Outside In: celebrating the intuitive nature of outsider art
In an extract from his book spotlighting the work of artists “in the margins” of the mainstream, Marc Steene explores their alluring creative intuition and how best to cultivate individual talent.
Creativity and mark making are primary tools of expression and communication, innate within us all. As children we are all able to pick up a pen or pencil and make a drawing without worrying about whether it is considered art. Children discover drawing and mark making in a completely natural way with no formal understanding of technique or composition, especially before the confines of art education come into play. But their work has a charm and completeness. There is no interruption between the mind and pen. The marks are without hesitation and have a quality most artists would strive to achieve. Picasso famously said when visiting a children’s art exhibition in 1956, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”
Being intuitive is a rare skill and not all can access it, though many try. It is difficult to bypass the conscious and verbal self to find the point where you are no longer thinking but doing.
There is an appreciation and valuing attached to work that strives to be intuitive. It can have significant cultural and financial value, especially if the artist is articulate and able to explain their rationale and reasons for creating the work. The same is not true for artists who work intuitively but have developed their work outside of formal art training or without a contextual awareness of the art world. Such overlooked but truly insightful and intuitive artists will often be neurodivergent or may have a disability.
This difference in attitude towards the value of their work could be seen as an inherent prejudice towards people who are disabled or behave differently. Their works are often seen as childish and uninformed. If we do not grasp the nettle of prejudice and stigma, we are doing an injustice to countless artists, alive and dead, who have not been accorded the common decency of being seen to have the right to create or whose work is perceived as being without value.
“It is difficult to bypass the conscious and verbal self to find the point where you are no longer thinking but doing.”Marc Steene
Hester Parr, professor of social and cultural geography, commented on the position excluded artists often find themselves in: “For the majority of studio artists whose work encompasses a variety of versions of fine art, a distinction is made between them and other professional artists. Their work is not deemed good enough to be completely inside the cultural project … Their curious in-betweenness, as full-time artists … who do not occupy fully insider positions through – ironically – not being categorised as sufficiently ‘outsider’, but nor being ‘good-enough’, trained or time-served professional artists, means that their senses of artistic belongings are often ambivalent and tenuous.”
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Rakibul Chowdhury: In Vue; photograph Mark Heathcote (Copyright © Rakibul Chowdhury)
“It is noticeable how some of them have maintained an innate way of creating and expressing themselves.”Marc Steene
A few artists – the truly intuitive – have crossed this divide, such as Judith Scott (1943-2005), Alfred Wallis (1855-1942), Scottie Wilson (1891-1972), or Hilma af Klimt (1862-1944), but these are the exceptions. Far too many artists labelled as ‘naive’ or ‘primitive’ have been lost from our history, collections and culture. If an artist has made the transition from the margins of culture, this has often been a matter of good luck or through a respected member of the art elite recognising the value of their work. This was the case with Alfred Wallis, famously ‘found’ by Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) and Christopher Wood (1901-1930), but also with Scottie Wilson, who was championed by Picasso and others.
For Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood, Wallis provided the validation of the simplicity of style that they were seeking in their work. It gave them a model and a means to arrive at a new way of working, but it is clear that both paraphrased Alfred Wallis’s work in theirs, including his use of perspective, handling of paint and most tellingly the boats that seemed to have sailed from one artist to each of the others.
It is interesting to reflect on what these endorsements represent – in essence the gateway to acceptance, the invisible threshold that so many artists have found impossible to cross. The people with the power in these instances are well-respected artists who the art establishment has bought into, both financially and intellectually, enabling them to forego their prejudice.
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Jonathan Pettitt: Stuff (Copyright © Jonathan Pettitt; photograph © Pete Jones)
When working with artists on the periphery of the art world, it is noticeable how some of them have maintained an innate way of creating and expressing themselves. It may be that by circumstance, which some might even consider fortuitous, they have bypassed the conventional approach to making art drilled into all of us at an early age. Often left to develop their own techniques, styles and subject matter, they produce art that seems to have a more direct relationship to them and their lives. Many learning-disabled and neurodivergent artists are nurtured in supported studios. The best of these, such as Creative Growth in America and ActionSpace in England, have evolved ways of working that are tailored to the individual.
Supported studios often developed out of the closure of day services in the UK and frequently employ or are led by practising artists, such as the Community Art Project in Darlington and Project Art Works in Hastings. Supported studios could be seen as anachronistic survivors of the day centre model, a separation of people with disabilities from wider society. The collectivisation of disabled artists can feel uncomfortable and there is still progress to be made to reach the point where all artists are understood and supported as individuals, and the art world has made the effort to truly accommodate them.
This model has created an alternative to art schools and other forms of art education. The best of these organisations enable their artists to stand as individual creators. The patience and care needed to prevent decisions being made on the artists’ behalf are paramount. It is easy to default to the expected art materials and techniques, and far braver to stand back and allow the artists to decide for themselves. This is especially the case with people who are lacking in confidence and have had decisions made on their behalf for much of their lives.
Outside In is out now, published by Lund Humphries.
Manuel Bonafacio: Motorbike and Man; photograph by Outside In (Copyright © Manuel Bonafacio, 2012)