Author Archives: Admin

Project Onward

DSCN0507I had the privilege to visit Project Onwardin Chicago. I was curious to see a collective artist studio in operation. I have heard so much about Creative Growth in California and I understood that Project Onward was developed with similar goals. Their mission statement:

Project onward supports the career development of adult artists with mental and developmental disabilities. Artists receive work space, materials and professional guidance as well as exhibition opportunities and 60% from artwork sales.

For many adults with developmental disabilities and mental illness, social life can be challenging. In the studio, gallery and outside events, artists develop important personal and professional relationships which create lasting impact on the people who engage with the artists and the artists themselves.

Supporting Project Onward means you are broadening our community, giving our artists the chance to meet and interact with new people and offering opportunities for our artists to develop their artistic careers.

(I truly wish we could discard the notion that outsider artists are those with mental health and developmental disabilities. But I digress. I will save my exploration of this topic for my MA thesis.)

Project Onward has recently moved to a new location. The down side is that it’s a long way for those without a car (57 bus stops, to be exact); the upside is that it has oodles of space. The workshop itself is a room full of tables for the artists to work.  Project Onward can accommodate about 20 artists (if I remember correctly) and interested artists apply with a sample of their artwork. At the moment there are about 15 artists at work – 14 men and 1 woman. Artwork ranges from detailed pencil drawings to beautiful oils. Artwork is for sale, and the prices are more than reasonable. I went to Project Onward on my last day in Chicago. If my suitcases weren’t bursting and my credit card wasn’t ready to catch fire, I would have bought 5 or 6 pieces of artwork. The best I could do was to keep a wish list of work that I hope to buy some day. Check out the artists’ work on their website.

One of the fun features of Project Onward is that an artist of your choosing will do your portrait for $20. I asked to sit for Adam E. Hines, a young man in his late 20s. He was delighted to be asked and we had an interesting chat while he was working.

I learned two things about Adam. First, Adam is the lead singer in an R&B band, DHF Express. Second, Adam has a remarkable memory. It seems that he remembers everything – images, conversations, information – everything. Of course I don’t know if that is true, but it sure seemed so. I noticed a collection of artwork by his desk and sorted through them while he was working. I noticed a painting of a Vancouver  (Canada) landmark – the Pan Pacific hotel, with its distinctive “sails” above the conference centre. I asked Adam if he had been to Vancouver. No.  So why did he get the idea to paint this building? He said he saw it in a magazine or on TV or something and remembered it. The other paintings were of other city scenes from around the world. Although Adam has not travelled to these places, he takes virtual journeys to them through his artwork. And not only did he remember the name of the friend that I was with, he remembered the name of her grandson, whom he did a portrait for THREE YEARS AGO!  I’m one of those people who can’t remember the name of someone I’ve just met, so I was more than envious…

DSCN0578So, my portrait. What do you think? I should smile more, and I should get Botox for my wrinkled brow. But I was kind of flattered – my clothes match nicely, my hair looks neat, and I have a fresh application of red lipstick. And I’m #1.  I will remember to keep it real.

Discovering Prison Art

DSCN0485I have heard about art made by inmates (usually called “prison art”) since I started researching outsider art. Some authors include prison art in the broader category of outsider art because it is made by people who are isolated and on the margins of society. I had never seen prison art before yesterday.


Yesterday in Chicago, I saw a flyer advertising a sale of folk and outsider art at someone’s home. Great selection and discount prices were promised. So, of course, I had to go. (I have already had to buy another suitcase to accommodate all the books I have bought, so why not…?)  I arrived at Lynne’s large apartment and discovered an entire museum-sized collection of artwork she has acquired over the past 40-odd years. It wouldn’t be right to call Lynne a hoarder (at least not now) because the artwork had been carefully arranged, with the help of an assistant, over the past 3 months.  The collection was arranged in categories – Mexican retablos hung on the fireplace, folk art carvings lined the top of the bookcase, and paintings, paintings, and more paintings were stacked in piles along the walls. But that’s not all. There were hundreds of vintage Santa statues, hobo art, face jugs, vases, whirligigs, paint-by-number paintings (really???) and, well, you name it and it was somewhere in that apartment.

There were many things I had never seen before. Like, for instance, who knew that boxes could be made from toothpicks or that people collected sequined fruit? And then there was the prison art. There were stacks of drawings and paintings by Ford – apparently a well-known artist in that genre. His work is confidently and loosely drawn – sometimes in black and white, and sometimes with colour splashed in a few areas. Many of his images were of Adam and Eve, snake and apple included.

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Another artist creates little circular ceramic containers, with removable lids. The lids are decorated with ceramic tools, guns, etc. When you remove the lid, you can peer down into a little round prison cell, with one or two people, a bed, toilet and sink. At first glance, you might think you were looking at a cozy interior scene of a tiny house. Then you realize how small the space really is. A world within a world within a world.

I asked Lynne how her prison art collection came to be. She said that many years ago she became interested in the genre and she started visiting prisons. Apparently all prisons have art programs and their work is often hung in the prison entrance. She literally walked into prisons, looked at the art, then asked to speak with the art program director. She was able to choose work that she felt had merit and collect other work by those particular inmates. She sold the work privately or though art galleries; the proceeds went directly into the artist’s prison account for their personal use.

Lynne sometimes went into the prisons to speak with the artists directly. She said it was a peculiar experience to be the only woman in a men’s prison, to walk down halls and have metal doors slam shut after her. She stopped doing that after one inmate became irate that she was not taking his work. From hearing Lynne describe her experiences, you could see the enormous amount of respect she has for these artists and her genuine interest in their work. I asked about artwork produced by female inmates because I only saw one painting by Inez Nathaniel Walker. She explained that art programs are normally in institutions where the inmates have long-term sentences, and those are typically men. Women tend to be incarcerated for shorter terms, and they have less access to art programs.







Emery Blagdon’s healing machine

I have seen a lot of things in the outsider art world. I like some things; I don’t like others. But some works are mind-blowing and beautiful. Such are the creations of Emery Blagdon’s healing machines, on exhibit at the Kohler Arts Center.

Emery Blagdon (1907-1986) grew up in Nebraska. He inherited an uncle’s farm in 1955 and set about to harness the earth’s energies. Both of his parents had died from cancer and Blagdon hoped he might discover how to cure pain and illness. He began building healing machines in the barn, using scraps of wire, metal, beads, foil, vial of dirt, and mirrors. He worked continuously on this project for the next 30 years.

The healing machines were later installed in an adjoining shed that could house the entire machine. (See photo below.) He invited people in to receive the healing powers of his creation.

In 1975, Blagdon went to a pharmacy in search of “elements” to add to his machine. Pharmacist, Dan Dryden, was curious about Blagdon’s project and went out to the farm to see it himself. He (obviously) was astonished, and followed Blagdon’s progress for the rest of his life. Dryden moved away, but 11 years later on a return trip to Nebraska, he discovered that Blagdon has recently died. (Sadly, he died of cancer.) The farm and the healing machine were up for auction. To keep the entire work intact, Dryden and a friend purchased it. Parts of it were occasionally exhibited nationally and internationally, but the bulk of it was stored for 18 years.  In 2004, the Kohler Foundation took over the entire masterpiece and it is now part of its permanent collection.

It is hard to describe what it’s like to walk through a room of Blagdon’s creations. The magnitude of the project is awe-inspiring. The intricacy and shimmer of the hanging pieces are as beautiful as chandeliers. The room is quiet as visitors gaze at the magical display, swaying ever-so-slightly, as someone walks by. It feels like a sacred place.


Ray Yoshida at The Kohler Arts Center


Intuit: the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, organized a bus trip to Sheboygan, Wisconsin to visit the Kohler Arts Center. Kohler’s current exhibit is called Yoshida’s Museum of Extraordinary Values. Here is a short bio about Chicago artist, Ray Yoshida:

Ray Yoshida (1930–2009) taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for nearly four decades and had an indelible influence on generations of artists, including the Chicago Imagists. With his guidance, students learned to look beyond the confines of Western art, to explore source material that would propel their work into something unique to their experience. Whether it involved examining form in the array of African masks at The Field Museum, contemplating color in the weird and wonderful treasures at Maxwell Street Market, or understanding line in the works of self-taught artist Joseph Yoakum, Yoshida’s idea was to instinctively follow the eye to whatever ignited artistic sensibilities.

Yoshida was an obsessive collector of many, many things. His entire collection was on display in his home – lining shelves, on the walls, on the floor. Yoshida considered Chicago to be a city of objects and images, all of which triggered creative ideas. He encouraged his students to look and value objects and works of art in a new way, even if they were not appreciated by the art community. He removed folk art, manufactured goods, fine art and tribal pieces from their usual context and placed them on display in his home. “Once “rescued” into his home, the previous lives of the objects dissipated, new interpretations arose, and exciting conversations ensued.”

When Yoshida died in 2009, the Kohler Arts Center received the contents of his home – 2,600 objects and works of art. They are displayed in the museum as they were in his home. Over 60 of Yoshida’s own paintings are incorporated into the exhibit.  It challenges visitors to study their daily surroundings, be “voracious observers”, and train the eye to see everything. That is what sparks creativity.

Here is some of Yoshida’s own artwork:




Hello Canadians in Chicago!

I have to take a minute to say hello to my fellow Canadians in Chicago. I have met so many who have arrived at Intuit on a quest to see Outsider Art. It is heartening to know that I am not the only one in Canada who is interested in the subject. And it confirms that my research endeavours will not go unnoticed when it comes time to reveal the work of Canadian artists.

My colleagues at Intuit are a bit suspicious about why so many Canadians come into the Center when I am there.  I don’t know either, but it was delightful to meet every one of you.

There aren’t many of us, but we’re taking over the art world, eh?