The Outsiders

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

"These artists are not in it for the money or for fame," Arajs says. "It's just what they are driven to do."

But then even the most careerist of self-taught artists might find themselves stymied by Minnesota's seeming lack of interest in this kind of work. Aside from the Inside-Out Gallery, there are no galleries currently specializing in showing outsider artwork in the state--compared to an explosion of interest in the genre across the country. By comparison, 35 states, and many countries in Europe and elsewhere (such as Russia and Haiti, of all places), have galleries with such a specialty. Nearby Wisconsin has at least three notable outsider-art galleries, including the Kohler Center for the Arts, one of the top two or three of this type in the nation. Several national museums, including the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore and the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, now focus on this area, and serious critics such as Arthur Danto have taken to discussing outsider art alongside the more well-known movements of 20th-century art.

In the midst of this boom in interest, the most recent local outsider art exhibition, mounted in 1996 by the Minnesota Museum of American Art in Saint Paul and called "Off Center: Outsider Art in the Midwest," could come up with no Minnesota artists of note to exhibit. One can only speculate about the reasons for this absence. Lin Nelson-Mayson, curator at the Minnesota Museum of American Art describes the local scene as uninterested in this kind of work: "It's not a culture that supports [outsider art], or a culture that encourages its development," she says. "It's just not here."

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


Though the work of local self-taught artists may remain obscure, that is not to say there's any shortage of the stuff. When asked about noteworthy outsider artists, gallery owners and other artists directed me to a wide array of talents and to all corners of the metro area. Two people in particular, painter Trish Toro and assemblage artist Shawn Holster, represent the diversity of self-taught artists in the local scene.

Toro, a junior high school Spanish teacher, lives in a New Hope home bursting with paintings that she has made and collected since she first took up the practice a little over five years ago. Toro became an artist suddenly, in the manner of the charismatic Finster, as she watched her mother die of ovarian cancer.

"I guess it was a way of coping with a really emotional time in my life," says Toro, who notes that her interest surprised friends and family. "It was kind of an unusual thing. I had never painted before. And all of a sudden I started producing small things on paper in pastel."

Shawn Holster, meanwhile, has made art in the manner of Cornell, intrinsically and without pretense, ever since he could remember. A picture framer by trade with a working-class background, Holster has cluttered his south Minneapolis garage studio with an endless array of small vintage toys, game pieces, snippets of printed ephemera, wire and other hardware, porcelain figurines, and the like. From these, he makes small tableaus not unlike Cornell's, though with a more modern sensibility.

How the two self-taught artists sought to teach themselves is revealing. Once Toro had come to terms with her impulse to make art, she then consciously chose to study established 20th-century styles of painting from books and museums. In particular, she seized on the dry black lines and muted colors of Analytical Cubism. If Toro had gone through a university program, it is likely that instructors would have discouraged her from following this rather unfashionable stylistic whim. But Toro is convinced her aesthetic is the right one simply because she loves it. "My ultimate goal was to turn to Cubism," she says. "It always just captured my soul. I love what it does to my mind, all the depth and the angles... People say it's already been done, but I say, 'Yeah, but I'm doing new pieces in the style.'"

Holster, conversely, never consciously sought to learn how to make art. He describes it instead as something that has long been second nature to him. "I've always done this kind of work, usually for a specific person," Holster says. Built something like a bantamweight boxer, Holster is in constant motion as we speak: picking up objects in his garage, seeking out a pack of cigarettes or a glass of wine, pulling artworks off the wall and brushing off dust, pointing out this and that. "I'd make them something instead of sending them a Christmas card. I'd convey what I wanted to say in little postcard assemblages, something they could hold in their hand. I've done this as long as I can remember....I've always been compulsive, always busy making something. It was something you could do in the back seat of a car. I grew up in the back seat of a car."

It is only recently that Holster, having found a sort of stability in the Twin Cities, began to think of his hobby as art. Holster, who is 30, spent most of his life on the road with his father, a for-hire construction foreman who built factories around the country. Now, the outgoing and confident Holster shows a few works in the nearby Gallery 360. Although he has yet to sell a piece, he has received some favorable feedback.

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