During a recent exhibition at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, MA, several artists, scholars, and educators gathered to discuss the role of biography and the value of art education in understanding and facilitating the creation of art. The exhibition, “Inside the Outside: Reconsidering Our Views about Art,” featured the works of a variety of grassroots and self-taught artists, professional educators, and artists with a strong connection to outsider art. The discussions, moderated by MCLA Professor Tony Gengarelly, provided an opportunity to explore biography and education as they related to the artists and evident diversity represented in the exhibition.
The featured presenter for the Art and Biography discussion was Jamie Franklin, Curator for the Bennington Museum in Bennington, Vermont. Franklin has an abiding interest in self-taught art, both as curator of the largest public repository of paintings by the legendary folk artist Grandma Moses and as a private collector of outsider and self-taught art.
Franklin advocated a need for “balance” between information on the artist’s life and a critical observation of the art, a common debate when presenting outsider art. He cited many examples to demonstrate how biography can indeed enhance the understanding and appreciation of an artist’s work, but cautioned that an excessive focus on the artist’s story can overshadow the art and even distort our perception of it.
Beginning with the Bennington Museum’s Grandma Moses collection, Franklin explained that Moses’s paintings were typically thought to be autobiographical reminiscences of country life in rural New England. Focusing on a genre scene completed by Moses near the end of World War II, In Harvest Time, Franklin observed that a 1943 letter from Moses to her art dealer contains a reference that appears to contradict assumptions that the artist’s memory paintings have little to do with contemporary life. Aware of the devastation of the overseas war, Moses expresses a hope for an eventual return to peace and tranquility. Could her picture be addressing a contemporary appreciation of the seasonal productivity exemplified by New England farm life? Franklin suggested that when one looks at Moses’s picture with a sense of history in mind, a straight forward autobiographical image can take on a more allegorical tone. Moses’s painting then represents the longing she shared with many people at that time for a “promised land of peace and repose.” When the viewer goes beyond the autobiographical assumptions about Moses’s art, the larger question surfaces about “how the artist was feeling and how was she trying to convey those feelings through her art.”
Franklin indicated, however, that self-taught and outsider artists may require biographical information to identify more accurately their outsider status and even to legitimize their work. But assumptions about biography can sometimes be misleading and cloud our view of the art. An anecdote about a series of paintings by artist Paul Humphrey revealed that the artist’s recorded comments about the creation of some of his own work were, upon investigation, proven to be false, opening a whole psychological dimension to a series of images called Sleeping Beauties. Humphrey had claimed that the “beauties” were originally inspired by a high school picture of his daughter Sandra—“reimagined, copied, and colored.” He had, in fact, no daughter named Sandra and the original picture had been clipped from a magazine, so this preoccupation with a fictitious person becomes a question mark about the motives of the artist and the significance of the repeated imagery he employed. Panelist Nancy Mathews, former Eugenie Prendergast Curator at the Williams College Museum of Art and author of a biography of Paul Gauguin, agreed with Franklin’s interpretation of the Paul Humphrey story. According to Mathews, much of Gauguin’s time in Tahiti, recorded in his travel journal Noa Noa, was “made up.” The artist had tried to “go native,” to bring his vision of art into his own life experience. Mathews punctuated this revelation with the question: “Where does the artist’s life end and the artist’s work begin?”
She also suggested that there are many “biographies” to consider when viewing a work of art: the artist, of course, but also those who have commented on the work and the viewer’s own frame of reference as well. Franklin agreed, indicating that a curator’s observations about a work of art are never completely objective. “You are always going to be affected by your own life’s story.”
The discussion took on a more personal dimension with commentary from Anna Saldo-Burke, expert in the field of special needs education and lifelong friend of outsider artist Jessica Park. Saldo-Burke and her twin sister Diana Saldo first met Park in a high school art class. The twins took the awkward student with autism under their wing and became her art teachers and support system at the school. In her memoir about their time with Park, Green Mittens Covered Her Ears, Saldo-Burke describes her relationship as more inclusive, with Jessica’s health and welfare foremost and her art as vehicle for a better hold on life.
In this context the life of the artist supersedes the artist’s work, which becomes a partner in a kind of coping and healing process. From this perspective, the art carries a different weight of importance. When asked by Mathews if Park “identifies herself as a successful artist?” Saldo-Burke responded that “she identifies herself as a successful person”; that her day job in the Williams College Mailroom, her network of family and friends, “sum up her life, not just her art.” Her art is a complete reflection of a successful life—“things that delight Jessica now delight others.” The art, according to Saldo-Burke’s experience, is part of a larger story. But, someone added, this fact does not make Jessica Park’s dazzling transformations of reality any less important as art.
The conversations continued with a focus on art education and the education of the artist. The featured presenter for this segment was Ilene Spiewak who teaches art at the College Internship Program campus in Lee, MA where “the art teacher creates a warm, inviting and flexible classroom environment where each student feels valued,” where “meaningful self-expression leads to improved self-esteem.” (CIP is a post-secondary program for students on the autism spectrum with multiple campuses across the US.) Spiewak’s own experience with art education was, in her words, “underwhelming.” Only through studying art therapy and art education did she discover her own artistic voice as well as a way to help others. Spiewak’s art and that of her students was on display in the college gallery.
Spiewak shared her particular sensitivity to the need for an open approach to art education, which she developed during her time at the Mill Creek School, an alternative high school in Philadelphia, where she worked for ten years before coming to CIP. Here she had an ample budget to buy art supplies and a large space where she could set up art stations and invite students to drop in “and explore themselves with art materials.” The “art room became a place for students to feel valued and good about themselves.” For Spiewak, art education is meant to inspire individual creativity and nurture self-worth.
Artist and educator Renee Bouchard picked up on the theme of open art education. For years she has been inspired by artists outside the mainstream of established art schools, galleries, and museums. A graduate of the Maine College of Art, and a professional artist who exhibits regularly and is represented by multiple galleries, Bouchard has chosen to “go outside by going inside” in order to find what she needs to say. Often her blend of colors and multiple layers of paint will unveil a thought or an inspiration only after the painting is completed—then she will title the work. Her Monk, 2011, is a cauldron of flaming color with latent fear breaking through the painting’s surface, suggesting, perhaps, the self-immolation of a Tibetan monk protesting political repression.
As an educator Bouchard has a keen interest in children’s art. Most recently she has been “collaborating” with her four-year-old son, engaging with his marks on the canvas in a kind of duet. For her, the innocent eye of the child is a priceless gift that opens new worlds. In an interview article for the Bennington Banner she comments, “I’m very interested in intuitive mark making. It’s helping me develop my vocabulary. I like the idea of somebody saying, ‘Did Renee do that or did a child do that’ and not knowing.” How, then, a questioner wanted to know, does one preserve the child’s innocent eye through years and layers of education? Bouchard offered a few observations and then concluded: “I do not know the answer.”
Eileen Mahoney, a certified Expressive Arts Therapist and Spiewak’s colleague at CIP, elaborated on the subject of creativity. In her opinion, creativity is inherent in everyone, “not only in art but in many aspects of our lives.” Art, however, “is for all of us, whether we are talented or not, a way to tap into that creativity.” She spoke to the need for art education to invite people into what she termed the “imaginal world that we experience less and less in our lives.” Art education, according to Mahoney, is not so much about how to make art but more about tapping into one’s creative center.
Many of the panelists appear to suggest that art education is largely a matter of facilitating creative expression. The path of the outsider artist has apparently not only broadened the circumstances under which art is made but has also pointed to how an open art education can support the creative process.
People who attended the presentations were invited to respond anonymously to the following questions: “What do you think art is, or can be?” None of the seventy-five respondents thought art was cultural property—of the professional artist, the art historian, the gallery, the museum—nor was it necessarily learned, nor did its quality of execution or the qualifications of its creator matter at all. Art was, for many, a manifestation of the mind, the human spirit, an expression of feelings, love—all the aspirations and attributes of being alive. Art is apparently everywhere and “Inside the Outside” seems to be a perfect place for it to thrive.
This article, originally published in the Folk Art Messenger (winter 2015), has been specially formatted for inclusion in Brut Force. Comments or questions about “Inside the Outside” can be forwarded to firstname.lastname@example.org