Category Archives: About Outsider Art

The self-taught artist

I am now writing about one of the most difficult subjects and it’s about self-taught artists. *Self-taught* is such a simple and common word, yet it takes on a whole new meaning in the world of outsider art.

circle-16_42910_lgI tried to create a pictorial representation of how the various labels overlap in the United States: folk art, contemporary folk art, outsider art, art brut, and the work of African-American Southern artists. It gets confusing. I have concluded that the best tactic is to use any one of these terms, say it with confidence, and wait to see if you are challenged.  (Not likely.)

The first thing that comes to mind are the amateur painters who you may see at the park with an easel. They take their endeavors seriously and may actually be quite good at it, but they are not the self-taught group of artists that we talk about in the world of outsider art. These hobbyists are aware of the world of cultural art and may attempt to mimic their favourite styles.

I like the way one writer described the distinction between artists. An artist who is part of the contemporary art scene is called *an artist.* He or she has studied in an art school, is aware of art trends, and may explore  the limits of known art genres. However, a  *[fill in the blank] artist* is outside of that art world. They may be called a self-taught artist, an outsider artist, a folk artist, etc.  I stumbled upon a photo of a interesting painting recently. The local artist called himself a *working class artist* – a term I had not heard before. I tried to contact him to see more of his work, but sadly he has not responded. Very frustrating.

scottieIn the United States, a self-taught artist can be a folk artist, a contemporary folk artist, an outsider artist, a visionary artist, or an African American Southern artist. To complicate matters, the term *outsider artist* has fallen out of use because it is felt to be a derogatory term. Instead, outsider artists are now called self-taught artists. You see what I’m saying, right?  It might be easier to use a tangled ball of string as a pictorial representation instead of overlapping circles. (Outsider artist Scottie Wilson photo above.)

So, here is a warning that a long discussion about self-taught artists is about to begin. I am trekking back to the mountain top tomorrow for another focussed writing session. Stay posted.



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)


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?