I fell down a rabbit hole yesterday — ironically, it started with researching Lewis Carroll. Yesterday was his birthday and I thought I was going to post one of his quotes. I might still do that later today.
The weirdest thing about this daily Commonplace Book Project I’ve been working on since the start of the year is the deeper dive into the people I quote. Sometimes, I find out things that are disturbing or even downright disgusting. Coco Chanel was a nazi sympathizer. Marion Zimmerman Bradley’s daughter accused her of raping her.
I already knew that there were allegations about Carroll and Alice Liddell, the little girl who inspired his most famous work. I already knew that there was a nude photograph of her big sister and one of him kissing Alice like a lover.
I was looking a little deeper, pressing a thumb into that bruise, to see what I might want to write about it. That was yesterday’s rabbit hole. So it was a pleasant surprise when falling down it lead me to something wonderful that I’d never heard of before.
Of course, I’ve been aware of the idea of outsider art — art created by people who are not formally trained and who are not part of the inside art world. I just never had a name for it. And I never knew that it was a thing.
It is a thing, though. Maybe one reason it is so intriguing to me is because I’ve spent most of my adult life becoming an insider artist. Pursuing formal training in the form of an undergraduate and graduate degrees, working harder than I’ve ever worked at anything to be traditionally published, celebrating every step toward being able to support my family with writing.
From the inside, looking out, I’m intrigued by the idea of art driven by mental illness or poverty or something other than money and recognition.
Earlier this month my daughter, Adrienne, and I went to see Welcome to Marwen. It’s about a man named Mark Hogancamp who creates an incredible, intricate outdoor art installation he calls Marwencol. It’s a world, set in WWII area Belgium, where he works through the trauma of a brutal attack that stole his memories, and photographs the results.
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Mark Hogancamp is an outside artist. An artist who operates outside the established art world. Outside artists are often, like Hogancamp, mentally ill or unstable, and live their lives in an elaborate fantasy world. Their work, almost always, is not discovered until their deaths. Generally, they don’t seek to be discovered. Someone discovers them.
There is often a sense that art saved the artists life in some way.
Researching Lewis Carroll led me to a man named Henry Darger. Darger was a solitary man who did the same janitorial work and lived in the same one room apartment his entire adult life, until just before his death in 1973 at age 81. Darger attended Mass daily, sometimes up to five times a day, and had only one close friendship throughout his life.
When he was moved to a nursing home, his landlords went into his room and found his art.
Darger had created a 15,145 epic novel called In the Realms of the Unreal. It was bound if fifteen massive books and was filled with thousands of drawings and paintings — usually watercolors over magazine and coloring book pages. He created his art by tracing magazine and catalog figures into scenes and landscapes and using watercolor paint.
His wildly imaginative story involves seven angelically beautiful sisters called the Vivian girls, and their heroic adventures in saving themselves. In his pictures, he often drew some of the girls with penises.
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I’ve added Jim Elledge’s Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy to my reading list. And I’ve ordered a DVD for the first time in I don’t even know how long: In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger. It’s a biography of Darger that looks like it will be absolutely fascinating.
Maud Lewis was a self-taught folk artist from Canada — I think she qualifies as an outsider artist. There is a quality, amongst all of the outside artists that I researched yesterday, of art as a lifesaving act. Lewis lived her life in deep poverty. She lived with her husband in a tiny house that has since been moved and restored as an art installation. She covered every surface with art.
Lewis did gain international attention at the very end of her life, following a newspaper article and a television story about her and her work. By that time she was too ill to fulfill the orders for paintings that came in, so her art was not able to pull her out of poverty.
Sally Hawkins starred as Lewis in the 2016 biopic Maudie, which is well worth checking out.
As a writer, it struck me as I was researching outside art yesterday that while everything I was reading was about the visual art — the drawings, paintings, photography — it’s nearly universal for there to be a deep strain of storytelling ingrained in these artists’ work.
Hogancamp’s photography stemmed from stories he told with his dolls in the world he built. Darger’s landlord found a 15,000+ page novel. Another well-known outside artist, Adolf Wolfli, started an epic in 1908 that eventually reached 25,000 pages and had 1600 illustrations. Maud Lewis’s art is also vividly storytelling.
Adolf Wölfli: home
The official homepage of the Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Museum of Fine Arts Bern, Switzerland.
These often deeply troubled artists spent their lives compulsively telling stories through their art and with written word — without any eye toward being published or discovered. And without seeking out formal training.
Mark Hogancamp has become part of the public eye in his lifetime, of course. And Maud Lewis’s work was discovered before her death. But neither of them set out to be famous. Hogancamp used art as therapy and Lewis sold her paintings for $2 or $3 each to earn money to survive.
I have always been drawn to what I call thrift store art, but it’s sort of the same. I love to find art at second hand shops. I don’t look for professional art. I love paint-by-numbers and needlework and imperfect drawings or paintings. I don’t think this rises to the level of outsider art, but I’m not sure. Maybe it does. I’ll definitely look at thrift store art with a different eye from now on.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.