Looking Back: The American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore

Self once served on a selection panel for an artists grant.  The granting organization was in Baltimore, and they flew her over for one night.  Self supposes there must be crazier things than that, but she is still amazed every time she thinks of herself flying clear across the country, staying one night, attending a day-long meeting, and then taking a late flight back to California.  And teaching a full load, the very next day.

In Baltimore, she was put up in a Hilton which was close to the seaport.  Her shoulders and neck flared with accumulated tension but she was determined to see as much of the city as she could.  As soon as she was done with her committee duties, and in the few hours of daylight left before she had to head to the airport, she decided to visit the American Visionary Art Museum.  The museum was the brainchild of a man named James Rouse, who happens to be the grandfather of the actor Edward Norton.

The museum is a commemmoration of “outsider art,” art created by people who have no artistic training, who created out of a deep need to express themselves (Just so you know how committed the museum’s curators are to its vision, there is a whole gallery devoted to finger paintings made by one Betsy the Chimp, whose dates of birth and death are very carefully recorded:  1951- 1960)

She remembers another artwork, a sculpture of a gigantic man, caught in mid-stride.  The image seems to radiate vitality and power.  You have to go close to see:  the figure was constructed entirely out of matchsticks.

In another gallery, she saw a series of intensely colorful paintings, all the work of a woman who was a maid for a rich family somewhere in the south.  All the paintings were done in her spare time.

The main exhibit, at the time self visited, was called “Home & Beast”  and featured the paintings of Christine Sefolosha, born 1955 in the Swiss town of Montreux.  Her father was a fruit and vegetable merchant.  From the museum catalogue:  “During a period of her childhood when she experienced unusual insomnia, her mother took some of her drawings to a psychologist.  One of these depicted a huge crocodile devouring a dark-skinned man.”

After reading that, self looked at the paintings, and all of them depicted a dark-skinned man being devoured by a crocodile.  Clearly this image was an obsession for Ms. Sefolosha.  It turns out that she did marry a “dark-skinned man” from Africa (self forgets which country), followed him back to his home country and bore him two children.  Then, the man left her.  Sometime afterwards, Sefolosha began “painting and drawing again, working mostly on the floor with new pigments and watercolors and often with such materials as dripped tar and earth.”  And all she could paint were images of a dark-skinned man being devoured by a crocodile.  Holy Eerie Coincidence!

At the time, self had just finished writing a story called “Dumpster,” which she chose to set in Baltimore.  The story made one of her brothers want to puke.  Its central image was a severed hand.

Why did self choose Baltimore?  As Negrenses might say, “Ambot!”  (“I forget!” or “I don’t know!”)  At the time that she finished the story, she’d never even been to Baltimore.

After seeing the American Visionary Art Museum, however, self could never forget Baltimore.  And, eventually, after not too long, “Dumpster” was picked up by Mark Fitten, then-editor of The Chattahoochee Review.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

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