Look! Look! Look!

The best thing about my serving on the panel for the xxxxxx Arts Foundation was that they flew me over to Baltimore for one night; I got to see Shawn Wong; and the panel ended its deliberations hours early, so that I was able to catch a cab to the Inner Harbor, where I checked out the American Visionary Art Museum.

Look! Look! Look! say signs at the main entrance and just outside the second floor galleries, where the current exhibition is “Beast and Home.”

The young lady at the registration desk wanted to know if this was my first visit. When I said it was, she asked, “Do you know what visionary art is?”

I said that I did. Isn’t that outsider art?

Yes, she said.

And here, let me tell you, loyal blog reader, that I had never been in a place so moving. Here were artworks created by people with no formal training– people who included paranoid schizophrenics, somnambulists, murderers, even a chimpanzee named Betsy who lived in the Baltimore zoo from 1951 to 1960. Also: housewives; people who heard voices; mailmen.

The words “Look! Look! Look!” were the words of a mailman who built a huge tower (words fail me at describing it– perhaps a cross between Burning Man and an Alexander Calder mobile) by a highway near his home.

Do any of these names ring a bell? Christine Selosha; Ionel Talpazan; Andrew Logan; Axel Erlandson; Stanley Wright; Leslie Payne; Leonard Knight.

One of them was a Swiss woman who grew up dreaming dark nightmares of a man devouring a crocodile. She subsequently married a man from South Africa and produced painting after painting of a dark-skinned man devouring a crocodile, whole series of which are on the walls of the second floor of this Baltimore museum.

The others? Well, one of them kept journals of all his plane trips; another built a reflective egg; Another built a 1,000-pound spaceship model; yet another created a telephone booth that could never house a telephone (except maybe a cell phone).

Who are these visionary artists? They are people with no formal training. One, an African American woman, cleaned houses all her life (She lived to be 90) but turned her home and garden into a paradise of brightly colored paintings and collages.

Another was a tubercular man who carved a huge wooden statue of a walking man. The man’s torso is thin and caved in, just as the man himself might have looked, were he to be seen standing naked in front of a mirror.

Another — a man who lived for a time in Humboldt, CA— collected Civil War memorabilia and glued them together to make phantasmagoric sculptures.

In one of the galleries are a series of paintings of an artist’s “cousins”– all of them imaginary.

You get the picture.

These are artists who made their art simply to suit themselves. Who spent decades of intense devotion to creating a single piece of art. Who actually do not think of their work as “art”. Who see their work instead as a fulfillment of a personal vision.

Today, oh loyal blog reader, I’m a little manic, a little sleep-deprived. It’s my day to exercise “compassion” but I’ve already done at least one non-compassionate thing, which was to e-mail someone at ODU to inquire about the reimbursement for my airfare to their literary festival a month ago.

Hubby awoke early, got dressed, and then sat down on the living room couch as if he had all the time in the world and nowhere to go (Can you hear my teeth gnashing?) He then, after I thought he’d gotten safely out the door, returned three times, each time walking by me as I typed to get something or other from the bedroom.

It’s very hard. But, compassion, I tell myself. The theme of the day is compassion, compassion, compassion …

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Iain Kelly

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