The Outsiders

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

We look at a work he has pulled from the wall of his garage. Titled "Rocket Boy," it is a smallish vertical wood panel. In the background he has painted a repeating pattern of a trucker's mud flap girl in red, white, and blue. In the center of the panel, a ceramic head of a young boy is attached. Silver missiles emerge like pyrotechnics from a hole in the boy's head. Silver wires, holding small models of WWII-era airplanes, circle the top of the boy's head. The bright silver objects of destruction and the vulgar low-art sex objects in the background offer a harsh contrast with the sweet and innocent face of the ceramic little boy.

Perhaps sensing that I am taking note of this contrast, Holster explains quickly that the work is meant to describe the split second that a young boy hits puberty, and suddenly realizes that such things as sex and violence exist. The work was meant as a tribute to a son he "lost" ten years ago--an anniversary recently having passed. "Well, not lost exactly," he says softly. "We gave him up for adoption."

This idea of childhood innocence is present in many of Holster's works, in the toys, childlike images, or figures of small children that he includes. These are almost always juxtaposed with objects that evoke the harsher worldly realities of warfare, sex, and violence. Surveying a wall of such pieces reveals that Holster has developed a formidable range of expression and a strong personal language. Yet Holster, like many artists, has no hankering to expound on the meaning behind his work.

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

"It's something to do to work out the things in my head," says Holster. "I never thought I'd be in a gallery."

 

There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of Minnesota artists with various levels of training who may never find their way onto the clean white wall of a gallery. Yet few of them come up with a remedy for this lack of exposure as radical as that of Mari Newman--perhaps the best, and certainly the longest-suffering, of Minnesota's self-taught artists.

Newman, who is about 50 years old, is known locally for her colorful house in South Minneapolis. A description of the building hardly does it justice: Located in the middle of a sleepy tree-lined block of Penn Avenue, it is an oddity among a mélange of modest but well-kept Dutch Colonials, Kasota-stone brick houses, wood-sided prairie ramblers, and stucco craftsman bungalows. On its sides, Newman has painted each slat a different color--green, purple, orange, brown, red, blue, and so on from top to bottom. Each of these color fields features scattered starlike flowers of varying hues--red, pink, green, orange, white, and yellow. The porch of the house takes on a different scheme, as if covered with colored confetti. Every part of the house has been marked in some color, even the windows; nothing is left blank.

"I painted my house because I wasn't getting into galleries," Newman explains matter-of-factly. Newman is rough-skinned with cracked front teeth and bleached-blond hair. She seems not to think much of the house, leaving basic questions about it unanswered--such as when exactly she painted it, how long it took, and, perhaps most intriguing, what possessed her to do so. As a rule, Newman speaks slowly and deliberately, and pronounces words--like "mosaic" or "triptych"--in a way that bars easy comprehension.

"I figured the best way to get public exposure was to put sculpture in my yard and paintings on my house," Newman says. "I just paint for anybody that's interested. I do my artwork outside so that people will see it."

Newman has trouble being understood in more than just her speech. About five years ago, some paintings she executed on her porch windows, which referenced religious and racial themes, caught the eye and ire of many people in her neighborhood. (Specifically, the paintings featured Confederate flags, hooded figures, and swastikas.) There were a number of stories on the TV news and in newspapers, and people became so incensed at her work that they began to vandalize her house--breaking windows, throwing eggs, and so on--a practice which, according to Newman, continues today even though the paintings in question are long gone.

She shrugs when I ask for more details about the vandalism. Newman doesn't seem uncomfortable with coming off as a bit of an eccentric: She is known to neighbors for muttering to herself while she walks near her house, and for smoking a pipe. She can be curt with someone she does not know, even somewhat bitter. "I think people here just don't like outsider art," she declares. "I wonder if Howard Finster had trouble with vandalism."

Newman's complaints take on greater credibility when considered with an eye on her artwork, which is, in fact, rather extraordinary. Newman works in numerous formats beyond house painting. She builds colorful sculptures in the shape of four-foot crosses, and smiling houses out of layered pieces of brightly painted wood. Many of these look like something you would find in a high-end children's toy boutique. She also draws wild and imaginative pictures on paper of animals and monsters that include hundreds of small strokes and scratches of colored ink and crayon. These images, which look something like children's book illustrations as filtered through the sensibility of William S. Burroughs, are frenetic accumulations of color. Yet they also hold together well when one applies such art-school standards as "composition" and "technique." Each color is carefully and deliberately placed to add to the overall effect.

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