The artist Karen Kasel has an odd look on her face as she stands to greet me at her door of her St. Paul apartment-cum-studio. There's a nervousness to the brow, a peevishness to the mouth: It is the look of a child visiting a department-store Santa Claus, wanting to be hopeful but feeling the first blush of cynicism instead.
She invites me inside the sunny space and points tentatively to three paintings set up on the floor between two languid cats and various unpacked boxes. They are medium-sized canvases of scratchy, pastel lines and small squares floating in an atmospheric chalky color. "I don't know exactly what you want to see," she says. "These are my most recent works."
In her early 30s, Kasel is fit and tanned; her hair is brown, bobbed, and flies loose; she wears jeans and a T-shirt, and has bare feet. She describes having just moved from Minneapolis to this location on Summit Avenue, across the street from the house where F. Scott Fitzgerald lived while writing his wildly successful first novel, This Side of Paradise. Soon, she says, she will be pursuing her own artistic dreams at the next level--that is, as an undergraduate at the College of Visual Arts just down the street. Yet none of this is why I want to see her paintings.
In fact, her enrollment in art school will necessarily dampen my interest in her work. For it is the 11 years of painting she has done prior to now that interest me--an era during which she scratched out a living waiting tables and meanwhile tried to become an artist on her own, without formal instruction, without much sense of how to proceed, without any contacts at all in any art community. In fact, the pre-university Kasel is an interesting breed of artist: one who has taught herself the vagaries of manipulating pigment on canvas, who is beholden to no preconceived standards, movements, or lingo, and who stands firmly outside the artistic mainstream. And now, frustrated and seeking something more, Kasel is poised to drop the "outsider" label she has embraced for the past decade for a college art education, and the slight hope that there might be a payoff someday.
"I feel like I've finally come to a place where I think my work is good," she says, her voice conflicted. "Going back to school...I don't know where it's all going to go, but I'm a little bit afraid of losing my freedom."
The best name for an artist like Kasel is "self-taught artist." Sometimes you will hear the terms "outsider artist" and "visionary artist" applied to her kind. But each of these names tends to connote a certain value judgment on the person, whether true or not, placing them on the fringes ("outsider") or in the clouds ("visionary"). People tend to associate outsider work with folk-art traditions, or with the labels "naive" or "primitive." The truth is that self-taught artists represent a wide variety of styles, media, imagery, and the like, and as such belong in their own group.
Artificial as the distinction may seem, particularly in the modern age when art is all but assumed to be about free expression, the self-taught artist is one who has made the decision to practice a discipline without having come in contact with any formal art education system. There are reasons that potential artists may not be able to attend school: They may not have fit into a traditional arts program because of their personality; they may have been trained in a similar or unrelated field, such as a craft or industrial art, or law or hog farming perhaps, but somehow began to fancy themselves as Artists-with-a-capital-A; or they may simply not have had the wherewithal--mental, emotional, financial--to become an artist any other way.
As we sit and talk about her work, Kasel begins to warm to her subject. She pulls older, less slick work from the back room: loosely rendered watercolors of nude women, small framed acrylic landscapes, various portraits of women in atmospheric settings. She even suggests that she would welcome an honest appraisal from "someone like me." I smile at her and tell her, No problem (much as I am unnerved when put on the spot in this way and feel inadequate to the task), and I struggle to find some way to reassure her, without sounding condescending, that I take her work as seriously as the work of any other artist.
So how to begin critiquing Karen Kasel's work? By ordinary standards, it seems incomplete, lacking certain professional touches. The figures, while not attractive in any traditional way--often bald, almost otherworldly--float like totems in the sky or seem to meld into the space around them, perhaps a crude white moon over a shoulder, or a bright swath of purple. The canvases evidence a lack of understanding of painterly technique. Her pictures are composed of flat areas of colors that add little realism or complexity to the images. This is not to diminish their power. Think of, for instance, the difference between the grainy photographs in a daily newspaper and the glossy, high-resolution photos in a high-fashion magazine. While the daily newspaper photos cannot compete with glossy magazine photos in terms of rich visual detail, the newspaper photos nonetheless can achieve a more immediate impact--these are important events that demand our attention in a way that a well-lit, baby-oiled model does not.
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?
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.
"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."
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.
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.
"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.
"My style is just what it is," says Newman. "I just kind of jump all over the place. One way to describe it probably is to say that I've been working at the end of a rainbow. I think the world is colorful. Everything is colorful. And colors can change. There's no reason why you can't wake up one day and the grass would be red, the sky purple."
Driven to make art in the face of not just public neglect but actual scorn, Mari Newman is part charismatic, part intrinsic artist. According to Laurie Mauretts, curator at Gallery 360, which has begun showing Newman's work in the past few months, the artist has a backlog of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of images made over the past 30-plus years.
"Mari works a lot," says Mauretts. "She's great. Look at the pattern and the layering of depth. All of her images have a lot of presence. We are just amazed..."
Mauretts pauses when I ask if she has any insights on how the community at large has taken to Newman and her work.
"The neighborhood doesn't like her," says Mauretts. "It's unfortunate...but if anyone is a true artist, it's her. Her whole life is art. Everything about her is an artwork."