To talk about the late Margaret Z. Robson’s collection of self-taught art—recently donated to the Smithsonian American Art Museum—you have to talk about how she collected. “My mother was basically a farm girl,” says her son, Douglas Robson, steward of the collection after Mrs. Robson’s passing. “So she was sort of an untrained artist in her own way, in that she didn’t have any formal art training; so her collecting was pretty instinctive and a compelling part of her life, as it is for a lot of outsider artists.”
What began as Robson and her husband collecting “more classic folk art—duck decoys and things like that” evolved into the vast collection of 48 self-taught artists, 93 works of which are being transferred to SAAM, whose mediums span drawing, painting, sculpture, mixed media, and found objects, and all of which serve as cultural touchstones for their artists.
Leslie Umberger, SAAM’s dedicated curator of folk and self-taught art, says of Robson’s collecting, “In various ways, all the works she cared for tell a story about when and where their maker lived.” James Castle’s soot drawings vividly depict his surroundings in remote, mid-century Idaho’s Boise Basin.
Calvin and Ruby Black’s “Possum Trot” is another example Umberger provides of a hyper-localized presentation of time and place in Robson’s collecting. Former carnival and circus workers, the Blacks relocated to California’s Mojave Desert from the South and, when the neighboring Highway 15 was built, they created a site that would “lure people to stop and spend their money.”
The installation included a train, a stagecoach, windmills, and dolls carved by Calvin and clothed by Ruby. Though less a literal depiction of surroundings, the “Possum Trot” is a product of the story of the Westward development of the country. Umberger explains, “The Blacks used art, their experience as entertainers, and an American-style roadside attraction to carve out a colorful and animated existence.”
Though Robson’s unexpected passing left no explicit directions on her wishes for the future of the collection, Mr. Robson spoke with Umberger, who Mrs. Robson had known during Umberger’s tenure as senior curator of exhibitions and collections at Wisconsin’s John Michael Kohler Arts Center, and soon determined that SAAM would be the best fit for Mrs. Robson’s collection.
Says Mr. Robson, “It’s a very respected institution that has a history of being at the forefront of collecting folk and self-taught art. They have a dedicated curator to that genre. It’s a free museum, so a lot of people can visit. And my parents also had a relationship to Washington, DC because my father was in the government a few times. So all of those things came together and it felt like a good solution, especially to keep a nice cohesion together for the whole collection.”
SAAM’s relationship with self-taught art dates back to 1970, when it acquired James Hampton’s “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly,” after the death of the artist, who worked in a makeshift studio close to the museum. The piece took up the entirety of its garage studio when found, and was constructed over 14 years. Blending found and discarded objects, handmade elements, and some purchased materials, Hampton made about 180 separate Throne components. Umberger says, “It was an astonishing piece, really a conglomeration of individual pieces that collectively spoke of spiritual vision, perseverance, and declaration of self.”
Further, the piece was acquired by SAAM not only due to its proximity to the museum, but also the moment in time: “It was becoming increasingly clear that the story of America—the full story—was not being fully told in museums.”
Just as the Hampton piece laid the groundwork for expanding the stories of American art that SAAM was able to tell, the Robson collection builds on those new tellings. While eleven of the artists in the collection are brand new to SAAM, many of the pieces add depth to existing artist collections, a component which, Umberger explains, is especially necessary in many self-taught collections.
“Self-taught artists often work with materials that are affordable and available—works on paper and textiles are more common that oil paintings for example. Such works are inherently fragile and can only be on view for limited amounts of time. That means that in order for the museum to regularly share works by important artists such as James Castle, Bill Traylor, or Judith Scott we need to have a deep enough holding to rotate which works can be on view, so this collection really helps us make original works of art available to the public on an ongoing basis.”
These works include those of the Philadelphia Wireman, an unknown artist whose 1,200 wire sculptures were discovered in an alley in 1982; the works of Alfred “Kid Mertz,” including a stack of 1,265 painted railroad spikes; and William Edmondson’s stone sculpture “Untitled (Birdbath),” all of which speak to the spirit of Robson’s collecting, according to her son. “I think there’s a certain whimsy in what she collected. I know that, whenever children visited my mother’s house, they were drawn to those spikes with the little smiley faces on them and they wanted to touch them.”
There was a whimsy in how Robson interacted with some of her pieces as well. Mr. Robson describes his mother’s occasional utilitarian attitude toward some of her most notable pieces, citing “Untitled (Birdbath)” as an example. “In her last residence, there was a pipe coming up out of the middle of the apartment and she didn’t know what to do with it, so she put the big Edmondson birdbath, which is probably one of the most important pieces, right on top of it, right in the middle of the room. Sometimes she would collect her mail and leave some of it right on top of the birdbath, which I always thought was kind of amusing.”
From Robson’s self-taught collecting methodology to her tendency toward fanciful, human pieces to her unpretentious day-to-day interactions with her collection, Robson’s attitude of access is as essential to her collection as the pieces that comprise it. This unifying theme comes full circle with the donation to SAAM.
On what the Robson gift means in the context of SAAM’s greater collection, Umberger says, “Perhaps most importantly, I think the gift also speaks to a level of trust in the way SAAM cares for objects as well as an advocacy for the way in which we present and contextualize this work—which is as a part of a broader American spectrum and as equally valid to any other kind of art. At SAAM this work is integrated into the larger American story and it’s always on view; it’s not isolated and the attention it receives isn’t sporadic—it’s part of the foundation. This, in turn, becomes an important teaching tool here; that American art is inherently democratic and it might come from anyone, anywhere.”