanently on canvas is a revealing exercise indeed. It is, perhaps, an entry into his visual journal: “This is who I am today.”

The recent Outsider Art Festival in Vancouver offered a vast and varied array of art created by artists on the margins of the art world. What caught my eye, though, were Scott Colin’s self-portraits, modestly painted onto buff paper.  Pictured, left, is Spirit of the Halting: a demure figure, partially obscured by a mask of dots, his soft-focussed head blurring into the background. Pictured, right, is The Fall of my November, a more definitive and stronger statement of himself.  The obscuring veil has lifted enough to see the world with both eyes. The masks that obscure Scott’s face in both portraits not only block his view of the world, they hamper our view of him. The person behind the mask is unknown, perhaps even to himself.

To impose an interpretation on an artist’s work, especially a self-portrait, is a risky exercise and my reading only grazed the surface of its meaning. I had a chance to talk with Scott and he told me, very candidly, about his debilitating struggle with drug addiction. These self-portraits were done just before a relapse, at a very, very dark time in his life. Scott describes himself as an extraordinarily ‘open’ person – a sensitive medium of sorts – who has trouble keeping the world at bay. These dots, then, are perhaps a screen to filter the barrage of sensations the world flings at him.

As tragic as Scott’s lost years were, he is now committed to ‘clean’ living and art plays a large part in his journey of self-discovery. What began as sessions in art therapy turned into a daily practice of personal expression. He continues to explore how to open up just enough to keep himself protected. I did notice, in fact, that there was no evidence of the protective veil in his recent self-portraits – the mask was replaced by a bolder, colourful version of himself. I got the sense that Scott is still surprised at what he is discovering beneath the mask.

Sans Soucie Zero Waste Texile + Design

This blog is about a Vancouver artist I know, Katherine Soucie, and her incredible work as a zero-waste textile and design artist. Her business, Sans Soucie, turns pre-consumer waste hosiery into new textiles for high-fashion women’s clothing and, more recently, 3D forms. Although Soucie is not an outsider artist, I met her through my outsider art connections and since this is my blog… I get to write about all sorts of cool art events.

When I first met Soucie, I couldn’t really imagine the world of re-used textiles she described. As a person who can ‘almost’ sew a button onto a shirt, I was at a loss to imagine the extent of her industry or the breath of her skill and creativity. I remember thinking that her work embodies everything an artist ‘should be’ in this century:  exceptionally skilled, fully committed, highly imaginative, and engaged in global issues. In Soucie’s case, the issue is the staggering ecological impact of the clothing industry on the environment. It is second only to the big oil producers. Few of us think about our carbon footprint when we buy ‘fast clothing’, with its long chain of getting clothing to market: growing natural textiles (with pesticides), producing synthetic textiles (from oil by-products); dying it (with toxic chemicals), manufacturing it in industrial settings, shipping it around the world (using fossil fuels), and its ultimate disposal in landfills. But Soucie does think about these serious issues and her life’s work has revolved around creating haute couture – truly wearable art pieces – from pre-consumer waste hosiery.

Soucie’s zero waste design philosophy means that she creates items from products that manufacturers have discarded; the process is environmentally sound, low-impact, and free of metal toxins. Any waste she produces is collected and re-purposed by other artists in the design community. In short, Soucie creates gorgeous clothing from waste that would otherwise end up in the trash. And what vibrant and sensuous clothing it is! Her highly-collectible work was lauded in British Vogue magazine last year.

Having mastered the art of clothing design (in my view), Soucie is turning to other creative ventures. At her recent exhibit at Seymour Art Gallery, she displayed some of her quirky ‘wrapped’ sewing machines, each one a unique and colourful reflection of her creative energy. They remind me of the objects that outsider artist Judith Scott so lovingly bound with strips of cloth. For Soucie, the machines are the tools of her trade, dating back to the Industrial Age of the 18th Century when garment manufacturing began in earnest. If only those cloth merchants could see her now! The other artist in the exhibit was Michelle Sirois-Silver, who uses scraps from Soucie’s production to hook colourful rugs.

The word ‘garbage’ doesn’t exist in either of these artists’ vocabularies.

The most intriguing of Soucie’s recent ventures has been her residency with HCMA Architecture + Design, an architecture agency that explores the public realm, seeking to ’tilt’ their perspective by watching artists at work. In Cast ON, Cast OFF, Soucie ‘knit’ a sculptural room from waste hosiery. A crown of LED lights hangs above the sculpture, inviting us to step inside the warm glow. The other pieces are seats, filled with natural latex foam.  Soucie asks us to consider what its like to be inside a garment that is not a garment. For Soucie, the residency was a perfect fit because structure and architecture has always informed her work as a textile designer. The project was another reminder that we all, as consumers, must step away from the frenzy of fast fashion. There are more sustainable ways to make the clothes we live in.

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.

The Danville Diviner

divinerMy trip to Montreal led me to the town of Danville in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. I went there to visit Gallerie des Nanas, which I only knew from their website and occasional email exchanges with Jean-Robert Bisaillon. (Much more about the gallery in subsequent blogs).

You know how much I love diversions from the path, so I have to tell you about my first half-hour in Danville. Danville is a beautiful, historic town with a population of about 4,000 residents, all of whom seem to know each other. (Much more importantly, they all seem to like each other!)  Anyway, upon my arrival in Danville, I went out to meet Jean-Robert at a cafe and we were soon joined by octogenarian Hertel, the local diviner and story-teller/historian. He was delighted to have a “tourist” in town with whom he could impress with stories of his magical skills.

Hertel described his special ability to find water beneath the ground, just by walking around with a forked branch, which points downward when it reaches an underground water source. Hertel has been a diviner for many, many years and he is never wrong. Not only can he locate a water source, but he can tell you how far down you have to dig. His abilities are so well-developed that he can find water by looking at a map. He described an incident where he pinpointed a source of water for his brother, who lived thousands of miles away, just by looking at a map, and “feeling” where the water was. Now, I tell you, I was damned impressed! If I lived in Danville, I would accompany Hertel on all of his searches just for the heck of it. And I would also ask Hertel to mentor me as a junior diviner.

The funny thing was that talking with Hertel reminded me that when I was a young child, I remember my Italian grandfather walking around some property in the country with a forked branch, looking for water. I don’t remember the outcome of the event, but I do remember just taking it all in stride, as if all “old people” did this on a regular basis.  Of course, looking back on it, I wonder if this is an “old world” craft and skill that has been lost since we moved to cities where it would never occur to us* (*me) to look for water anywhere other than a tap over the sink.

And I wonder if I could find water with a stick? What an exciting prospect. I will practise close to a reservoir to hone my skills before charging money for the performance. Maybe this is my second or third career. Stay posted for further developments.



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.