There are pivotal points in our lives – times when you are certain that life has revealed another one of its mysteries. My first art history course at university was one of those moments. But when I came to the first fork in the road I decided to study psychology instead of art. I took the second fork in the road and went on to study law. I find myself standing at another fork in the road, very much older, and somewhat wiser. Joseph Campbell would describe this as an “aha” moment as I venture into the unknown pursuit of my bliss – outsider art. My intention is to tell you about artists that I know, discover the unacknowledged outsider artists in Canada, and connect with kindred folk along the way.
Last year I attended the Outsider Art Fair in New York City. I was chatting with a local who asked what I was doing in NYC. When I told her, she looked incredulous and thought it was crazy that there would be an art exhibit outside in the freezing February weather…
If outsider art isn’t exhibited outdoors, then what is it? In short, outsider art is created by self-taught artists who are working outside the art system (schools, galleries, museums). Their works owe nothing to traditional forms of art or fashionable art trends. And that’s what makes it so interesting. If you’ve taken an walk through the history of Western art, you will know it as “art brut” (raw or rough art), a term coined by artist Jean Dubuffet in the 1920s after reading a book by German psychiatrist, Hans Prinzhorn: Artistry of the Mentally Ill. (Technically, I believe the term art brut still refers only to art housed in the Musée de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland.)
Think about the European cultural scene in the early 1900s. Avant garde music, art, and literature were burgeoning and Freud was introducing the workings of the unconscious mind. They came to a fork in the road and they took it; the time was ripe for exploring art that was outside accepted cultural boundaries. In the 1970s, British author, Roger Cardinal, translated the term as “outsider art” in his book of the same name, and the dialogue began anew.
Like outsider artists, I am entirely self-taught. I can’t give you an academic perspective on the topic, only tell you about my discoveries, voice my questions, and introduce you to the interesting people I’ve met along the way. Someone once told me that you end up being what you were supposed to be in life. Maybe I should have cut to the chase 30 years ago.
These are my notes from the outside, looking in.