Bringing Outside Artists to Light

They lived outside the arts world, but created works—now on view at Tufts—that are standing the test of time
stylized sculpture of a rhino
Howard Finster, “Rhino,” 1990, paint on cut board, paper on painted base, on view at the “Expressions Unbound” exhibition. Photo: Steve Briggs
September 17, 2018

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Provocatively posed and rendered in mud, Lady Liberty greets visitors near the entrance of Expressions Unbound: American Outsider Art from the Andrew and Linda Safran Collection, on display at the Tufts University Art Gallery through December 16. The earthen tones and curvaceous figure of Jimmy Lee Sudduth’s Statue of Liberty lend a cheerfully brazen sensuality not typically associated with the national monument.

Another image of the iconic statue in the show, created by U.S. Marine Corps veteran and artist Benjamin Perkins, is more traditionally festooned, complete with stars on a blue background and patriotic phrases draping the statue’s body in anthem-like visual rhythm.

“Both images prompt great questions about American iconography,” said Dina Deitsch, director and chief curator for Tufts University Art Galleries. “How do symbols of our country manifest and move throughout different parts of the country and through people’s visual imagination?”

Sudduth (1910-2007) lived in rural Alabama, where he worked as a farmhand. Entirely self-taught as an artist, he used mud, various grasses, berries, sugar, and molasses to create his works. “It was all there in the ground, every color of dirt and mud. I got twenty-three colors of dirt in my yard,” he told art historian William Arnett, as recounted in Arnett’s book Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South.

Benjamin “B. F.” Perkins, “Statue of Liberty,” 1989, oil on canvas. “How do symbols of our country manifest and move throughout different parts of the country and through people’s visual imagination?” asks Dina Deitsch, director and chief curator for Tufts University Art Galleries. Photo: Steve Briggs“Sudduth’s Statue of Liberty in mud can be construed however one sees it, which is what all great art does,” Deitsch said. “It inspires you to see things in multiple viewpoints.”

Born in 1904, Perkins had a career in the military and the government before becoming an ordained minister. He found his artistic calling in midlife after a divorce, when he moved from Virginia to his native Alabama and built his own church. While painting the structure red, white, and blue, he began adorning it with religious and patriotic images, and his work as an artist began.

In their own ways, Sudduth and Perkins exemplify outsider artists, both working “beyond the boundaries of accepted conventions and educational systems,” according to the British scholar Roger Cardinal, who coined the term. Outsider artists invent their own means and methods to create their work with little or no knowledge of art history, technical training, or awareness of popular culture. Few have ever stepped into an art gallery or museum.

“Their expressions are fresh, literally unbound by artistic conventions that in some ways actually limit artistic expression within the discourses of the art world,” said Deitsch. “Outsider artists don’t work within these limits.”

The exhibition includes all thirty-eight works from the Safran Collection of American outsider art, donated by Andrew Safran, A76, F77, and his wife, Linda, to Tufts. “This significant gift of works, largely by African-American artists, allows us to continue the project of opening the canon of art history, not only to a more inclusive global history, but also to a localized, national history that speaks to the divides in class, race, and educational opportunity that our field has unwittingly reinforced,” Deitsch said.

The show and the donation of these works to the university’s collection also provide opportunities for scholarship, from studying art and training artists to American history, sociology, and many other disciplines.

The nineteen artists in the show created their works from self-devised materials, ranging from Sudduth’s mud and dirt to repurposed debris such as scrap wood and castoff corrugated tin roof panels, in addition to traditional tools like pencils, paints, and canvases. Many, like Perkins, came to their calling in midlife or later, expressing an accumulation of often bottled-up emotions and experiences.

Sanford Darling, who worked as a Hollywood stuntman, a commercial fisherman, and for twenty-five years as an engineer at a petroleum company, traveled in Europe and Asia in the early 1960s following his wife’s death. Eager to document impressions and memories of his travels, he painted practically every surface—walls, beams, appliances, stairs—of his house, which became known as the “House of 1,000 Paintings.” When he died in 1973, his house was disassembled, and his art works sold. The Tufts show includes a tropical scene on plywood from the exterior entrance.

After raising eleven children and enduring the abuses of an alcoholic husband, Bessie Harvey of Tennessee began creating sculptures, which she called her “dolls.” She told Arnett that “they were my freedom from this world, that I could go into them and I could talk to God, and that the spirit would release me from all of the hurt, and I could hear him speak and talk to me.” Her mixed-media sculpture The Spirit of Love, resembling an African totem, reflects her focus on African spirituality.  

Howard Finster, who became a Baptist preacher at age sixteen in rural Alabama, started painting what he called his “sacred art” at age sixty. Similar to Sanford Darling’s experience, he populated two and a half acres of his backyard with his sculpted constructions, calling the space “Paradise Garden.” His whimsical paint on cut board sculptures Giraffe and Rhino are decorated with colorful motifs of humans in nature and are inscribed with Biblical messages stressing the distinction between humans and animals.

“These instructive and formative works broadly reflect the artists’ own beliefs, fantasies and life experiences,” writes Evie T. Joselow in the show’s catalog. “Through their art, we, the viewers, bear witness to their keen perceptions from different environments and geographic locations. We also get a glimpse of their personal demons, demonstrating their perseverance in all kinds of situations to find unique, creative ways and means of expression.”

Despite working almost entirely outside the established art world, many of the artists in Expressions Unbound have nonetheless made their mark on the art establishment. After two of his pieces appeared in the 1984 Venice Biennal, Finster was invited to design album covers for the pop bands R.E.M. and Talking Heads. In 1995, Harvey became the first black woman to present her work in the Whitney Biennial. Other artists in the show have had their work shown at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and American Folk Art Museum and in documentary films.

“The idea,” Deitsch said, “is that great art can come from anywhere.”

The Tufts Art Gallery is located at 40 Talbot Avenue on the university’s Medford/Somerville campus. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursday until 8 p.m. For more information, visit http://artgallery.tufts.edu.

The University Art Galleries host the panel discussion “Does an Education Make an Artist?” on November 8, in which art historians specializing in both Outsider Art and major movements within the art history canon consider how artists have been trained and identified throughout history.

Rob Phelps is a freelance writer based in Quincy, Massachusetts.

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