Their talents went unrecognized during their time, but they are celebrated by the art world today — and many would say exploited. Outsider artists, those self-taught or “naïve” creatives (Jean Dubuffet called it the “art brut” or “raw art”), are recognized for their personal vision. In a world of artists where authenticity and inclusiveness reign, it’s always surprising the number of outsider retrospectives that exclude women from the line-up. “Unlike the context for the Guerilla Girls’ historic condemnations of overwhelmingly male curatorial skews at the likes of the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, the premise of outsider art hinges upon an ostensibly ungendered status of marginalization,” writes Mostafa Heddaya — who explored this conundrum following a major outsider art survey that was overwhelmingly male. “Though it’s impossible to fully diagnose here the condition that has guaranteed institutional and commercial recognition for an almost exclusively male cadre of ‘outsiders,’ the modern conception of productive madness is one overwhelmingly dominated by the narrative of the male madman whose insanity is not rudely clinical but intellectual, essential, and artistically or aesthetically liberated.” In our continuing series highlighting female artists in male-dominated genres, here are ten female outsider artists you should know.
She ate chocolate every day, became a DIY fashion icon, lived on the street, sold her work on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago, believed she was French Impressionist artist reincarnated, and refused to sell her canvases to people she didn’t like. Lee Godie dreamed of being a singer as a young woman, but sacrificed a music career for two husbands and four little ones. Following the dissolution of her marriages and the deaths of two of her children, she found herself homeless and making art with anything she could find: window blinds, crayons, and ballpoint pens included. Many of her works featured figures who were stars during her childhood, like Clara Bow and Joan Crawford. A staple of the downtown art scene, magazine Raw Vision called Godie the city’s “venerable grand dame of outsider art.” The featured image of Godie comes from her photo booth series, in which she donned various radical personae and accented the photos by hand with marker, painting her face in unusual ways.
Judith Scott’s life started in an institution for the mentally handicapped, but by the time of her death in 2005, her totemic sculptures were selling for thousands and housed in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art. Scott was born deaf, mute, and with Down syndrome. Twin sister Joyce became her legal guardian in the ’80s, moving to California so Joyce could have the education she had been refused all of her life after being deemed uneducable. Scott’s passion for art was born while attending the Creative Growth Art Center, after observing a fiber class taught by visiting artist Sylvia Seventy. Her towering found object pieces and yarn cocoon-like sculptures are intuitive and organic.
Self-taught Chinese artist Guo Fengyi’s works evoke a “particular journey of spiritual and metaphysical significance, belonging to an older generation whose embrace of Chinese folk culture imparts a unique knowledge of history, myth and mystery. Her works on paper are composed of finely controlled brushwork that blend and weave into a composition of lustrous images; suggestions of both human figure and otherworldly beings.” Her career started in a rubber factory, but she was forced to retire at 39 after struggles with severe arthritis. Practicing Qi Gong helped alleviate her painful symptoms, which is when her visions started. She drew them with ink. Some artworks stretched 20 feet long. Her colorful palette and delicate linework was an uncanny accompaniment to the ghostly, fantastical creatures that populated her inner world. Fengyi collaborated with established artists like feminist icon Judy Chicago, but she was largely unknown during her lifetime.
British Spiritualist Madge Gill had a rough start in life. She was orphaned at 9, shipped to work on a farm in Canada until her late teens, suffered the deaths of several children, and almost died after falling ill, which blinded her in one eye. An aunt introduced her to Spiritualism, which led to a career as a medium, conducting séances with people hoping to communicate with lost loved ones. Gill had a spirit-guide by the name of “Myrninnerest,” who she channeled in her drawings. She sometimes signed her art with the name, too. To keep the peace with her otherworldly guide, Gill never exhibited her work or sold it. Current 93’s David Tibet recently published a book about the visionary artist, featuring her postcard-sized drawings from the 1940s.
After a failed marriage, Helen Martins left the stage she had performed on with her dramatist husband across South Africa and fled home to care for her ailing, elderly parents for the next 17 years until their deaths. Being in a remote village in the Karoo region, there was little to do — leaving Martins increasingly isolated and reclusive. Locals found her strange, but her unique home and garden drew the curious. During that time, Martins transformed her surroundings with sculptures fashioned from wire, crushed glass, and mirrors to invite “light” into the space. A sheep farmer named Koos Malgas, who remained her close companion for the rest of her life, helped the arthritic Martins create more than 300 cement and glass statues that populated her property. She took her inspiration from the Bible, various world philosophies, and the writings of sufi mystic Omar Khayyám and poet William Blake. Following her suicide in 1976 (she was going blind and feared not being able to create her artworks), the house was transformed into a museum called “The Owl House,” as the birds were one of her favorite animals.
Mid-life artist Janet Sobel straddled two worlds. At the prompting of her son Saul she began painting. Her 1940’s drip and splatter paintings preceded that of Jackson Pollock, and she saw recognition from art-world luminaries like Peggy Guggenheim, Sidney Janis, and John Dewey. Janis declared that Sobel’s “paintings are filled with unconscious surrealist phantasy.” He included her in the landmark exhibition Abstract and Surrealist Painting in America that traveled the country in 1944. But Sobel’s self-taught roots also find her categorized as an outsider artist. Raw Vision magazine said: “What is clear is that Sobel’s art has emerged as a fascinating, unexpected bridge between the art history of the self-taught and the art history of their more academically trained counterparts who have been and are more readily accepted by the mainstream art establishment.” And writer John Haber also has some things to say about Sobel’s dual reputation in the art world.
Mary T. Smith
From the American Folk Art Museum on the fascinating history of Mississippi artist Mary. T. Smith:
In 1975, after her retirement, Smith began to create a decorated or “dressed” yard, an African-American genre that illustrates the persistence of African visual traditions in the New World. Smith enclosed her acre property with strips cut from corrugated metal, which her son had intended for a shed, and punctuated the fence with plaques of figures and messages. Many of Smith’s paintings clearly represent African-derived protective figures, with piercing eyes, challenging gestures, and messages such as “I Know You. Hear I Am.” Other garden decorations encoding African beliefs include a Great Grandfather Watcher, a larger-than-life wooden sculpture adorned with paint and numerous can tops and hubcaps. Hubcaps are often displayed in African-American yards as a ready-made reference to the Kongo cosmogram, a cross-in-a-circle emblem that represents the soul’s progression through birth, life, death, and rebirth. In other paintings Smith took on the role of preacher, testifying, “The Lord No Me,” “The Lord My Hart,” and “I Was in a Rake. The Lord Was For Me.” Because Smith’s property was on the main street leading into Hazelhurst, her decorated yard served as a text that could be read by her community.
At 38 years old, the Alabama-born Gertrude Morgan heard a calling from God. She left her husband and moved to New Orleans to establish an orphanage with missionaries from the Holiness and Sanctified Movement. In the 1950s, Morgan started painting after another heavenly encounter. She adopted a white robe and habit after hearing a voice telling her she was the Bride of Christ, establishing her own house of worship (inside her Lower Ninth Ward home) known as the Everlasting Gospel Mission. It doubled as an art and music studio (see, her album: Let’s Make A Record). Her paintings mainly served as visual pamphlets promoting her preachings, but the iconography on found materials (toilet paper rolls, window shades, styrofoam trays) were curious enough on their own. She stopped painting in 1974 after another talk with God, but continued to write poetry and preach the gospel. “Sister Gertrude, a single-minded missionary, never took credit for her art. She maintained that everything she created came from God, just like the Reverend Howard Finster, John (J. B.) Murry and a host of other self-taught artists. She once said: ‘He moves my hand. Do you think I would ever know how to do a picture like this by myself?'”
Mary Ann Willson
The details of watercolorist Mary Ann Willson’s life are few, but some information emerges from a series of letters mentioning the artist. With her companion known only as “Miss Brundage,” the women migrated from Connecticut to rural Greene County, New York during the early 19th century. Brundage farmed the land, while Willson painted — usually with whatever materials she could source from the environment, including berry juice, brick dust, and vegetable dyes. She sold her mythological pictures to neighbors, promoting them as “rare and unique works of art.” Following Brundage’s death, it’s said that Willson was “inconsolable” and no one is certain what happened to her. Her last known painting was dated 1825. The Harry Stone Gallery in New York City exhibited her oeuvre during the 1940s, helping to bring more attention to the elusive artist — one of the earliest newly discovered outsider artists .
We previously explored photographer Vivian Maier’s work, which was the subject of a recent documentary:
This weekend, the documentary Finding Vivian Maier introduced audiences to the nanny who found posthumous fame after a local historian discovered her photographs that documented the people and streets of Chicago during the 1950s and ‘60s. Over 100,000 negatives were found, many undeveloped, and the secret life of the quietly progressive Maier was unraveled. Maier kept hundreds of boxes filled with materials, some of which included newspaper clippings and audiotaped conversations with the people she photographed. She was described by the children she cared for as “a Socialist, a Feminist, a movie critic, and a tell-it-like-it-is type of person” — the same children who bought her an apartment near the end of her life when she became homeless and struggled to make ends meet. The documentary delves deeper into her mysterious life and the discovery of her artworks.