Observing just one Richard Saholt work has the potential to trigger a pool of primal and disturbing emotions. His collage work beckons fear, violence, chaos, and pain while it is a confessional space for him to navigate a darkness that enveloped him for most of his 89 years. But for 40 of those years, he feverishly, even manically created a body of work that is as prolific as it is unsettling.
Saholt’s life was comprised of violence and aggression from the beginning. He battled schizophrenia (an illness he contends he was born with), an illness that also plagued his mother and father, furthering the intense complication of the life he was fated to live. His father was a mortician and coercively forced a disturbing array of psychological brutality onto his son: He was once forced to gather the body parts of a man dismembered by a train. These constant and sadistic orders set a tone for a life containing violence, rage, and fear along with the added reality of his mental illness.
Last fall, Intuit, Chicago’s center for Outsider and Intuitive Art, hosted an exhibition called Mad as Hell: The Collages of Richard Saholt. The show was curated by Michael Bonesteel, an Assistant Professor in Art History and Visual Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Bonesteel would come to inherit the body of work by Saholt upon the artist’s death from basal cell carcinoma in January of 2014. But the graphic and angered nature of the work, though, keeps him from hanging it in his house: “Even I am not comfortable looking at it on a daily basis.”
Bonesteel said that Melissa Merli of The News Gazette in Champaign, Illinois reported that the show was overpowering, “I was overwhelmed by the collages of Richard Saholt, a World War II veteran with schizophrenia. They are so powerful I had to compose myself before going back in again.”
Like so much Art Brut, there is a stream of consciousness appearance to the pieces, but Bonesteel said that, paradoxically, the compositions are very deliberate. “He spent many hours on each piece searching for images and words to combine, and then many more hours figuring out how to put them together.”
Untitled (Stress, Sanity, Survival) acts as a kind of visual autobiography. From the image of a child and an infant near the top left (with phrases like “Child Hell”; “Shocking”; “The Twisted Early Years”; “A Failure – Schizo”), to the war imagery quoting his own mental illness and post-traumatic stress, the work is Saholt’s intensely emotive timeline.
The rather sedate Untitled (Life was ruined, nightmares) pictures a young Saholt in uniform. The caption “My life was shattered” is a counter to the indifferent glare on his face in the photo. It is interesting, too, that it is so sparse with no collage save for the text. “Life was ruined” and “My life was shattered” at the top and bottom of the photograph. The word “Nightmares” is the only color in the piece with bold red letters on a black background, giving the work its haunting center.
“Many people do not like Saholt’s work. It’s the kind of thing that makes one uncomfortable,” Bonesteel explained. This fact does not diminish the works’ value to him, though, and his statement seems to avow the opposite sentiment, illustrated in his drive to exhibit the work and further insert Saholt into the dialogue of Art Brut.
Joseph Haid contacted Saholt in 2003 about exhibiting his work during the National Art Education Association Conference that spring at the University of Wisconsin, Stout. “The work was unique to the school setting; rarely were visionary artists’ work shown there. [It] was very exciting to have an opportunity to present this kind of work to the campus,” he explained. “The artwork appeared more dynamic when it was hung and lighted properly at our gallery.” Saholt spoke during the exhibition, but seemed very uncomfortable with the public gallery setting. “One could feel the fear, horror, and sadness in his work,” Haid continued. “I understood him better through his artwork. The more that I looked at his work, especially his story, I felt a deep understanding of a man struggling through mental torments and appreciate that his art making kept his ‘sanity.’”
Doug Smock, one of Saholt’s few trusted friends, met the artist while working at Art Materials, a supply store frequented by Saholt. “He was a regular walk-in customer who bought sheets of poster board and cans of 3M ‘77’ spray on a daily basis.” Smock continued, “He was a character. Kooky. He brought a whirlwind of energy with him when he came to the store.” Despite his manic energy and piercing eyes, he didn’t possess the aggressive nature that permeates his artwork and, sometimes, his letters.
“Richard was an obsessive letter writer. I received letters regularly from him. Sometimes daily,” Smock said “Words were bolded and capitalized. Words were aggressively underlined. These letters were as creatively interesting as his visual collages. His rambling and ranting narratives [were] based upon themes of war, the VA, Northwest Airlines, mistrust, betrayal, violence, and so on.”
Sometimes, though, there would be a collage that was sparser, more accessible, and less violent. His portrait of Princess Diana’s wedding day and holiday works were possibly, to Bonesteel, moments when Saholt wanted to take a break from the violence and rage so much a part of the majority of his output. “The only conclusion I can draw is that for whatever reason, the work he took personally, that emerged from the more troubled areas of his personality, resulted in the strongest work both technically and aesthetically, while the pieces he was less emotionally attached to seemed to be the weakest in his body of work,” explained Bonesteel.
Creating art helped him to accept and even appreciate his illness. In 2001, he told the Star Tribune, “I can make people see and understand things they never could before. So in a way, my mental illness has been a gift. Without it, I wouldn’t have amounted to a row of beans.”
Fearful about discussing his experiences in the war, found material gave him the language and the context to express that anguish. His process was meditative with the searching, cutting, placement, and adhering of image and text to paper. His work demands the viewer to confront the worst in the world and ourselves as a means to expunge even the most palpable of pain.