Thursday, July 24, 2008

outsider art

Once there was a girl who decided to pack up her clothes and her paintings and fly away from her dull life in southern Ontario to London, England where she was sure to win fame and fortune. She was a self taught artist since the school she'd attended taught all sorts of subjects but not art. Everyone (mostly her parents) agreed she was very good and art school would only spoil her vision.

That's how I wound up in London in the mid-60's. At the time I'd been having a wonderful time with color, painting big abstracts of dancers in acrylics and enamels, which I thought were very avant garde. Dressed in my spiffy new Emma Peel style trouser suit I picked up my portfolios and headed off to the best art galleries in the city with the absolute certainty my paintings would soon be the next big thing. I was due for a surprise.

I went to half a dozen galleries that day walking from one place to another as each of the very polite owners or managers essentially said, "Oh, that's very nice work but not quite the style we're looking for at the moment. Why don't you try so and so on Sowhatsit Street. Your work looks very much like something they'd hang."

The very last gallery I walked into was a huge, silent space where all the enormous canvasses were painted gray except for one that was gray with green spots. There were big metal objects looking like nothing I'd seen before spaced far apart around the room. I must have passed a motion sensor because once I got to the middle all of a sudden the machines whirred to life. Chains slithered around on the floor, blades swirled and slashed, wires whipped around on metal balls and there was a lot of general banging and clanging from every direction. I looked for a way out but it just wasn't safe to go back to the door.

Finally, a well dressed 40ish man strolled out from a back room somewhere, touched a button on the wall as he passed and the clatter stopped. I already knew by then what the story would be at this gallery too but I was too proud to just excuse myself out of the place so I showed him my paintings. He stroked his chin, arched his eyebrows and told me I really should go to the Green Park Gallery - that it would be just the place for my work. So I asked him directions and off I went.

The Green Park Gallery turned out to be the grassy area between the sidewalk and the wall of London's Green Park. Paintings, sculptures and oddly dressed people filled the narrow space that stretched a mile or at least as far as I could see. Hmpff. I think I was getting the idea by then that there are a lot of artists in the world each with their own unique vision that isn't quite cool enough for hard core art galleries. There was a lot of very good work on display and a lot of bad stuff too but mostly I saw people even more determined than me to sell their stuff.

Most amazing of all were the guys doing perfect replicas of some very famous old paintings in chalk - on the pavement. I saw VanGogh's 'Sunflowers' and Michaelangelo's 'God and Adam' from the Sistine Chapel. Yow. It sounds silly to be impressed by such a thing now that we're all older and sophisticated but it was a big surprise to me and also very daunting. Quite frankly, I was depressed.

That evening found me down at the Thames Embankment looking at the moonlit Palace of Westminster and Big Ben across the river. The traffic flowed by on London Bridge as the dark water flowed past my vantage point. I was overwhelmed by how ancient and carefully made everything was. Generations of masons had worked on these buildings while living in squalor on streets now burned, bombed and gone. It was a beautiful moment even as I realized what a total fool I'd made of myself all day and got ready to sling all my paintings into the water.

Just then I heard someone making a polite throat clearing sound and looked around to see who was there. A very tall Crow leaned on the stone balustrade, took a long pull on his cigarette and said, 'That was fun. What do you plan on doing in the next act?'

It was time to find a job, make some friends, go to art school, travel around Europe, see the great public galleries, museums, churches, palaces, castles, parks, seasides.. There was a lot to do and there are advantages to being an outsider. Crow and I have been friends ever since.