"Look At Me"

"Look At Me"
monotype and screenprint

Saturday, March 23, 2013

No Accidents

Artist Judith Scott, was born deaf, mute, and with Down Syndrome
When I was in grad school, I did a huge paper on something called "Outsider Art."  Unlike Impressionism and Cubism, Outsider Art is rarely mentioned in art classes.  I stumbled upon it by accident.  I was searching for connections between artists and mental illness.  You know, like how Van Gogh cut off his ear and was supposedly bipolar.  Stuff like that.  I was intrigued and wondered how common it really was for artists to be "crazy."

This is what I found.  In the early 1900s, there were a few people who actually collected the artwork of psychiatric patients.  A lot of insane-asylum inmates created art--and I'm not talking doodles.  I'm talking REAL ART.  Beautiful drawings and paintings and sculptures that I would hang in my house TODAY.

The term "Outsider Art" describes art created outside the boundaries of official cultural.  Art critic Roger Cardinal coined the phrase.  Outsider Art applies to anyone who is self-taught, or has not been influenced by mainstream art.  This includes insane-asylum inmates and children.  Often, Outsider Art illustrates extreme mental states, unconventional ideas, or elaborate fantasy worlds.

In 1922, Dr. Hans Prinzhorn in Germany published the first serious study of psychiatric works, Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (The Artistry of the Insane), after collecting several thousand examples from European institutions.  The book and the collection received considerable attention from avant garde artists of the time. Artists such as Franz Marc, Paul Klee, Max Ernst, and Jean Dubuffet were intrigued that art could be produced without any influence from the outside world, yet still be so original and compelling.

At the same time, Dr. Walter Morgenthaler published a study of a single psychiatric patient's work.  Adolph Wolfli, a patient at Waldau Asylum in Switzerland, produced hundreds of huge drawings in his small cell, depicting a life much different than the one he was really living.  

Adolf W├Âlfli, General View of the Island Neveranger (detail), 1911
French artist Jean DuBuffet, along with Andre Breton, formed the Compagnie de l'Art Brut in 1948.  By "Art Brut," DuBuffet meant art that was untouched by culture - "an art that was at its most pure, its most powerful and its most meaningful. It was an art produced entirely for individual satisfaction and inner need with no regard to exhibition, fame or monetary reward."  These artists created art for one reason and one reason alone--for themselves.

Kiyoshi Yamashita was a Japanese graphic artist who was considered an autistic savant.

So, why am I telling you all of this?  Because for a long time, I wondered why I was given Derek.  I went to the University of Nebraska at Kearney for my bachelor's degree.  (It used to be Kearney State Teacher's College.)  It is a school known for its teaching program.  And several of my closest friends received special education endorsements.  

When Derek was first diagnosed, I was confused.  I wondered why I, of all people, had been given a child with special needs.  I'd had no training.  I was an artist!  All of my friends who had gone to school to teach and had gotten special needs endorsements had typical kids.  THEY were the ones who knew how to deal with a child who couldn't speak.  They were the ones who had extra patience and wanted to work with kids like my son.  They'd chosen to do so!  I didn't think I could do it.  I was scared I would fail my son.

So why, WHY was Derek given to me?  

It wasn't until recently that I remembered writing my paper about Outsider Art.

It was an independent study class.  I worked out the requirements of the class with the head of the psychology department.

My entire grade in the class would depend on the one paper.

So I went to the library.  I checked out books.  I sent away to other college libraries for their books.  I googled.  And googled.  And googled...

I studied mental disorders.  I read about inmates in mental institutions.  I read about artists that ended up in mental institutions.  I looked at the art these people produced.  I read about people with schizophrenia, and Down Syndrome, and autism, and bipolar disorder.  All of them were put in institutions for most of their lives.  Quite a few turned to art as a way to express themselves.  I was fascinated by their stories.

No, I wasn't trained to have a child with special needs.  Not many of us are.  But I find it kind of interesting that I spent an entire semester writing about people who were unable to communicate through anything but their artwork.

I also find it sad that these people were locked up.  And I wonder how many of them, if they'd received the help that is available today, could have lead productive lives.  So many of them were mute--and that automatically meant "dumb" back then.  It's pretty obvious, looking at the artwork, that they had quite a bit to say.

Did I mention I got an A in the class?  I also learned more in that semester than I did in any of my other art history classes.

Maybe there are no accidents.

After all, I'm an artist.  I communicate through artwork too.
Autistic people are beautiful and awesome.  I plan on telling the world.

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