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.


  1. Diana Rigg. Lordy.

    Oh, sorry. Even in the 'counterculture' world of art there are barriers. It's not just for the steel-and-glass towers with golden parachutists.

    The biggest advantage to being an outsider? You remain you.

  2. the history of heartbreak... we all have a page or two in it. i tell my violin students that the only difference between amateur artists of any kind and professionals is how much money changes hands. it often has little to do with the quality of the arist's work. and that we have to learn to do it because we love to do it, and that doing it is necessary for our well-being. creative people need to create to be well. but, sadly, we often can't make a decent living at it because the world is run mostly by people with bad taste and no appreciation for individuality and the value of manual labor. art and music and literature, for all their cereberal requirements are, after all, fundamentally manual labor.

  3. //doing it is necessary for our well-being. creative people need to create to be well.//

    Absolutely true. However, there is an overabundance of people making bad art, and making money at it, because the viewing public doesn't have eyes to see. It is very much about sentimentality vs. true sentiment, true emotion.

  4. I'm so glad to learn how you and Crow met.

    I think you were very brave. More brave than most, you know. And it shows even in how you seem to live your life now.

    That's why I admire you immensely.

  5. randal - I definitely related to Diana Rigg's version of Mrs. Peel.. but Honor Blackman was pretty cool too. They would both have liked your monocle.

    gfid - It was a lesson I saw repeated over the years.. both from a personal pov and for others. I had a number of gallery shows in New England but had to pay for framing, 75% of the wine and cheese for opening night and a 50% commission to the gallery. It's easier having a job.

    dj (may I?) - I think art is essentially a participatory exercise. Ask the guys in any band who the best musician is and you'll get an educated answer.

    dcup - That's so nice of you to say that. It's mutual, sister.

  6. somehow, i don't think you
    regretted any of it. and you're
    right, there are many talented
    artists and musicians and
    beautiful people, and not
    everyone can be famous, or maybe
    fame is just different
    than what you imagined it to be.

  7. seraphine - I'm glad I had the innate wisdom to back away even when I didn't know much of anything. 'Here be dragons' was always the best advice on the map about where to explore.

  8. the mr. crow drawing at the end is awesome. obviously done with love.

  9. seraphine - That was the most difficult drawing because he is close to my heart.

  10. I've long had a thing for crows and your drawing of your muse (I think) does not disappoint. He is quite a guy. ;-)

    Your story of London in the 60's reminds me a bit of the world of A.S. Byatt, one of my favorite writers.

    I really enjoyed this piece of writing and the great illustrations. I feel lucky to be able to come here to read, view and think about what you present. Thank you.

    Peace & Love,

  11. pagan sphinx - I'll have to check out A.S. Byatt since I've never heard of him (her?). I'm glad you come by to visit - makes me happy to draw and write.

  12. I'm with PS about the last illustration. Reminds me of a much grander place and time.

    Beautifully said and done.

  13. HI Susan
    Thanks for this very well written story.
    I look forward to you writing about your next installment since its refreshing to hear about your youthful hopes and aspirations.
    Best wishes

  14. i didn't even mention the wonderful drawings.... could i be so calous that i'm starting to take them for granted? ....and crow..... sigh.... su, i think i'm a little bit in love with crow.

  15. Excellent story. Beautifully illustrated (of course).

    I had no idea Crow had been around so long.

  16. cr - I remember sitting on a bench looking at that view and singing Havah Neghila (sp?).. loud. I'm not Jewish but it just felt right.

    lindsay - I never know where I'm going next but there will be another. I'm glad you enjoy them.

    gfid - I know you like the drawings so you don't have to feel obliged. I like doing them but Crow was hard since I don't generally like anthropomorphizing - then again, real people and places don't look the way I draw them either so it works in context. Crow likes you too ;-)

    scarlet - Geez, I was 19 and needed to develop some self-preservation skills. I can't say I always took his advice and maybe some day I'll write a few of those :-)

  17. So that's how you and the crow met. Hmm. Did the crow offer to buy your art?

    Seriously, I like Randal's take and add that being the outsider is to your advantage because once inside, you're penned in.

  18. spartacus - Crow's take on it was always that money is the root of all evil but he did bring me some sparkly bits now and then :-)

  19. Susan, I am still finding my way around this incredible world I found when I started reading Politits. This is my first visit to your blog. Wow. I LOVE your illustrations. Some of them remind me of the movement and line of Felix Valloton. He has some street scenes, more lines than masses of black, that remind me of your Toronto market illustration on 7/28. And I love Valloton - I wrote a post about my favorite print of his. I will be back often to look at your work and read your posts. Marvelous.

    And the story you wrote for this - wonderful. I wish I had half the courage. And I must read back through your blog so I can understand who Crow is...

    I paint and draw and put my work away in portfolios before hardly anyone sees it because that way I'm painting and drawing exactly what I want, without concern about reaction or audience. That's all I can handle right now, to try and keep it purely about what I want. Maybe someday I'll be stronger than that (less influenced by opinion) - but if not, I'm just happy doing it. gfid put it very well. Gotta go there next...

  20. hi steve - Thanks for coming by and checking out phantsy. This is a Crow post done earlier this year (time sure does fly, don't it?) so you don't have to go digging if you're as time pressed as most of us are. I've been painting, drawing, sculpting, jewelry making etc. for a long time now. I don't even bother going near galleries nowadays although I did do some shows up to about 15 years ago. Now, like you, most of the things live in portfolios for another day.

  21. Susan - I like Crow very much. Didactic without being pedantic. And the final lines were a jolt, like driving in a hook at the end. He's quite gifted - I hope he's widely read. More people need to see it. But I'm not sure I want them to come here and mess this lovely place up with their gnashing teeth... A dilemma.

  22. steve - I'm more than happy a few very neat people take some time to drop in for a visit now and then. Is 'Bijou Blog' a good term for these little havens of sanity and silliness? Every so often Crow finds something that needs to be said and, since he has an open forum here, flies in with a report.

  23. looking at the first drawing, the words over the doorway. you must work from photographs sometimes? your art consistently wows me.

  24. seraphine - You're so kind. Pictures of architecture just confuse me so what I can't remember I just do my best to insinuate.

  25. Oh wow...Mrs. Peel pant suit!! You were stylin'!! (loooved mrs. peel as a little kid as scary as the Avengers were to me)..
    but holy cow woman, as I'm reading this I think you ought to be published in a magazine, pictures and stories together..what an interesting life you've lead already and what interest you bring into it right now..oh to have a Crow for a are so lucky!


  26. hi, Susan--
    obviously, I followed you back from AtI.
    one question is answered-- well, 2, akshually--
    you're an old Artisan. but you already knew that dintcha?

  27. ingrid - I was a dangerous woman back then but too young to comprehend I was mostly a danger to myself. It was knowing how much I was loved that saved me.. love does conquer all and I'm not talking romance either. Crow is a wise bird.

    two crows - Welcome here! Let's just say I suspected.. as the Buddhists say, 'Only don't know'.

  28. Insightful story - somekind of deja-vue effect on my side.

  29. zee - It seems to be a common lesson for some of us.. one that returns at regular intervals.

  30. You've been awarded the "Kick Ass Blogger" award. See this post for the details.

  31. steve - That was very kind of you and I'm most grateful.