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The Vernacular of Tom Patterson

Art is ubiquitous in everyday life. We encounter it practically from birth, even if it doesn’t always speak to us. Critic and curator Tom Patterson knows this. And so he considers carefully my question about the first piece of art that spoke to him. “Aside from animated cartoons, comics and other graphic imagery for kids and teenagers, the first art that stopped me in my tracks was a vernacular assemblage alongside a highway in Aberdeen, Mississippi, which I saw for the first time when I was about six years old.” What the 6-year-old Patterson found noteworthy that day in 1958, on his family’s annual trek from Dublin, Georgia, to visit their Mississippi relatives, was a tremendous roadside monolith made of scrap. “I recall it as a towering, open-air structure as tall as a two-story house, cobbled together from salvaged plumbing, scrap metal and lumber, and decorated on the outer surfaces with hubcaps, old license plates, animal skulls and other found things.” A year later, on the same route, he begged his grandfather to stop the car so that he could take a closer look. Not only did young Patterson get to see his obsession up close, but he was able to meet its creator, Steven Sykes.

“I didn’t even know to call it art at the time. I was aware that the adults in my family considered it a pile of junk, and probably figured Mr. Sykes was half-crazy to have wasted his time building it. But I somehow knew it was special, and I considered it beautiful.” That day, a creation he didn’t know was art, and an experience with a man he didn’t understand was an artist, laid the groundwork for Patterson’s fascination with vernacular and self-taught art. As other pieces of folk art peppered the southern roadsides of Patterson’s youth, he discovered other modern assemblage artists. One of the most notable was Robert Rauschenberg’s combine sculptures.

Tom Patterson at the Etowah Indian Mounds, Cartersville, Georgia, 1980, en route to Howard Finster's Paradise Garden for an introductory visit. Photo by JONATHAN WILLIAMS.

Tom Patterson at the Etowah Indian Mounds, Cartersville, Georgia, 1980, en route to Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden for an introductory visit. Photo by JONATHAN WILLIAMS.

Patterson’s obsession culminated with an experience at the Black Mountain College Festival, which took place at St. Andrews College in Laurinberg, North Carolina, in 1974, the year of Patterson’s college graduation from St. Andrews. . “Over the course of two months, several former teachers and students at Black Mountain visited St. Andrews to give readings, lectures, performances and exhibitions. The festival was my personal introduction to Buckminster Fuller, John Cage and Merce Cunningham, as well as poets Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn and Jonathan Williams. It was a liberating, life-changing experience for me to get to know these people, who became role models for my future life.” Patterson has continued to make connections and friendships with Black Mountain alumni, including poet Joel Oppenheimer, writer Fielding Dawson, photographer Lile Bonge, poet-potter M.C. Richards, collage artist Irwin Kremen, and most recently, painter-poet Basil King and his wife, writer Martha King.

These experiences and friendships inspired a career in writing that began at Brown’s Guide to Georgia, a monthly publication covering travel and culture of the Southeastern United States. In 1979, he became Executive Director of The Jargon Society, a non-profit literary and visual arts publishing house. Opportunities created more opportunities. His accomplishments multiplied and branched off into new endeavors. Writing about art helped him see it in a new light, but it also allowed him to interact with it in a new way: “It has stimulated me to look more closely, to think more clearly and imaginatively, and to write more carefully. It has also led to related work as an independent curator, a role I’ve enjoyed for 30 years.”

Tom Patterson with visionary artist Bernard G. Schatz aka L-15, Charlottesville, Virginia, 1993. Photo by Lynne Ingram.

Tom Patterson with visionary artist Bernard G. Schatz aka L-15, Charlottesville, Virginia, 1993. Photo by Lynne Ingram.

Patterson’s foray into curation began in 1984, when he embarked on “a three-year project to document and promote preservation of folk art environments and related art in the South, under the auspices of the Jargon Society.” To draw attention to the project, Patterson co-curated an exhibit called “Southern Visionary Folk Artists” with folklorist and photographer Roger Manley. Thought it was the first curatorial endeavor for either Patterson or Manley, it received national attention and was timed perfectly. Later that year, southern folk art boomed with the release of The Talking Heads LP Little Creatures, which featured a painting of the band by Howard Finster, who had been included in Manley and Patterson’s exhibit.

Little Creatures Talking Heads

Talking Heads, Little Creatures, 1985. Photo Credit Alain Cailhol

Patterson’s roles as critic and curator are interwoven. “In both cases I’m essentially involved with the same concerns–art and the way it’s presented in museums and galleries. When writing as a critic, I’m an evaluator of art that I didn’t select and curatorial decisions I didn’t make. As a curator I’m an enthusiastic advocate for work that I’ve selected–art that has already passed my test, so to speak–and I write about what I see as its strengths and virtues.” Patterson doesn’t have one method of curation. Artists, themes, or materials may serve as the starting point for his exhibits. Much like his childhood experiences, Patterson’s professional life allows him to acknowledge all of the art that surrounds us, but still champion the pieces that speak to him in some special way.

When I asked him to speak on the changes that have occurred in the Outside Art Movement during his time covering it, Patterson corrected my usage: “You mean Outsider Art, which can’t really be described as a ‘movement,’ because the artists to whom the term is usually applied tend to work in a strictly individual manner, with little or no reference to what other artists might be doing.” He prefers to avoid the term “outsider art” altogether, because it stems from a false dichotomy that unfairly marginalizes the art and the artists who make it.”

Tom Patterson visiting with artist Mose Tolliver at Tolliver's home in Montgomery, Alabama, 1993. Photo by Lynne Ingram.

Tom Patterson visiting with artist Mose Tolliver at Tolliver’s home in Montgomery, Alabama, 1993. Photo by Lynne Ingram.

Though the terminology may be broken in Patterson’s eyes, he agrees that the interest in “self-taught, non-academic” art has changed for the better over his 35 years in the industry. A more inclusive attitude in the contemporary art world has allowed the popularity and prices of these works to go up. Additionally, “We’re seeing more and more group exhibitions that include works by both self-taught and academically trained artists, and I consider this a healthy development. On the other hand, we’re also seeing more outsider-art ‘wannabes’–commercially savvy artists and would-be artists eager to employ the label as a sales strategy, although their work can’t hold a candle to the real thing.”

In a world where art truly is everywhere, Patterson is a reminder that those who champion, contextualize, and judge art can be just as integral to our finding the pieces that speak to us, pieces like Sykes’ scrap tower, as the artists themselves.