Tanner Hill Gallery Stephanie Wilde

Insiders in Outsider Art

Sterling Strauser nude.
My first piece of outsider art, a nude by Sterling Strauser.

There’s a backbone of stubbornness running through the south. It skirts along the undulant edges of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains toward the foothills of the Cumberland Plateau, fingers its way through the red-clay gullies of Georgia, and skinnies through the gulches of Western Virginia.

Insiders in Outsider Art

It is independence on steroids, and it has left its unruly mark in a genre of art many a critic would argue isn’t art at all. It goes by the name of “outsider,” “naïve,” “folk,” “brut,” “raw,” and “rough.” Its creators are self-taught, usually prolific. There’s quirkiness to it—sometimes innocence, always an emotional point of view.

When I received Angela Usrey’s email telling me she would be in New York City at the Outsider Art Fair last month, I decided I’d make my way to Chelsea to see whose work the gallerist had brought to the show. She didn’t disappoint: Stephanie Wilde’s art she had hanging in her Tanner Hill Gallery booth was ridiculously appealing. I’m not at all surprised because I have enjoyed watching Angela’s refined eye since she introduced me to outsider art nearly two decades ago.

Come to think of it, she’s to blame for my being bitten by the collecting bug. Should I send her a bill? Actually, it wasn’t completely her fault; the bite got a lot itchier after I met a number of the artists in the mid-90s, proving it’s dangerous to become besotted with the people creating art when you have a little money in the bank. Before I succumbed, I had heard collectors say they never forget their initial acquisition and it’s true.

The Main Players in Outsider Art

The evocative power of my first—a gift, actually—is a mysterious Sterling Strauser nude that hangs above my desk. It still gives me goose bumps of pleasure each time I look at it. Never having met Strauser is one of my biggest regrets. He had died the year before my indoctrination during what you might call a grand tour of tiny towns in Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama to meet the southern contingent of the self-taught. I traveled narrow two-lane roads to the homes of Georgia Blizzard, Homer Green, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Charles Simmons, Howard Finster and Joe Light with dealer Jimmy Hedges. The people I met moved me in their genuineness and their deep authenticity.

Tanner Hill Gallery Stephanie Wilde
Stephanie Wilde’s “Casandra” in the Tanner Hill Gallery booth at the Outsider Art Fair.

This trip was during a time when six-figure sales were just becoming the norm and errant self-promotion was new; and artists like Green and Sudduth were still a bit baffled by the attention. Take a look at the video of Green (below) having his way with a visiting journalist and you’ll see what I mean. I received the full jokester treatment the day I went to see him and I wouldn’t give anything for the experience.

I came away from that trip with works by most of the artists I met, eventually adding another painting by Stauser, and works by Sybil Gibson and Purvis Young to my small collection. Young is another painter I regret not meeting because his frenetic imagery moves me tremendously. When I read T. S. Eliot’s lines, “You had such a vision of the street/ As the street hardly understands…” I felt he could have been talking about Young.

It’s as if Purvis saw life in fits of fractured movement—people and horses gyrating, and stars exploding on his canvases painted mainly on construction trash. I was surprised that I didn’t see much of his work at the #OAF. In fact only a few of the artists who were hot in the 90s were there: William Hawkins, Thornton Dial and William Edmondson, for instance, and Simmons, whose work Marion Harris had in her booth. Catching up with her was a highlight of the day.

I hadn’t seen her since The Antiques Diva & Co. Mercanteinfiera trip to Parma, Italy, and I thought the art by Carlos DeMedeiros she had in her booth was fabulous—irreverent and intelligent while still being fun. Hmm: just like Marion herself!

Chales Simmons angel of Saxon Henry
My Charles Simmons angel, which I bought when I met the artist.

One of my biggest surprises was a lack of work by Jim Sudduth and Howard Finster. I chalked this up to the fact I’ve not been to a show in years so they may have become passé by now. I was also in too big a hurry to ask if there were any smaller pieces or works on paper by them squirreled away in booth cubbyholes. I most wanted to see at least one of Homer Green’s guardian angels skulking around but I didn’t.

I wonder what legacies these artists will leave in the end; wonder how the fickle eye of art history will view Green’s critters and the playful creations that Sudduth turned out using house paint and mud. I suppose it was a prophetic moment when I bought one of his pieces inspired by NYC’s Chinatown long before I imagined I would move to the city. A visit to Gotham had made a tremendous impression on him—not surprising given the scale of the architecture surrounding him in the rural south and the fact the loudest noises he heard at night were made by crickets!

Saxon Henry visits Jim Sudduth
Jimmy Lee Sudduth the day I visited him.

The piece I most regret not buying? A small Finster I had the chance to own the day I visited him. This was on the cusp of his family’s involvement and there were questions as to who was producing the work. Still, it would have been nice to have a piece with his name on it, especially since I recently noticed fashion is getting in on the outsider art act this year.

Raw Vision

In fact, I predict everyone will be exhibiting their Finsters soon since Rei Kawakubo is treating his imagery to her brand of edginess in a collaboration between Comme des Garçons and Raw Vision. She’s taking material from the magazine’s archives and putting “a fresh” spin on it—Finster and Anne Grgich the first two she’s taking on. Paradise Gardens, the compound the Reverend created, was splashed across the Comme des Garçons homepage, taking me back to those serpentine dirt paths I wandered along one afternoon.

I could have spent days winding through that complex, snapping photographs of the nooks and crannies holding his fanatical desire to sermonize. I heard Finster’s family has made it into a veritable theme park over the past two decades. Not surprising, I guess, given there’s money to be made from it, which is actually funny because initially it was never about money for the outsiders—it was about the dire need to express themselves creatively.

Jean-Michel Basquiat in Manhattan

I wanted to make it back to the #OAF for the lecture on Jean-Michel Basquiat but the events surrounding #NYCxDesign made that impossible. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, the documentary about his days combing lower Manhattan for refuse to use as his canvases, remains one of my favorites—his M.O. of painting on construction trash echoed that of Purvis Young’s, as did the pain he expressed in his art.

Looking at their work is an exercise in somberness. It’s as if the darkness shot out of them, hurtling through whatever tool they used to daub the paint onto the appointed surface, and quivered there as it gasped its last breath. That’s the brut way of saying it, of course. Eliot put it so much more eloquently in his poem Preludes, which I quoted earlier:

…the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted….

Saxon Henry's Purvis Young painting
A detail of my Purvis Young painting “Night Dance.”

Such a nice thing to revisit a bit of poetry and art on this first day of June—thanks for the trip down memory lane, Angela and Marion! And because I am fortunate enough to live with many of these works of art, I’m including this entry in my Living with Art series.

The Modern Salonnière and this entry, Insiders in Outsider Art, © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist. Books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.