By Jim Linderman
Pioneer folk art collector Herbert Hemphill, Jr. was on a mission in the early 1970s. The first director of the nascent Museum of American Folk Art and compulsive collector of same intended to disprove the commonly understood belief that folk art had died with the emergence of 20th century popular culture. Certainly there were artists working at the time using the same traditional skills as their ancestors? Like Alan Lomax and other folk music scholars had done earlier, he hit the road to find them. Folk ART was like Folk MUSIC after all… pulled from the same sources with the same honesty and authenticity most thought lost. There just had to be some field work.
Among Hemphill’s earliest contacts were Michigan artists and collectors Mike and Julie Hall and Virginia roustabout Jeff Camp. They were doing the same thing. 18th and 19th century folk art, they knew, had all been discovered and priced out of reach. All the good weathervanes had been wrenched from rooftops, the representational trade signs torn down, wood-carved decoys replaced with inferior modern interpretations or worse, plastic. What was a modern day folk art collector without the money to shop at Sotheby’s to do? Art collecting has always been a sort of obsession, and there had to be a way meet that need without paying gallery prices.
Soon these folks discovered the other folks. Living and breathing artists who were creating objects, both utilitarian and purely decorative, in relative isolation from the mass culture. Cultural holdouts. Some were at the end of the road. Some didn’t quite belong among others… psychological exceptions to normalcy. Some, like Nyla Thompson, whose work is illustrated here, were physically challenged. Others happened to be religious zealots using art as a tool to spread the word. A motley crew of artists and crafts folks were discovered. Each “authentic” new discovery was traded among the small group of devotees. The work had little financial value, and when the artisans who created it did sell, it was priced in coins rather than dollars. The early “pickers” traded things amongst themselves in some cases today worth many thousands of dollars.
With the help of similarly inclined collectors, Hemphill found dozens of dying-out authentic beacons. Wood carvers, whirligig-makers and Sunday painters with no formal training. That their “discovery” happened to coincide with the Bicentennial added to the mix. Soon, every state had their own living folk art relic to show. County fairs and urban squares put the last few practitioners on display. Carvers, quilters, whimsy makers… the homespun were spun into the laps of a public to whom art meant Andy Warhol, or worse Leroy Neiman… but they were presented. Quilts came out from under beds and hung on the wall. The work of whittlers was placed on pedestals. “Country” became a decor and rustic nearly a sign of superiority. Ralph Lauren put it in his stores on Madison Avenue.
Hemphill published a book along with historian Julia Weissman titled Twentieth-Century Folk Art and Artists in 1974. It created an “A” list of rural artisans who qualified and virtually all the big dollar artists today were included. All self-taught (though some followed tradition) and largely unschooled. In other words, the real deal. Anyone with something questionable, curious or exceptional in their background could qualify if the story was good enough. The quirkier, the better. Soon, the most notable of the bunch was Howard Finster, a rural Georgia preacher who thought he could save souls with his art. Others were found in jails or institutions. Anyone creating a consistent body of work from “the other” was included. Some happened to be African-American, who were ostracized from the dominant culture (particularly the dominant ART culture) and lumped in among the strange and curious. Hemphill’s world was a carnival of sideshow objects, weathervanes and more. He was, literally, the “hypnotist collector” and “walking antique” Dylan sang about in “She Belongs to Me.”
Hemphill missed Nyla Thompson, who did the work here with a brush in her mouth, but we will discuss her later.
In 1982, a ground-breaking exhibition titled “Black Folk Art in America” was curated by scholar John Michael Vlach and mounted at the Corcoran Museum in Washington D.C. The show traveled a bit, and the corresponding book, essentially a catalog, drew comparisons between Black working artists and their traditional enslaved ancestors. Notions that there was a continuum at work with African-American artists and the authenticity of the past developed as well. A spectacular show, united by the fact the artists were distinguished by their racial heritage, if not their technique. Contemporary artists of the time, trained in art schools and thus suitably “tainted” were amazed at the quality of the work presented. It is quite likely some were shamed.
A similar event occurred in 1990. Jan and Chuck Rosenak, a pair of Washington D.C. Lawyers and early disciples of Herbert Hemphill had hit the road as well, using Bert’s book as a roadmap. Like others, they purchased whatever work the isolates had for sale. Great art at bargain prices, and they made sure to visit all they could from the Corcoran show as well. Their collection was subsequently presented at Hemphill’s Museum, now finally with a more public space of their own (and no longer hidden on the second floor of a space just down the street from the Museum of Modern Art. No, not the one MOMA is tearing down… the FIRST Folk Art Museum which was off the Midtown radar, but where one could visit and meet Herbert himself… as I did as a very young man, though I had no idea years later I would meet him again.) The new space was in Lincoln Center, steps away from the kind of human traffic only Manhattan can provide. The show was a hit.
Still, the artists were excluded from a world they never choose to join. That it was a school they were not aware of and never asked to enroll in mattered only to a few scholars, collectors and dealers.
Enter the art market. Presenting the work for sale was a problem. There was no “school” to tag the work with. None of the several hundred “discovered” and sanctioned isolated artists knew each other. None could place their work into a canon… there was no artistic precedent, as they all came to their techniques without formal training. Most had never visited a museum until their work was called art by one the scholars named here, but they were encouraged to attend openings of all things. The very criteria which established their authentic credentials was that they didn’t belong in the art world. They never got together at a bar after a hard day expressing their rebellion with paint brushes. None had debated artistic merits or critiqued each other’s work. They didn’t gossip about who was showing where and with whom. No pilgrimage to Paris… for most, their travel consisted of a trip down the road for foodstuffs. How could this diverse group of isolates be marketed?
So they were to be “Outsiders” and Outsider Artists. There was no school, and could not be, as the very characteristic which gave them official “outsider” license was a pure, classic dichotomy. They were placed into an artificial construct so their raw, primitive art could be sold as such. Masters of Outsider Art. A dozen or so galleries sprung up to sell the work, present the shows… and in some cases to “lock up” the artists with exclusive contracts. Local addresses were hidden. Folks to whom a contract meant trouble were encouraged to sign on the dotted line. Those artists who continued to enjoy selling their work to passerby were still allowed reluctantly into the galleries (and collections) but they would for the most part never have the art world respect the dealers hoped for. Some would, but they were largely the ones who passed away before their work could be marketed, before the books were published and before the museum shows. To this day, despite efforts of dealers to present “new” outsiders, it is those who passed away before becoming notable who still hold the market value. They are also, by the way, the ones Hemphill published before anyone else.
Still the dealers and art world insiders squabbled for a name to call something which couldn’t be named. They tried numerous terms. None applied. They are still not quite sure. They dabbled with Art Brut for a while, the term artist Dubuffet applied to the insane and institutionalized artists he enjoyed. An insult to the African-American artists who today comprise the majority of those with greatest financial value. (Edmondson, Traylor, Gullah painter Sam Doyle…) They weren’t crazy, after all. Some even happened to be pillars of their community, imagine that, and they never belonged with the rest because the rest didn’t belong either. There was no club. And to call African-American artists outsiders was a cheap, easy and racist way to include and exclude them at the same time. BOTH wrong. Double dichotomy and twice as offensive.
In truth, there were countless artists creating remarkable work in isolation. Thousands of them. It is a big country. In New York City, one “outsider” produced a considerable body of work in the confines of his 25th floor apartment in upper Manhattan. An elderly gentlemen, he explained every time he went in the elevator, he got mugged. Isolation in the middle of the nation’s largest city.
This is no diatribe against the dealers, many of whom I consider friends. It is a pondering on the legitimacy of a market for “outsiders” at all. The dealers presented, and continue to present, astounding work by astounding artists. But the artists do not need, and in fact do not qualify for ANY label. Each is unique. Each has absolutely nothing in common with the other. The concept, the collections, the group exhibitions? They are dishonest and hurtful. Dealers deal with this by claiming what they really want is to have the outsiders accepted into the canon. That very canon they don’t belong to and the very canon (a canon some call corrupt, by the way) which never excluded them as it didn’t know they existed. By definition. The canon which used to refer to Henri Rousseau as a “primitive” and American Indian art as “artifacts.”
Nyla Thompson was a painter who had disabilities. A polio survivor. Would she have fit the criteria? Yes. She had all the characteristics of “the other” when it comes to outsider art. All the pieces here are unique, one-of-a-kind paintings she created poking and pulling at the work with a brush in her mouth. They are lush, thick oil paintings, except where she highlighted the works with pointalistic pecks which would interest Seurat. She even signed her work with her brush in her mouth. While no less than Eleanor Roosevelt was a fan, she was missed by the collectors with power. Do we need a value judgment on her work? Is it “good” enough to be art? To be marketed as an outsider? Is there a “school” of mouth painters? As a matter of fact there is… but they are all one of a kind.
NOTES: Major portions of the Herbert Hemphill collection were donated to the American Art Museum at the Smithsonian (where it is now referred to as contemporary folk art) and can be seen HERE. He also helped establish the Museum of Folk Art which is HERE. The Ground breaking Twentieth Century American Folk Art and Artists book is now out of print, and what cost $125 during the 1990s is now available for $3.00 used. Books are SO over. The Museum’s magnificent home, decades in the making but built only recently, will soon be razed by the Museum of Modern Art. You can read why HERE. The Michael and Julie Hall collection now resides at the Milwaukee Art Museum HERE. Jeff Camp was discussed in the Wall Street Journal way back in the 1970s as an “American Picker” and the Archives of American Art have a transcript of an interview with him (and his papers) HERE. Some of the Rosenak collection has been donated, some dispersed through auctions and some still remains, much also at American Art Museum. The annual inappropriately named Outsider Art Fair will have their next show in May 2014. The history THEY tell omits everyone above in favor of a Euro-centric interpretation. They omit the word “folk” entirely. They also fail to point some two dozen of the “field’s” big ticket artists were first published by Hemphill, not a European. The author first wrote about Nyla Thompson HERE and the best biography is HERE. Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980 by Jane Livingston and John Beardsley remains one of the most beautiful art books of the 20th Century, but it is out of print as well. The Souls Grown Deep Foundation have published two massive volumes which cover and expand on the artists who were included. The Association of Mouth and Foot Painters is HERE. All works illustrated above by Nyla Thompson Collection Jim Linderman.
Jim Linderman is a Grammy-nominated collector, popular culture historian and author. His network of blogs is approaching 4 million page views, and his VINTAGE SLEAZE BLOG which tells a true story from the golden age of smut every day has over 500,000 Facebook followers. For several years he has been working on TIMES SQUARE SMUT which will tell the story of several long forgotten writers, illustrators and mob-connected publishers from the 1950s who ultimately influenced contemporary culture.