Self-taught artists who work outside mainstream culture show a very human drive to create, even if it is mental illness sometimes that inspires the scrawls on paper with pen, pencil or paint. These so-called "outsider artists" are not expressing themselves using the signs, symbols or perspectives of an art history they learned at university. The imagery is coming from a deeper place, inside the folds of their brain writ large on wood, canvas, paper or whatever material is available to alter with their hands using color, line, text and shapes.
Each work is unique, but interestingly, because each is made by Homo sapiens, similarities of subjects and techniques exist among the artworks. Some are realistic while others are abstract. Some reveal spiritual or religious themes, others are almost mathematical in their precision.
In a manner analogous to Darwin studying the evolving forms of animals in the remote Galapagos Islands, in 2001 Stuart Shepherd, formerly an art teacher at New Zealand's Massey University, surveyed the visionary and self-taught art in his country. Ultimately, he amassed 3,000 2-D and 3-D works, which he has organized on a web site, "Self Taught and Visionary Art in New Zealand," and in a gallery. He also developed a taxonomy of categories to characterize the art. They include geometry, exoticism, text-based and preacher art, Maori-themed and others.
Shepherd, partially supported by Arts Access Aotearoa (the indigenous name for New Zealand) is now bringing the works from his gallery to the world. Recently, he brought some pieces to the New York's "International Outsider Art Fair," (Jan. 9-11, 2009) the first time New Zealand works were shown there. "Andrew Blythe created a splash, with a good review on Artnet.com, "Out is In"," Shepherd wrtes in an email. Blythe falls in the "obsession decoration school."
Shepherd has works in New York's "Fountain Art Fair" (Mar. 5-8). Additionally, he is collaborating with the Creative Growth Center from Oakland, Calif., a group dedicated to helping adult artists with mental and physical disabilities. Last year, the center opened the "Gallery Impaire" in Paris, France, where Shepherd is developing a show with work by self-taught and contemporary artists in video and photography.
"The idea is that the photography and video work will provide a context for the work on paper," he says. "It will be a kind of showcase for New Zealand art, the loose theme will be around the notion of normalcy."
"...Any publicity generated is appreciated and will help me prove to the gate-keepers of the arts institutions in New Zealand that there is something of real value in [this type of art]," Shepherd writes. "Even though they didn't study it in school."
(Images, courtesy of Stuart Shepherd. From left, Teressa Woodrop, "Circles" (acrylic and sand on canvas); Andrew Blythe, "No, No, No," (2008, acrylic on paper); and Justin Morshuis, "Eyes" 2008, (pen on paper))