In February of 1992, Greg Bottoms’ older brother, Michael, who suffered from schizophrenia, drizzled gasoline in the hallway of his family’s home in Tidewater, Virginia. His mother, his father, and his youngest brother were sleeping. Mr. Bottoms, age twenty-one at the time, had already moved out. When the floor was covered, Michael lit a match, threw it, and then pedaled off on a bicycle with a baby seat hitched to the back. The family woke up in time to save one another, but the crime sent Michael to prison and then to a forensic unit of a Virginia state psychiatric hospital.
This incident inspired Mr. Bottoms to devote much of his literary career — he is the author of seven books, including a memoir about his brother — to investigating the ways that suffering expresses itself in the world, whether by crime, by self-destruction, or by art. “I think I get suffering,” writes Mr. Bottoms in the introduction to his 2013 book, Spiritual American Trash: Portraits from the Margins of Art & Faith (Counterpoint). “It bends and reshapes a person the way extreme sun bends and reshapes a tree.”
In the book, Mr. Bottoms elevates the lives and work of eight outsider artists that suffer from mental illness in a quest to convey that “we all have equal experience and equal lives,” as he told me, when we spoke over the phone in late August. Adopting the same methods as the artists he portrays, Mr. Bottoms collected “found materials” and wove them into narratives. He browsed Google Earth, YouTube videos, Folkstreams.net, local obituaries, documentaries, and newspaper archives, some with conflicting reports; the result is eight short and incisive biographies, each stunningly distinct from the others. He calls them “portraits.”
Drawn in spare, lyrical prose, the artist portraits depict a version of despair that manifests itself later in life, triggered by an event like death or depression. “All meaning in their life is shifted and the art is a reconstitution of meaning,” Mr. Bottoms explained. Grief, sorrow, loneliness, or mental illness leads the subjects of his book to “find a way out of suffering — find their own way out.” All eight of the artists featured have passed away, but while living, had very little (if any) contact with the traditional art world.
Mr. Bottoms favors two works in particular from the book. One is Geraldo Alfonso’s hall of mirrors, a memorial to his mother, a “Santeria ‘Voodoo Queen'” from Cuba. She died in Key West when Alfonso was fifty-seven, sending him down into a quicksand of grief and prompting him for the first time to create art, one such piece a shrine made “of mirrored glass, Christmas lights, dolls, and framed pictures of his youthful familia.”
Mr. Bottoms’ other favorite work is The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, by Saint James (James Hampton, Jr.), an African-American janitor from Elloree, South Carolina, whose story takes the first chapter in Spiritual American Trash. Hampton didn’t live to see his masterpiece displayed in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “It looks like something out of an Egyptian tomb,” Mr. Bottoms recalled. “Gold and silver and precious metals, but then you realize its cardboard wrapped in tin foil. It’s astonishing.”
Mr. Bottoms conjures distinct voices for each of the book’s eight artists. “She had imagination, Annie did,” he writes of Annie Hooper, a forty-nine-year old Sunday school teacher whose depression crested when her son, her only child, was admitted to a World War II veteran’s hospital. “She could get so confused, so tangled in her thoughts, that she frightened her husband.” One day, Hooper went for a walk on the beach and noticed “driftwood stacked and leaning in a peculiar way.” This image inspired her to spend the next forty years constructing approximately twenty-five hundred “biblical figures made of driftwood and concrete.” They stand about two feet tall; Mr. Bottoms likens them to Cabbage Patch dolls.
Another artist featured in the book is Frank Van Zant or “Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder,” as he started calling himself in the 1960s. Part Creek Indian, part Caucasian, Chief was a decorated WWII veteran, an ex-cop, an erstwhile private investigator, and a Methodist pastor who did not serve a church. His many children — he had six by then, would father eleven in all — all thought he suffered from depression, but Chief “knew his problem had to do with his relationship with the Great Spirit,” as the story goes. In 1968, he began creating The Monument of Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder in the desert of Nevada, “an outpost of concrete, rock, scrap iron, abandoned automobiles, discarded lumber, bottles, car windshields, animal bones, other assorted trash, and his remarkable, freehand cement sculptures of Native American motifs and heroes.” By the 1980s, law enforcement began staking out his property. Besieged with psychological pain and failing health, in 1989, Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder penned a note to one of his sons and then shot himself in the head.
While three of Mr. Bottom’s stories end in suicide, the other five conclude with interesting revelations from the artists. For example, we meet Clarence Schmidt of Astoria, Queens, a trained plasterer and stonemason who lived a typical city life until his early forties, when “his mind, his whole system of values…shifted.” Mr. Bottoms describes him as “Santa on LSD.” Schmidt moved to Woodstock, New York, and built a house he called “Journey’s End.” He slathered its exterior with black tar embedded with broken glass, mirrors, and bottles of various colors. He then sold the land and cobbled together a seven-story mansion called “My Mirrored Hope” or “Mirror House,” both allusions to its numerous windows of different shapes and sizes. The mansion caught fire in 1968 due to its flammable tar. Undeterred, Schmidt parked a broken down Studebaker station wagon nearby, the base of another house. “Mark II” resembled a “giant, silver sea urchin,” until a fire destroyed it, too. Homeless, hospitalized, and approaching death, Schmidt referred to himself as “the world’s first true pop artist.”
In 2007, Mr. Bottoms published his first and only other book about outsider artists, a slim and tightly researched volume of journalism called The Colorful Apocalypse (University of Chicago Press). It deals more intimately with his impressions of the field. “When you’re in an outsider art museum, there’s one part of me that’s thinking, wow,” he remembered. “And there’s another part of me that can’t help but be aware that part of the commodity, part of what’s being sold, is just eccentricity and suffering itself.” He compared it to rubbernecking. “You’re looking at the expression of a paranoid schizophrenic and it’s coming out of somebody’s hell.” If Mr. Bottoms pens a third book about outsider artists, he would expand on Hampton, whose life was among the most hopeful of the eight artists he studied, which is to say it was one of the stories that didn’t end with suicide. (It ended with stomach cancer, and “the work eased his pain.”) There is not enough extant biographical information to write an entire book of Hampton’s life, so this new venture, if pursued, would take the form of a novel.
Unlike scholars who analyze and art professionals who critique, Mr. Bottoms approaches his subjects indeed like a novelist, channeling the artists he writes about in order to appreciate and possibly to understand what it’s like to live inside their worlds, to see through their eyes. To read Spiritual American Trash is to encounter a seeker, a master of empathy, trying to occupy the precarious emotional terrain of each individual artist. The artists are not mere subjects to him; they are people who “burn really hot,” Mr. Bottoms told me. “I identify with these people,” he added. “They looked really wild and eccentric, maybe even scary to a layperson, but deep down, they’re just doing what a lot of people like me do. And they do what the quote unquote ‘professional audience’ who is interested in them do.” That is, they pursue their interests, chase their obsessions, sometimes to save themselves and sometimes to death.
After Spiritual American Trash was released, Mr. Bottoms got an email from a psychiatrist he knew through his older brother. “[The psychiatrist] saw it as a compassionate book that was trying to give credit to these people. And in a way, that note felt better than any review.” While it is often easier to define people by what they are not, specifically with terms like “outsider artist” — not part of the institutional art field, not formally educated, not part of mainstream society — Mr. Bottoms attempts to define the artists by what they are, by what they have created. He recognizes their dignity and their drive, or, as he put it, in a callback to Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder, their collective ability to “make a monument in the desert.”