The Outsiders

The woman who turned her house into a canvas, and other stories from the far fringes of the visual-art scene

Kasel tends instead to rely on her visual strengths in painting: the juxtaposition of bright colors, the use of edgy and expressive lines, a certain frenetic "fuzziness" in details, a focus on enigmatic subjects. And so, despite the flaws of her work, her images burn their way onto the retina and stay there. They are idiosyncratic in this way, images that seem pulled from the recesses of the unconscious mind.

"I've always drawn," says Kasel. "It kind of feels like there's no choice. Ever since I was four I've been drawing constantly...I can't imagine not doing it."

The question is, however, now that Kasel will actually be forced to draw and paint on someone else's terms, will she still find it as enjoyable? And what will she give up in the process?

Artist's workshop: Shawn Holster in his studio
Daniel Corrigan
Artist's workshop: Shawn Holster in his studio


Many of today's self-taught artists likely would not exist--would never have come to think of themselves as a certain type of artist--if not for the example of prominent outsiders Joseph Cornell and Howard Finster. These men were "discovered" by the art establishment--museums, journals, academics, and "professional" artists--as wholly developed creators, surrounded by complete bodies of work. Both Cornell and Finster seem to transcend the genre while embodying many of its stereotypes: one, the intrinsic artist; the other, the charismatic.

Joseph Cornell was a fabric salesman who lived most of his adult life, from the early 1930s until the early 1970s, in an apartment in Queens caring for his mother and a younger brother who had cerebral palsy. Reclusive and antisocial, Cornell spent his scarce free time combing Manhattan thrift shops, dime stores, and antiquarian booksellers, burying himself in knickknacks of the past, then taking them back to the cellar of his apartment and assembling them in small boxes. Cornell eventually became well known--his boxes have been collected by many major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Chicago Art Institute, and the National Gallery of Art--but without his creations, Cornell would have been considered nothing more than an eccentric, or possibly mentally ill, by those who met him. His art, then, was an intrinsic part of his character and his life--both the source and the reflection of his identity.

Howard Finster fits the stock figure of the charismatic. A preacher from Georgia who dabbled in making colorful clocks to sell for extra money, Finster decided to become a full-time artist in 1976 while painting a bicycle with his hands. It was then that a vision appeared before him in a daub of paint at the end of one of his fingers. Speaking in the voice of his dead sister, the vision pressed him to devote his life to painting "sacred art." The items he went on to craft include sculptures and figural paintings where the artist expounds on God's creation in endless handwritten religious messages. Nearly 50,000 paintings later, Finster is nationally known (he appeared on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, and his work can be found on the cover of Talking Heads' Little Creatures and R.E.M.'s Reckoning), and his home and garden in Summerville are a tourist destination. Through October 11, the Macalester College Art Gallery will be exhibiting a retrospective of Finster's work, ranging from song compositions to sculpture and a sampling of those 50,000 paintings.

Cornell and Finster continue to inform the way outsider artists are perceived in the art world. Some self-taught artists, however, have a temperament, background, or aesthetic that may be nearly indistinguishable from that of their professional peers. All they lack is a formal connection to the organs of training, grants, and exhibition that mark someone as a professional artist. Others continue in the vein of Cornell and Finster, and strike observers as exotic or naive. Though they represent a minority in the category of self-taught artists, it is these characters who are held up as representative of the movement. Some of this preference may relate to the novelty of their personalities, though it also involves the originality of their expressive visual language.

"I'm attracted to people who are unconsciously driven to produce art," says Yuri Arajs, the gallery director of the Inside-Out Gallery located in the Interact Center in the Warehouse District of Minneapolis. The Inside-Out Gallery bills itself as the first gallery in the Twin Cities to feature the work of outsider artists, though this is a bit misleading. The Center is a nonprofit agency devoted to artists with "disability labels"; it is not a commercial gallery per se, and in fact it is not open to work by artists who do not belong to the Center. Still, it is the closest thing the Twin Cities has to a gallery for self-taught artists, showcasing work by its 42 members.

An exhibition of the work of Mark Veblen is typical of the work there. Veblen's pieces often include abstract, almost psychedelic, patterns of bright marker colors on paper, but they also include art in at least two other distinct styles--softly "naive" landscape paintings and stylized line drawings of people. According to Arajs, Veblen is highly motivated to study and discuss art, but as a clinical schizophrenic was never able to take up formal art training. Still, through Interact he has found a way to paint.

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