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Collective Soul: Chicago Tribute to Outsider Art

An art school background or an expensive studio are not prerequisites to being a great artist.

That’s the attitude of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, who used the fall 2014 season to exhibit the best work from Chicago artists with ordinary backgrounds and extraordinary inspiration in their “Collective Soul” exhibit.

Founded in 1991, Intuit is the only nonprofit organization and museum in the country dedicated solely to self-taught and outsider art. Intuit also invites collectors and artists to come and speak or lead workshops to teach new techniques.

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“For me, it’s ‘No Excuses Art,’” said Heather J. Holbus, Intuit’s Assistant Director of Operations and Promotions. “You don’t have the fancy materials, you don’t have to have gone to art school to create something beautiful. You create because you love it.”

Holbus has been working with Intuit for seven years, starting first as a volunteer looking for something to “alleviate the monotony” of her previous job. Holbus said that she fell in love with Intuit, with its welcoming atmosphere and its accessibility.

That sentiment was echoed by Robert Grossett, one of the curators for the collection and a board member for two years.

“So many of the artists are untrained,” Grossett said. “Many of them have hard lives, and yet they were still inspired to create.”

“Collective Soul” is a sort of greatest hits collection of outsider art in the Chicago Metropolitan area. The exhibit was proposed to the exhibition committee as a way to expose the heavy hitters of the Chicago Outsider Art world and give attention to those who were less well-known. As always, Chicago’s art collectors were eager to participate.

“We were just trying to get things that haven’t been shown,” Grossett said. “A lot of people just opened up their galleries, every floor, and just let us pick what we wanted.”

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One of the artists included was Lee Godie, known for her hand-colored photographs and self-portraits and for her life dedicated to living amongst nature and working without her own space (her photographs were taken at bus terminals).

“She was a real character,” said Holbus. “On any given day, a piece of her art might cost $5 or $500, depending on whether or not she liked you, and she carried around a chalice of Lipton tea.”

Another major artist featured is Rev. Howard Finster, who chose to paint after he hit his thumb, “saw the face of God” and decided to use paintings to spread the word. Finster’s work, which consists of religious paintings on shadowboxes and plexiglass, became better known after he designed album covers for R.E.M. (“Reckoning”) and Talking Heads (“Little Creatures”).

Intuitive art often comes from artists trying to process trauma, as it was with Carlo Zinnelli, who suffers from schizophrenia and was put in isolation after coming home from World War II who found an outlet and a mode of communication through painting.

“So many of the artists are untrained,” Grossett said. “Many of them have hard lives, and yet they were still inspired to create.”

Another example of an artist who found release, even reasons for celebration through art is William “Bill” Traylor, a freed slave whose drawings on cardboard explored his African heritage.

Yet “Collective Soul’s” most famous art works comes from an artist who lived a largely solitary life. Henry Darger was a reclusive man whose 15,000 page novel and apartment of illustrations and other artwork was discovered by his landlords upon his death. His work has since become widely celebrated.

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Darger is of special interest to Intuit, which opened the Henry Darger Room in 2008. The room is meant to reproduce Darger’s living and working space, which was a small one-room apartment that was filled to the brim with comic books, cartoons, magazines and Darger’s work, among other possessions. The room helps give Intuit’s visitors an idea of how Darger’s modest living contrasted with his wealth of imagination.

“He’s sort of the epitome of an outsider artist,” Holbus said. “He asked for no audience, he never shared his work. He was driven only by himself.”

As with their other exhibits, Intuit spent a year planning Collective Soul, and their next event, a retrospective for Gregory Warmack, better known as Mr. Imagination.

“You have to mix it up,” Grossett said. “You have to think about what hasn’t been seen recently in order to keep people engaged. That’s the hard stuff, getting all the stuff planned.”

Still, it’s hard to imagine that the family of curators, collectors, artists and patrons Intuit has cultivated will have too much trouble planning.

“It’s kind of a small world, but like any kind of genre, there’s a group of collectors really gung ho about it,” said Holbus. “It’s nice to be part of that. We’re all outsiders here.”