Raw Visions The American Visionary Art Museum

Outsider art: Museum raises the question: What is visionary art, and who makes it?

November 19, 1995

Visionary art is hot in America today. Museums buy it. Major collectors have sprung up. Prices have risen. And on Friday, the American Visionary Art Museum will open at the Inner Harbor.

The product of a decade of hopes and hard work by Baltimorean Rebecca Hoffberger, AVAM stands to be prominent internationally. "It will be world famous," predicts John Maizels, who publishes the London-based magazine of visionary art Raw Vision.

But even as it opens, probably most Americans have never heard of visionary art, and few could define it. What is visionary art, anyway, and who makes it?

A museum definition calls it the "art produced by self-taught individuals independent of the influence of mainstream art.... The visual product is a striking personal statement possessing a powerful, often spiritual quality. Prominent among the creators of visionary art are the mentally ill, the disabled, and the elderly. Their art exemplifies the human capacity to overcome difficulty through creative response."

Maizels defines it as an art produced by "self-taught, untutored people who work from a compulsion to create, not to sell. It's a sort of creation that comes genuinely from within, without any external stimulus."

"Visionary art comes from people who suddenly feel an inexplicable need to make something, and don't know why they're doing it," says Roger Manley, curator of the AVAM's first show, "The Tree of Life."

L Maybe definitions can't explain it as well as real examples.

It's the art of Martin Ramirez, a destitute Mexican immigrant who lost the power of speech and in 1930 was placed in a California mental institution. Twenty years later he began to draw on

scraps of paper pasted together with mashed potatoes. His intricate, colored drawings depicted tunnels, trains, animals and cowboys on stage-like spaces. For a while he had to hide his work from the hospital staff, who would destroy it.

But it came to the attention of a doctor, and later of Chicago artist Jim Nutt, who organized a show. Ramirez died in 1960, leaving behind 300 drawings that have made him one of the best known visionary artists.

It's the art of Joseph Yoakum, born on a Navajo Indian reservation about 1888. At 15, he ran away and subsequently traveled the world as a stowaway, finally ending up in Chicago in 1962. There, in his 70s, inspired by a dream, he began making drawings of landscapes that were a blend of travel memories and imagination. After he died in 1972, he was given an exhibition at New York's Whitney Museum.

It's the art of Howard Finster, who produces what are called "environments" - large works that may cover acres. Beginning in the 1960s, Finster created a "Paradise Garden" in Pennville, Ga., which includes everything from plants to religious statuettes and hubcaps. Unlike many visionary artists, Finster, now 79, has become famous in his lifetime, even appearing on "The Tonight Show."

The most famous environment in America, however, is the work of Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant construction worker who lived in California. In 1921 he bought a lot in the Watts section of Los Angeles, and over 33 years he created an environment of towers almost 100 feet tall, made of reinforced concrete and decorated with ceramics, glass and tile. In 1954 he walked away from his creation. He died in 1965 and his work is now famous as the Watts Towers. It's listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Like Rodia, visionary artists typically have no formal training, no thought of selling their work, and can't help making art. Sometimes they are institutionalized, but often they are not.

Tangible work

"It most often comes from people who had some kind of job where you could see a tangible result at the end of a day's work - a logger or farmer or textile worker," says Manley. "People whose sense of self is identified with the amount of work they do. Then something happens - the person gets laid off or felled by a disease, say - and that source of self-valuation is taken away.

"Most of the people to whom this happens either look for other work, or take to alcohol, or kill themselves or something else. But some of them one day get the urge to make something to fill up that gap in their lives and give them a new identification. There is a sudden discovery of a power within themselves."

Since visionary artists typically work alone, isolated from knowledge of other art, this is an art original to each artist. But there are common characteristics.

"There is a lot of horror vacui," says Anthony Petullo, a leading collector from Milwaukee, referring to an aversion to empty spaces. "They are obsessive-compulsive, repetitive images, the same thing with slight variations."

Manley says visionary artists generally work with materials readily available to them. "They make do with what's at hand. And the art tends to be very narrative."

Although visionary artists work for themselves, their work speaks to the viewer.

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