Monthly Archives: July 2011

First encounter of the outsider kind – meeting Danielle Jacqui

About 10 years ago, I was driving along a rural road in Pont-de-l’Etoille in southern France, near Marseilles. We turned a corner and whizzed past a house, completely covered in mosaics.  I shouted at my partner to stop the car and ran back to see this peculiar row house – a sparking treasure chest on the side of the road. As luck would have it, a woman was standing inside an open studio door. That’s when I met Danielle Jacqui. The top banner of this blog is posted with the deepest respect for “She Who Paints.”

The mosaic house

Danielle was somewhat wary as I approached, no doubt wondering who this unannounced stranger was. Using my partner as a translator, I babbled on about the magnificence of her house, nearly genuflecting at the front door. Still reserved but gracious, she invited us into her studio. To describe it as a studio is not really accurate – her whole house, inside and out, is a work of art. The “studio” double doors open onto the narrow sidewalk and let light into the grotto-like space. A work table was covered with the tools of her trade – paints, buttons, ceramic pieces, a collection of colourful bits and pieces. Hanging on the wall were heavily textured paintings, hand-made cloth dolls, and over-sized white shirts, which she embroiders with patterns and decorates with vintage buttons.

Nothing could prepare me for the magnitude of Danielle Jacqui’s project. When I say that the entire house is covered with a colourful mosaic of mirror pieces and ceramic chips, I mean the entire house. Every wall, inside and outside, every ceiling, every surface, tables, chairs… you name it – it’s covered with mosaic. It’s breathtaking and dazzling. Some of the patterns are decorative, some are faces, animals, or fantasy themes.  Every single inch of it is gorgeous.

Danielle's button

I stopped to look at her pile of vintage buttons. My mother had a metal box of buttons that I used to play with as a child. It is a battered blue metal box, labelled “Edgeworth extra high grade sliced pipe tobacco.” I assume that it belonged to her father, a pipe smoker, who died before I was born.  I would dump the buttons onto the floor, examine the shapes and colours, and marvel how something so ordinary could be so beautiful. That box of buttons is a treasure that I still keep in my closet. It is a container of personal history. Danielle  offered me one of her buttons. I picked out my favourite and promised to send one of my own to her in return – a strange, but meaningful acceptance ritual. I suppose one of my  mother’s old buttons has been sewn onto one of Danielle’s creations and a happy collector is oblivious to its origin. What an extraordinary fate for a simple button.

Who’s not outside(r)

The distinction between folk art and outsider art is somewhat vague.  I often see folk art and outsider art grouped together in books, galleries, and museums.  Although many folk artists are self-taught, they are usually instructed in traditional skills by someone in their community. Their work is an expression of their cultural identity. In other words, folk art is tied to a particular culture. Again, I am referencing Roger Cardinal’s analysis on who’s in and who’s out.

folk art: ladybug whirligig (?)

Outsider artists do not include:

– folk artists (tend towards a cultural stereotype, with little variation among artists)

– Sunday painters (who hope to reach the status of professional artists)

– from an underdeveloped country (fortunately, the discussion about so-called “primitive” art has gone the way of the do-do bird)

– children (who are attempting to integrate into society under the guidance of adults (who should know better than to tell children that the sun must be painted yellow…)

– prisoners (who, arguably, are trapped in a different culture)

– engaged in art therapy (under the direction of trained staff)

 (In drafting this list, I am acknowledging that although my father spent a lot of time puttering in his workshop making strange things, he was definitely not an outsider artist. He falls into the unknown category of “Italian handyman-who-liked-to-saw-up-found-pieces-of-wood-to-make-whirligigs-and-donkey-cart-planters.”  But I digress.)

The distinguishing feature of outsider artists is that they are utterly compelled to create their art. They are radically different from each other, each forming a discrete, autonomous reality with a rich expressive richness.  Roger Cardinal sums it up perfectly as “a teaming archipelago rather than a continent crossed by disputed borders. The only connection between each island of sensibility is that they are all distinct from the cultural mainland.”

(The second distinguishing feature of outsider artists is that they don’t whine that their work isn’t selling. Being “an artist” and making their work for public consumption is antithetical to their motivation for creating art. But I digress again.)

Who’s outside(r)

Darger

French philosopher Michael Foucault writes about an ancient Chinese encyclopaedia that Jorge Luis Borges claims to have found. In this tome, animals are divided into bizarre categories, such as: belonging to the Emperor; embalmed; tame; suckling pigs; fabulous; innumerable; that from a long way off look like flies, and so on. Foucault notes that the thing we understand in one great leap when reading this list is the exotic charm of another system of thought and, in our own limited system of thought, the stark impossibility of thinking that.

Accepting another system of thought is, I believe, the key to approaching outsider art. It is us, not the outsider artists, who are trapped on the outside, looking in. It is our responsibility to accept another system of thought. It is, indeed, possible to think that.

There are as many definitions of outsider art as there are recipes for bouillabaisse. There is also a growing discomfort with labelling the artists as “marginalized” and separating their art into a category of its own. This is a discussion that I will leave for the academics to punch out at a conference in Florida.

I know an outsider artist (Kevin House) who attended the Outsider Art Fair in NYC. I asked him if he met any other artists there, to which he replied, “No. They’re all insane or dead.”  (I didn’t point out the obvious to him – that he wasn’t dead, so therefore… well, nevermind.) I’ll try to shed a bit more light on who gets on the list (with great deference for Roger Cardinal’s analysis):

Outsider artists are:                                                                                      

– self-taught (learning to draw from your mother doesn’t count)

– unaware of or indifferent to the work of other artists (Picasso who?)

– creating art that is outside the cultural norm (i.e., it may not look like something  you’ve seen before)

– compelled to create art

– not creating art for profit or for others to admire

– not concerned with public opinion of their art

– not necessarily dealing with a mental disability

– sometimes well educated (lack of education is not the same as minimal cultural conditioning)

 

Next blog: so who’s not on the list?

When you come to a fork in the road, take it

Zinelli

There are pivotal points in our lives – times when you are certain that life has revealed another one of its mysteries. My first art history course at university was one of those moments. But when I came to the first fork in the road I decided to study psychology instead of art. I took the second fork in the road and went on to study law. I find myself standing at another fork in the road, very much older, and somewhat wiser. Joseph Campbell would describe this as an “aha” moment as I venture into the unknown pursuit of my bliss – outsider art. My intention is to tell you about artists that I know, discover the unacknowledged outsider artists in Canada, and connect with kindred folk along the way.

Last year I attended the Outsider Art Fair in New York City. I was chatting with a local who asked what I was doing in NYC. When I told her, she looked incredulous and thought it was crazy that there would be an art exhibit outside in the freezing February weather…

If outsider art isn’t exhibited outdoors, then what is it? In short, outsider art is created by self-taught artists who are working outside the art system (schools, galleries, museums). Their works owe nothing to traditional forms of art or fashionable art trends. And that’s what makes it so interesting. If you’ve taken an walk through the history of Western art, you will know it as “art brut” (raw or rough art), a term coined by artist Jean Dubuffet in the 1920s after reading a book by German psychiatrist, Hans Prinzhorn: Artistry of the Mentally Ill. (Technically, I believe the term art brut still refers only to art housed in the Musée de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland.)

Think about the European cultural scene in the early 1900s. Avant garde music, art, and literature were burgeoning and Freud was introducing the workings of the unconscious mind. They came to a fork in the road and they took it; the time was ripe for exploring art that was outside accepted cultural boundaries. In the 1970s, British author, Roger Cardinal, translated the term as “outsider art” in his book of the same name, and the dialogue began anew.

Like outsider artists, I am entirely self-taught. I can’t give you an academic perspective on the topic, only tell you about my discoveries, voice my questions, and introduce you to the interesting people I’ve met along the way. Someone once told me that you end up being what you were supposed to be in life. Maybe I should have cut to the chase 30 years ago.

These are my notes from the outside, looking in.