The Cochineal: An Online Student Journal and Repository of Conservation, Preservation, and Cultural Studies

Author: Beth Heller
Date:, Summer 2003
Class: Independent Study Project
Faculty Advisor: Karen Pavelka 
Links: http:www.ischool.utexas.edu/~bheller/outsider1.htm

Artcars and Cardboard: Conservation Issues and Outsider Art 
A work in progress (6/2003)

Art arising directly from the innate human need to create, made with whatever materials are at hand, and alive with the idiosyncratic message of one individual in the grip of something so much larger than his or her own mind that it must manifest itself as an artifact.  As a new conservator, I am fascinated by the challenges presented by a desire to maintain these works for the public eye and the private collector.  In these pages, I hope to explore the complicated intersection of the artist's immediacy and the buyer's hopes for an artwork's longevity.

This paper discusses conservation and preservation issues related to the often fugitive, non-traditional media employed by late 20th century and early 21st century self-taught artists, within the art historical designation sometimes referred to as  �Outsider� art.  As these works have entered the art marketplace over the past 50 or so years, with increased frequency in the past 20, and as these collections are acquired by specialized galleries and museums, it is important to identify the particular challenges involved in storage, display, transportation, and mending these unique items.

Gallery owners, artists, curators, and conservators have been interviewed, through personal visits to locations in Texas, including Houston, Austin, and Waxahachie, as well as by telephone and email.  Three essential questions  form the basis for the interviews.  These questions are: 1) What are your expectations for a work's longevity?; 2) What is the importance of the genre to the cultural heritage?; and 3) What are the impediments to sustaining the artistic integrity of individual pieces?  Supporting research was found in traditional written resources, such as art conservation, art history, and paper conservation journals and books; as well as in non-traditional resources, such as Raw Vision magazine, other trade journals, and internet websites and discussion groups.  A survey of artcars was sent to national, Austin, and San Francisco email lists, to gather aging and deterioration data for a wide variety of materials and conditions.

 You Can't Take It With You, And Anyways,  It May Not Last

Some art is built to last.  The artist hopes that the work will live past his or her own lifetime, as a testimony to the inspiration, concepts, skill or talent from which it was formed.  Some art, however, is created for the sheer joy of the making, with little or no thought to the future, or even to the work�s potential as a medium of communication.   Art of the late 20th and early 21st century may express either of these temporal constructions, or may fall in a range in between.   Art may be purchased for reasons along a similar continuum: the buyer may hope that the purchase will gain in monetary value and function as a financial investment; or they may view a work and fall immediately in love with it and desire to possess it, to live in dialog with it; or, of course, the collector may have a m�lange of these motivations.  It is the intersection of these intentions and desires that draws forth questions about preservation and conservation treatment of an art object.  

 What Exactly Are We Talking About?

 The literature is filled with discussion about the various names used to designate art made by people who are not regarded as part of the mainstream art world.  Outsider, art brut, visionary, folk, na�ve, modern primitive, vernacular, workshop art� each term means something quite specific, and at the same time, each term is used as an umbrella for an entire oeuvre of creation, discovery, exhibit and marketing.  The terms overlap, and act like greased pigs slipping through the writer's hands, if held too tightly.  This field is shifting, changing, attempting to find its place in art history's timeline. 

  While I do not wish to delve into which label is most appropriate, it is necessary to find a likely handle for the subject being discussed.  Further, each term does express something about an artist�s state of mind and intention when creating the art, and it also places the art within an historical context. Each term carries its own set of controversies, as well.  I will, therefore, provide a brief definition of terms, as I understand them.  For the sake of convenience, however, I choose to refer to the art as Outsider, due, in part, to the idea that all the artists we will examine have been marginalized in one way or another.

Art Brut � coined by Jean Dubuffet, artist and post-WWII collector, it translates as "raw art". It refers to art made by the mentally ill, such as that found in Hans Prinzhorn's psychiatric clinic. This art is drawn from the individual's efforts to express their psychic turmoil and make sense of their internal and external worlds.  Dubuffet was interested in examining art brut as a stimulus for the avant-garde art movement of his time.  The term "Art Brut" appears to be making a comeback among those discussing "outsiders".

Fine Art - also called traditional art, mainstream art, high art, academic art or Capital "A" Art.  This designation, as distinct from Outsider art, is somewhat problematic in that much of Modern Art results from the attempts of artists to rebel against the established art ideals, while at the same time remaining somewhat marketable.  Additionally, many artists throughout art history have gathered inspiration from artists who were not accepted in the Art canon.  Late 20th century and early 21st century art may use non-traditional materials whose conservation is every bit as problematic as that of the Outsiders, but the philosophy behind conservation decisions may differ greatly. Finally, an "insider" artist may be just as consumed by the need to create as an Outsider, or just as obsessive, with an equally unique vision of their world.

Modern Primitive  - These were artists who were untrained but attempted to imitate the formal art of the times.  Ironically, the skewed perspective, anatomical drawing mistakes, and unusual painting styles that arose from these attempts were taken as inspiration by Modern artists who were trying to break free of the very ideals to which the Modern Primitives aspired. The first Modern Primitive exhibit took place at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1932.  These artists include John Kane and Morris Hirshfield.

Naive - Often used to describe so-called "memory painters", who use somewhat child-like techniques to depict scenes from their own lives or those of their family and community, often long past.   There is an element of storytelling and conscious communication with the viewer. Grandma Moses and Clementine Hunter are frequently cited as examples of memory painters.

Folk - Generally used as an umbrella term, there are some factions who insist that Folk Art be used to designate pre-20th century American handcrafts, or crafts indigenous to other cultures.  This art, often anonymous, includes quilling, quilting, wood carving, saw blade painting, and furniture decoration.

Outsider - Attributed to Roger Cardinal, this term is used to designate art made by people who have been marginalized by society in some way,  by poverty, mental or physical illness, class, racism or other means.  These artists create their work in obsessive isolation, and are self-taught.  They generally have no intention of communicating with others, or succeeding in the art market, although they may derive content from television, magazines or other media.  These artists include Henry Darger, and Martin Ramirez.

Self-taught - This term has been used as a means to escape the possible stigma of the Outsider designation. These artists are simply those who have not had formal training in art.  They may actively pursue careers in the art world, or may create art for their own satisfaction.  

Itinerant Painters - 19th century traveling portrait painters

Tramp Art - Art made by hobos and other such travelers, out of found objects such as bottle caps. Others believe that tramp art has a more narrow definition, and is specifically made of layered wood.   

Prison Art  - Art made by prisoners, either as a result of recreational or therapeutic art programs, or spontaneously to pass the time, or to create barter items.  Such traditional art forms as cigarette package sculptures, prison tattoos, or matchstick crosses are handed down from inmate to inmate.  Other prison art depicts life behind walls, such as that of Frank Jones.

Environmental Art - Homes, grottoes, monuments, gardens created by an individual, usually made of found objects, or following an obsessive theme.  Such environments include Simon Rodia's Watts Towers, in Los Angeles, Jeff McKissack's Orange Show, in Houston, and Nek Chand, in India.  

Yard show is another term used to describe an environment created by a single artist - it is often more of a collection of paintings and sculptures than an architectural structure.

Visionary - Art that is made by a person in the grip of a vision, dream, spiritual revelation, hallucination or obsession.  This artist may or may not be formally trained.  They may or may not be shamanic in intention. They may be considered Outsiders, as well.

VernacularThere has been an effort to address the complicated entanglement of Black American issues, personal iconography and interracial economics as expressed in the art world.  This has resulted in the designation "African American Vernacular Art", adopted in order to raise awareness of these issues in the history of the genre, and to claim particular artists for African American cultural heritage. The word "vernacular" is defined, in this instance, as "the mode of expression of a group or class" (Webster's 7th ed.), although the etymology of this word is filled with possible interpretations.

Workshop - Art made by people in a clinic setting, where a portion of proceeds from sale of the art is returned to the clinic, for the purchase of materials and running of the program.

 While Outsider work itself is, by definition, free from the conscious influence of Capital A Art, it has been a serious influence in the work of academic and graphic artists.  Movements such as Surrealism, Dada, Fauvism, Expressionism and Abstract Expressionism have all attempted to access the subconscious, primal or childlike creative motivation found in Outsider art.  Modern and Post-modern art, as well as the advertising world, have co-opted, to some extent, the techniques, colors, lines, and rhythms of Outsider Art, in more or less self-conscious, ironic, or reverential manners.  It is necessary, therefore, to preserve Outsider art for its own sake, as well as for the sake of art historical study.

 They May Use Iron, But Not Much Irony

  Hans Prinzhorn, a Heidelberg psychiatrist, was one of the first to collect and study art-making by the disenfranchised, and his 1922 book Artistry of the mentally ill, is considered to be one of the primary influences on the emergence of Outsider art exhibitions and collections.  His work was one of my initial influences, as well, when, for 10 years,  I worked as a Licensed Art Therapist.  My career focused on fostering human creativity, and on providing an expressive outlet for individuals struggling in the context of their lives.  I facilitated art groups in psychiatric hospitals, coffee shops, graduate-level art therapy classes, and for individuals and families in my office/studio. 

I witnessed people making art as if their lives depended on it, and people drawing to pass the time.  Some treated their work as sacred relics, some tossed it into the garbage as soon as they were done.  Some used art as a tool to tell me of their troubles.  Some used it as a way to directly deal with their troubles.  Some worked to be "good" artists, and others fought the disparagement of a first grade teacher that still squashed them.  Some wanted to please me, or wanted to satisfy something within themselves.  For a few, there was a natural sense of balance, color, juxtaposition, scale, sensuousness of line, or an ability to draw what they saw, realistically or expressionistically, to express their internal or external realities.  Others got satisfaction out of what appeared to be a child's scribble.  Which was art, and which was not?  That was not a question I addressed in the treatment context.  

Although this issue has certainly been explored in countless articles on the genres of Outsider or Visionary Art,  it is not a question I seek to address in my new career as a conservator.  The essential issue to understand, regarding the context in which a work was created, when making decisions about how it is to be treated or exhibited, is how the work has come to have a meaning other than that which the artist intended.  How did this piece of art, made under conditions of individual urgency, come into the hands of a museum, collector, art dealer, who wants to preserve it?  For what purpose is it to be preserved? 

Having both witnessed this art being created, and felt its appeal, I believe that Outsider artists delve into archetype, express their own joy and pain and sorrow in a way that allows the viewer, however unintended, to understand our own emotions.  That said, it is also important to understand the cultural processes that have allowed this artwork, as body, to come to awareness as a late 20th century genre, to be collected by individuals, to be acquired by museums, and the ways in which the artwork is, in turn, transformed by this �art world� acknowledgement. 

Further, as I think about conservation of art made under, perhaps, circumstances similar to those that I either experienced or facilitated, I recall the materials I supplied for these activities: white, 80lb, sulphite drawing paper, inexpensive non-toxic markers, Craypas, student-grade watercolors and pastels, hairspray as fixative, Elmers glue, glitter, magazine cutouts, oven-fired clay, flour and water paste, newspaper - none of it archival, all of it fugitive in some way, all chosen to get the most out of the small budget most mental health institutions provided, while still giving more pleasure than frustration in their use.  It is true that within the past 10 or so years, art workshops have become sensitized to the marketplace possibilities of their creations, and an effort has been made to encourage these artists to use a better quality of material.  However, artists who do their work in isolation and poverty do not, generally, have access to these materials, and continue to use the items close at hand - housepaint, cardboard, pvac glue, typing paper, Magic Markers, or backyard clay.  Because Outsider art has been identified as significant in the art history canon, these materials must be studied, so that we will be able to preserve them.

Just as an individual�s life experience influences their art preferences, my own art-making experiences inform my interest and understanding of Outsider art.   I have had formal training as an artist, and have used a wide variety of media, including various drawing and painting media, wood relief, encaustic, ceramics, papier mache, plaster, and found objects.  These media were chosen for the way they seemed to satisfy a specific emotional and kinetic need: something to push against, something to hit, something easy flowing, something mesmerizing.   This way of working heightens an appreciation for, and fascination with, the art processes and products found in Outsider art, and allows a perception of the works as evolving, aging, as living work. I believe I have some insight into, or at the very least, an appreciation for, the spirit in which Outsider art is made.

One specific way in which my art-making experiences seem relevant is that of creating and driving an "artcar�.  There are perhaps 300 decorated cars in the United States at this time, and the number is growing, as is their presence in museums and galleries.  Artcar artists use an enormous variety of materials on their cars: housepaint, sign painters enamel, plastic toys, fake fur, real fur, peanuts, dog biscuits, steel, tin, aluminum, wood, bone, vinyl, epoxies, silicones, pvac, marine adhesives, paper, fabric, cameras - anything that can be attached, has been.  They experiment through trial and error, and discuss their results.  In an effort to gather information about the aging and deterioration of these materials, I recently submitted a survey to the artcar community. Their responses will be compiled and made accessible to both the artcar and conservation communities via this website.

Although I have, at times, sold my artwork, my creativity has never been focused on success in the world of exhibit and review.  I understand something of the process of creating simply for the moment, as well as the tendency to put the completed work aside, forgetting about it.  I have also felt the pressure to produce, when things were selling, and an awareness of what sort of things sold better than others, and a subsequent desire to duplicate those things.  It makes a great deal of sense to me, therefore, when the art dealers I interviewed spoke of protecting Outsider artists from the attention of the public.  I believe strongly, then, that Preservation may extend to protection of the individual creative spark, as well as the objects made, and to documentation of the ways in which an artist's life story contributes to the making of their artwork.

The Interviews: "Getting Some Karmic Insight"

Suzanne Theis, The Orange Show Foundation

Suzanne Theis is the Director of  The Orange Show, a folk art environment in Houston, Texas, created by Jeff McKissack.  The mission of the Orange Show is to preserve folk art environments in Texas.  Ms. Theis commented that there are not many conservators, that she is aware of, that specialize in late 20th century art.  She suggests that anyone who does work in this area would be well served by taking a pragmatic approach.  She also said that while she used to work mostly with Historic Preservationists, she is now required by granting agencies, such as the NEA and the National Parks service, to have a conservator �sign off� on preservation and conservation plans.  

The Orange Show  worked with Conservator Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, when she was with the Menil Collection.  Ms. Mancusi-Ungaro is now at the Metropolitan Museum, in NY.  Ms. Theis enjoyed working with her because �she was loose about things�, was able to make decisions about repairing a piece or allowing it to deteriorate naturally, based on discussion about the context and needs of the work and the collection as a whole.  For example, several years ago, some Walter Cotton paintings were found in an un-air-conditioned attic in East Texas, after having been there for 50 or more years.  The paintings brought quite a bit of money at auction, despite the fact that many were on warped plywood boards.  Ms. Mancusi-Ungaro was consulted on one of the paintings.  According to Ms. Theis, Ms. Mancusi-Ungaro suggested that the painting be kept in stable climate conditions, but that nothing much else should or could be done for it, that nature should be allowed to take it�s course.

Ms. Theis has also worked with Conservators Jill Whitten and Rob Proctor,  in consultation about the Beer Can House, another Houston art environment, created by John Milkovisch.  During the years that Mr. Milkovisch lived in the house, he covered the outside of it with flattened beer cans, and hung curtains of beer can pull tabs and plastic six-pack holders from the eaves. The House was a popular destination for locals and tourists alike, and The Orange Show often included it in their Eyeopener Tours.  A friendly relationship developed between the Milsovich's and the staff of the Orange Show.  In the last 2 years of his life, Mr. Milkovisch was unable to maintain his sculptures, and they deteriorated, along with his health.  Mr. Milkovisch died several years ago, and his widow subsequently sold the house to the Orange Show Foundation.  The Orange Show formed a preservation committee, and has hired a caretaker to live on the property, as it was determined that the property would be victim to vandalism if it were unoccupied.  Ms. Theis reports that The Beer Can House Preservation Committee has decided to restore the house to the way it was 2 years before the creator�s death, when it was in the condition he intended.  In the process of restoring the house, a linoleum flooring mosaic has been discovered, and there is now some discussion about whether or not the floor can be walked on.    The committee is predominantly of the opinion that it was created to be functional and should therefore continue to be functional. There is no intention of allowing the public to visit the interior of the house, at this time.  The Beer Can House will continue as an outdoor exhibit.

Nancy Moulton, Kohler Foundation

Nancy Moulton is the Preservation Coordinator of the Kohler Foundation, in Wisconsin.  She was recently involved in decisions regarding a large number of 22 x 36 inch posterboard works that lined the Mississippi home of the Rhinestone Cowboy, Loy Allen Bowlin, until they were purchased by a collector.  The collector then sold the works to the Kohler Foundation.  These works were made with crayon, Elmer's glue and glitter, and covered the walls of the house, attached with push pins and tape. There had been evidence of insect activity when the works were acquired by the original collector, but they have been in climate controlled storage for 5 year, and there is currently less concern regarding infestation.  Jim DeYoung, a Milwaukee Conservator, has been consulted on these posters, first to perform condition surveys, and then to find a way to consolidate the glitter onto the surfaces.  He has flattened the posters, and mended holes and tears created by tape, tacks and staples.  Treatment reports and photodocumentation will travel with the collection when it is established at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.  The collection will be installed at the Arts Center along with walls, doors, doorjambs, window trim, baseboards and ceiling tiles taken from the original house.  The rebuilt house will open as a permanent exhibit in December 2003. 

Ms. Moulton states that there seems to be an unusual number of self-taught artists in Wisconsin, possibly due to the number of retired and rural people in the area.  Isolation is mentioned as a criteria for the creation of Outsider artwork, in part because it allows the artist shelter from the criticism of neighbors.  She believes that public attention tends not to change the work an artist creates, but that, once "discovered", the artist feel a pull between "a desire to access the financial reward" and the desire to keep their highly personal items.   

Sarah Templin, AVAM

Sarah Templin is the Registrar at the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM), in Baltimore, Maryland.  She states that AVAM does not have an on-staff curator or conservator.  All preservation decisions are made by herself and the Deputy Director, Mark Ward.  Ms. Templin states that they have no written policy for decision-making, but discuss the work in question according to its needs, history and context.  They contract work out to local conservators with whom they have built a relationship, and Sarah educates the conservators about the most important aspects of the piece. She states that �objects are the most confusing artifacts to work with� because of the variety of materials used, and that the essential differences between outsider and conventional art are the philosophy behind the work, and the materials used.   She believes that it is important to consider the artist�s other creations, so that any conservation decisions are consistent with the entire body of work.   AVAM has 1000 pieces in their permanent collection, acquired in the past 20 years, all in good repair.  The Museum is in compliance with the American Association of Museum Regulations for archival storage and exhibition policies.  All work is insured by Fine Arts Risk Management, which pays �door to door� for traveling exhibitions. Sarah says that, generally, very little conservation treatment is called for, except for works that are damaged during travel for exhibition, or works that arrive directly from the artist�s environment.  

Bob Wade, Austin Artist

Bob �Daddy-O� Wade is an Austin artist who has been deeply involved with many aspects of the Texas art scene.  He describes himself as having been a close friend of Willard "The Texas Kid" Watson, a  self-taught Dallas artist, now-deceased.  He believes that "The Kid" enjoyed the attention of being an artist, and also that he created art specifically to sell it.  Mr. Wade taught �The Kid� to document his work, to keep a scrapbook of photographs and sales, and he promoted him in the art world.  This writer was shown one drawing by "The Kid", from Mr. Wade's personal collection.  This Magic Marker drawing is framed in a Plexiglass box, and hung in a room with no windows, but it does appear to be fading in some parts, although it is difficult to tell if some of the lighter areas are due to fading or, rather, to the marker running out of dye or solvent at the time the drawing was made.

When asked if Mr. Wade wanted to say anything to conservators, it was this: �Get karmic insight into the object you are working with.  Get to know enough about the artist�s life, and about why they made the thing, so you will know what needs to be done, whether to fix it, or just let it fade away.�  He views conservators who might treat his own pieces as part of the team, just like an artists� assistant might do some of the background painting of a renaissance work, or as a metalworker might cast an artist�s sculpture.  �If they can do it better than me, great!�  He cited a case where a cat had punctured holes in a portrait he had done.  The owner took it to a conservator who repaired the canvas and inpainted the losses.  On another occasion, the conservator at the Menil Collection called to consult him about a piece of his they had acquired which was suffering some damage.  Mr. Wade's technique at the time the piece had been created, was to paint photographic emulsion onto canvas, in a darkroom, sometimes using a squeegee.  The emulsion was applied to obtain a painterly quality, but pieces occasionally became "splotchy".  Bob suggested that the conservators do �whatever they needed to do to make everyone happy, because the piece was not made to be immaculate�, and, in fact, he felt the spirit of the work was improved by such flaws.  On the other hand, Bob mentioned that he used to sign his work with Sharpie markers, but was told that on several occasions the marker signature had faded away.  Because this is an issue of authenticity, Bob investigated lightfastness in other markers and switched to a Pigma Graphic 1 pen, which uses �micropigment ink�, and guarantees itself to be fadeproof. 

Sue Ellen Jeffers, Blanton Museum

Sue Ellen Jeffers is the Registrar for the Blanton Museum at the University of Texas, at Austin.  She states that the Blanton has no art made with non-conventional materials in the permanent collections, and there is no current plan to acquire any more outsider or self-taught art.  The Outsider art now in the collection was acquired during the time that Lynne Adele was curator, and that connection is now severed.  Ms. Adele was an expert in self-taught and outsider art, who now acts as a freelance curator.  The Blanton artwork, including works by Eddie Arning and Minnie Evans, well-known Outsider artists who often used wax crayon as their primary medium.

Sheri Cavin, Cavin-Morris Gallery

Sheri Cavin is a partner in Cavin-Morris Gallery, NY.  Ms. Cavin believes that the artists she represents are not usually concerned with the longevity of their art, although it is a big issue in contemporary conventional art.  They do tend to want to keep their artwork safe in their own environment, and may do something to preserve it, such as putting insect infested work into a plastic bag and spraying it with roach spray.  She says that occasionally a curator might educate an artist about using higher quality materials, if they feel confident that the artist wants the information, but she tries not to interfere � �there may be something about the bad paper that is essential to their creativity, or something about going to buy the markers at the five and dime that sparks a painting�.

Ms. Cavin says that there are some collectors who are hesitant to buy work done with markers or on paper, and some want to know if a work has been deacidified, but that most collectors with a commitment to the genre tend to buy the work that moves them, regardless of the stability of the media.  She does educate the collector on how to care for the work, and all work in the gallery is stored in accordance with preservation standards.

To illustrate some of the conservation challenges she has encountered, Ms. Cavin discussed Artist Bessie Harvey's use of spray paint.  The thickness of the spray paint, and its application on unprepared surfaces has caused the paint to peel on some works.  Ms. Cavin further observed that deacidification may bleach much of the color of a work.  She also stated that some work benefits from lining, and that UV shielding is always of use.  She believes that works on paper are the most difficult challenge for conservation, and that works with magic marker are also challenging, because of the tendency towards fading.  Ms. Cavin also mentioned that the acidity of markers, and their interaction with paper, might be an interesting area of exploration for conservation scientists. 

Cavin-Morris's mission is in working toward the goal of presenting Outsider art as primarily an art historical designation.  Ms. Cavin believes that, over the next 15 to 20 years, the serious, truly provocative art will be seen as art for its own sake, rather than as odd objects made by odd people.  She does not �sell� the personal stories of her artists, except to discuss their creative process, and is protective of their privacy.

Bruce and Julie Webb, Webb Gallery

Bruce and Julie Webb have been dealers and collectors of outsider and self-taught art since 1991, through Webb Gallery, of Waxahachie, Texas.  They have traveled the American South, visiting with and documenting the lives of many of the artists they represent.  Their affection for these artists is palpable.  They describe an attitude of protectiveness towards them, and express concern that public attention too often results in the loss of the isolation and time required for the artists to work, while at the same time acknowledging that the monetary compensation has been very welcome to people who very often are marginalized by poverty.

When I visited with the Webbs, they were extremely generous in showing me a variety of work in both their private and gallery collections.   They described several examples of treatments for which they had contracted a conservator.  For example, Frank Jones was a prison artist.  One of his pieces came to the Webbs dry mounted on Masonite, with rusting staples and masking tape edges.  These elements had not been part of the original work, but had been added by a fellow prisoner who had owned the work.  The piece was also yellowed and smelled of cigarette smoke.  The conservator, Maria Pacanek, removed the backing, staples, and tape, and did some surface cleaning, but the yellowing was not altered, as it was deemed part of the life of the object.   Another example of earlier efforts at preservation is a work by the Reverend J.L. Hunter,  made of crayon, glue, and glitter, on posterboard, encapsulated in a Plexiglass box to keep the glitter from falling out.  This microenvironment had a damaging effect when stored in an unairconditioned house, but may be more stable in the gallery.

The Webbs prefer to leave most artwork in its original condition, unless there are elements, added by other owners, that may do continued damage, such as inappropriate backings, like dry mounting, or cardboard that is not a part of the artwork.  They take such precautions as interleaving with Glassine, remounting work separated from glass, using archival matting, and minimizing exposure to light, especially UV, particularly for works on paper, or works made with fugitive materials.   Bruce showed me some glass that had been removed from an Eddie Arning crayon drawing, where the design outline had been transferred to the glass by contact with the crayon.  The work was remounted in a box frame, and was hinged using Japanese paper and Rhoplex, for reversibility.

The Webb�s believe that framing is the most cost-effective and easiest method of conservation treatment available to them.  They base their conservation decisions in part on purchase price and anticipated sale, but put the safety of the object as a priority.  They would consult a conservator to deodorize or deacidfy paper, to remove tape that was not a part of the original work, and to stabilize fragile paper or cardboard.  They feel that the most problematic material, in terms of preservation, is marker.

Terry Nowell, Collector, Austin, TX

Terry Nowell, an Outsider art collector since 1990, is known for his comprehensive collection of the sculptural works of Burgess Dulaney.  Mr. Nowell owns upwards of 100 of these unfired clay figures, and he exhibits a depth of feeling for Mr. Dulaney when he displays them.  Although he has not written down his remembrances, Mr. Nowell is an oral historian, a storyteller of great skill, when he talks of his visits with Mr. Dulaney.  

Mr. Dulaney used clay dug from several areas around his home.  He spent hours simply removing inpurities, by hand, from each batch.  Each type of clay has particular characteristics, from a smooth, sticky white, to a grittier, iron-rich reddish tone. The iron-rich clay has oxidized, where exposed to air, and blackened.  Mr. Nowell has personally investigated these clay pits, and is able to establish provenance with this information.  Additionally, Mr. Dulaney taught Mr. Nowell how to repair his broken pieces, using clay lumps scraped from the bottom of a piece to make slip, (a thinned, gummy mixture of clay and water).   Mr. Nowell has been consulted by the Mississippi Museum of Art, among other institutions and collectors, about the repair of broken works.  Mr. Nowell says of the pieces "They're alive.  It's more exciting that they change."

Mr. Dulaney, and his "manager", brother-in-law Jock, finished some of the surfaces, in response to collector's concerns about fragility.  Some pieces were coated with Elmer's glue, while Jock painted others with black acrylic paint.  Another collector suggested that Mr. Dulaney work in cement, rather than clay, which Mr. Dulaney tried, although he stated that he didn't like it - "it hurts my hands too much".  Apparently Mr. Dulaney was working the cement bare-handed, just as he worked the clay.   

 Mr. Nowell has been invited to speak at the 16th Annual Conference of the Folk Art Society of America, 2003, and will undertake the daunting task of transporting 90 of the fragile sculptures.  He plans to hand pack and unpack each piece, and handle their placement in the gallery himself, rather than risk their injury.  Each piece will be wrapped in Ethafoam, and double-boxed for shock absorption. He is unsure if it would be better to enclose the pieces in plastic as well, as a defense against moisture intrusion, or if the plastic would encourage a damagingly humid microenvironment.  

 Stephanie Smither, Collector, Houston, TX

Stephanie Smither, along with her late husband, Charles, has been collecting Outsider art since the late 1980's, introduced to the genre by the late Bert Hemphill, "father of Outsider art collecting".   Mr. Hemphill was in the process of acquiring works for his extensive collection, (which he has since gifted to the Smithsonian Institute), and Mrs. Smither took him to visit various artists in the Houston area.  "Bitten by the bug", Mrs. Smither began visiting artists throughout the American South. She says that she has met about 70% of the artists who have made work in her collection.  While she has many vivid stories about meeting these artists, she has not yet written them down, although she plans to in the future.    She states "I don't believe that, except for the fact that they are self-taught, knowing about the artist should influence your feelings about the work.  You either love the work or not, but if you know something about the artist, it adds another dimension."  Mrs. Smither also serves on the Beer Can House Preservation Committee. 

Her house is filled "floor to ceiling" with art, as are her children's houses, collecting having become a trans-generational obsession.  It is the "spontaneity and richness of expression, the diversity with which they express happiness and whimsicality" that draws her.  "I never come into this house, that it doesn't make me happy."  Mrs. Smither says she is "in love" with her artwork, and enjoys being surrounded by it.  Although she states that "it's not the nature of the people who did the work to worry about its longevity", she would not hesitate to do whatever she could to preserve it.  She believes, as did Mr. Hemphill, that one should do whatever is needed, as long as it is done "in the spirit with which the artist worked". 

While she states that she has not noticed much significant deterioration among the items in her collection, she does have a few things she is concerned about.  A functional telephone, drawn on with marker by Howard Finster, appears to be losing some of the marker on the hand-piece. Mrs. Smither plans to preserve the piece by removing it from use, although it will remain on display.  

Mrs. Smither has had 4 works by Charles A.A.Delschau conserved. These pieces, watercolor and collage on newsprint, had been stacked in the artist's garage between the 1920's and mid-1960's, when they were discovered.  Originally created in book form, in some cases, the books have been disbound, and the leaves sold individually.  The paper is extremely fragile, and marked with insect droppings.  The works were deacidified and surface cleaned, before framing under UV-filtering glass.

 After discussing the works in her collection, Mrs. Smither turned the conversation toward the future.  She described one current dialogue among collectors and dealers, which explores whether new self-taught artists can emerge in this genre. Inescapable exposure to media influence, an inability to live in the same kind of isolation as "established" outsiders, the prevalence of medication to treat mental disorders -all may contribute to a lessened creative flow in current outsider artists.  Mrs. Smither believes that while new artists may emerge, the era she has collected, that of the late 20th century, can be seen as unique, a time when the art was seen as "bold and new and exciting".  It is for this reason that she works to preserve as much of the art as she can.

 

What Are We Going To Do and Who's Going To Do It?

In her opening article of "Contemporary art: creation, curation, collection, conservation: postprints of IPCRA Conference (Sept. 2001)", Rachel Barker quotes Frank Whitford: "I sympathize with the conservators of contemporary art.  Professionally charged with the preservation for posterity of whatever has achieved the status of art, their task always difficult and controversial.  Not long ago, all they had to worry about were pigments, media, varnish, grounds, supports and whatever sculpture normally used to made of essentially, stone, wood and metal.  But now everything has become much more challenging.  Sculpture comes in anything from bricks to tapioca, from stuffed goats to unmade beds and fried eggs." She goes on to state "Unless clearly acknowledged by both artist and director that a work is ephemeral, a conservator has a responsibility to preserve all objects as close to their condition at the completion of creation as is possible, and maintain that condition." (p2, "Modern art: a lifetime to consider").

And that is precisely the issue at hand, in a strangely-carved, house-paint coated, insect-vulnerable nutshell.  Whether that nutshell was selected by a professionally trained modern artist to make use of it's metaphoric potential, or if it was selected by an outsider artist because it was laying available in the yard, if it is in the hands of a conservator, it has been deemed an item of cultural value worthy of preservation.  How is the conservator to approach the task?  Does the artist's intention play a role in treatment decision-making?  Is the intentionally allegorical nutshell to be treated differently from the accidentally allegorical nutshell?  Is the lifetime of an item after completion ever to be preserved? What if the nutshell was given to the outsider artist's child, who added something different?  What if the nutshell was given to the trained artist's child, who added something? What if a squirrel got it?  It appears that the answer to the question "What to do?" is "It Depends".   

Documentation

One method of determining course of action with contemporary artwork has been to consult the artist regarding his or her desires.  Contemporary artists are, generally, well versed in the technical aspects of their materials, and document their intentions for their choice of those materials.  If the artist is unavailable for comment, there may be an exhibit catalog, an interview, a review, or a sketchbook to which one may be referred. The art may be placed in historical context, and art critics may have described the work's relevance  within that context.  In the case of outsider artists, this procedure may be more difficult.  With some exceptions, Outsider artists tend to work in isolation, do not document their own work, or even discuss it with others.  They may be incarcerated in prison or hospital and therefore protected from contact by confidentiality laws.  They may have disappeared from view.  They may be uninterested or incapable of discussing the future of their work.  As many art dealers have suggested, the outsider artist's creativity may be dampened or changed by increased contact with "the art world".    The outsider artist's friends or family may be unaware of the art activity, or embarrassed by it, or there may be no friends or family.  

Art dealers and collectors who specialize in Outsider art may be the only resource for the kind of information needed to understand a particular piece of work, or body of work.  Many of these individuals have traveled extensively to meet the artists, visiting with them, interviewing, taking photographs, and developing strong friendships.  This writer firmly believes that these relationships should be documented and included in an artwork's provenance.  In this way, conservators and curators who come into contact with the work will understand something of its spirit.  This is not to say, however, that the appeal of the artwork is to be found in the life story of the artist.  The life story of the artist enhances understanding of the life story of the work.  Accordingly, detailed treatment and exhibit exposure reports should travel with the work as well.

Materials Identification

There has been little research into the exact nature and composition of unusual materials used in contemporary and outsider art, especially as regards prevention of deterioration, use of consolidants, reaction to various cleaning methods and solvents, and pest management strategies.  A study of such material as sheetrock, bread and saliva "glue", or "office-supply" adhesives, an analysis of each brand offered and its chemical makeup,  would greatly benefit conservators struggling to answer the question "What do I do with this?".   Zoe Reid and Margaret Ellis have ventured into the field, with their investigations into wax-based drawing materials, as has Tony Rajer in his articles about a myriad of materials.  Further exploration by conservation scientists will enable more confident treatment approaches.

Conservation Treatment

While all artwork should be treated with equal attention, according to reasonable and current conservation standards, there are some areas in which the treatment of Outsider art may require further thought and study.  As in Contemporary art, much discovery remains as to appropriate material and technique for surface cleaning, mending, backing, exhibit and storage.  Ethical questions, such as whether or not to remove tape, may differ in their resolution on a Contemporary artwork or an Outsider artwork.  Investigation of these questions requires a collaborative effort between Paper, Objects, Paintings, Architecture or Ethnographic Conservators, Historic Preservationists, Folklorists, Art Historians, Curators, Art Dealers, and Self-Taught Experts in the field.  This genre is an era just coming to be defined, and all must work together to make sure the work itself survives for future contemplation.

"If it falls off, I stick it back on.  If I lose it, I find something else.  If it is destroyed, I might make another one, if I feel like it." This appears to be the general response from many outsider artists, regarding their own preservation activities.  It would be useful to interview artists about how they feel about others doctoring their work, after it leaves them.  This was intended but turned out to be beyond the scope of this paper.  Such interviews would contribute to the body of knowledge regarding the Outsider art genre, and assist in ethical and philosophical discussion of conservation treatment. 

The Role Of The Fool, or Is There Such A Thing As An Outsider Conservator?

  Outsider artists may be considered the Fools of the mainstream art world.   By this I mean the traditional Fool, not the modern interpretation of the word as embarrassing, or foolish.  The Fool's role is to act, consciously or unconsciously, as Court Jester to the established order, to highlight and question, through outrageous behavior, the dominant discourse.  Rollo May discussed "the timeless fear that every society harbors of its artists, poets, and saints. For they are the ones who threaten the status quo, which each society is devoted to protecting." 1   When we encounter Outsider art, we encounter what seems to be a direct line to our society's most disturbing or most profound situations, without any cloaking veneer, beyond that of the sometimes uninterpretable personal iconography of the artist.  The value of this art to our cultural heritage lies here, in this presentation of what Jung called the "collective unconscious", because this art springs from the same well as cave paintings, paleographic writings, retablos, religious altars, and graffiti - it is art of the people, speaking what we do not normally dare to speak out loud, making sacred the ordinary, and finding beauty in disharmony.

This art is also ephemeral, which challenges those of us who make our livings by keeping artifacts alive, one way or another.  It calls on us to occasionally decide that certain works should be allowed to deteriorate naturally, that the warped board should remain warped, that the peeling paint should be allowed to continue peeling, and that the unfired ceramic should be allowed to return to dust.  This may indeed be a challenge, given that human nature tends, also, to keeping, stockpiling, amassing, inventorying, for economic gain, and for historic significance, and for nostalgic purposes.  The Outsider Conservator is called upon to balance the concepts of non-attachment and impermanence with concepts of conservation and preservation.

 

Footnotes

1)    May, R., The courage to create, p. 22

Bibliography

Exhibition Catalogue, Outsiders: an art without precedent or tradition, Hayward Gallery, Arts Council of Great Britain, London, 1979

Beardsley, J., Gardens of revelation: environments by visionary artists, Abbeville Press, New York, 1995

Cahill H., et.al., Masters of popular painting: modern primitives of Europe and America, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1938

Campbell, J. Ed., The portable Jung, Viking Press, NY, 1971 

Johnson, J. and Ketchum, W. Jr., American folk art of the twentieth century, Rizzoli, New York,1983

May, R., The courage to create, Bantam Books, NY, 1985

Prinzhorn, H., Artistry of the mentally ill, 1923, Trans. E. von Brockdorff, Vienna, Springer, 1995

Russell, C., Self-taught art: the culture and aesthetics of American vernacular art, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2001

Rajer, A, and Donoval, E., "Chicken bones and cardboard: the conservation of a collection of Eugene Bon Bruenchenhein's art", p. 241-246, Saving the twentieth century: the conservation of modern materials: proceedings of a conference, Canadian Conservation Institute, Communications Canada, Ottawa, Canada, September 15-20, 1991

Williams, D. and Creager, A., "Conservation of paintings on delaminated supports", p. 231-240, Saving the twentieth century: the conservation of modern materials: proceedings of a conference, Canadian Conservation Institute, Communications Canada, Ottawa, Canada, September 15-20, 1991

Zolberg, V. and Cherbo, J., Outsider art: contesting boundaries in contemporary culture, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1997

Websites

 

MUSEUMS

Art Car Museum, Houston - A museum featuring art cars...of course!  Also exhibits a variety of contemporary. art.

American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore     - A quote from their website: "Jonathan Swift defined this kind of vision so perfectly:  "Vision is the art of seeing things invisible." Discovering possibilities that others do not see is what visionaries do best."

The Orange Show, Houston  - Built by Jeff McKissack as a tribute to the fruit, the Foundation's mission is to preserve folk art environments.  They are currently working to preserve the Beer Can House.

Museum of American Folk Art

Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection, Irish Museum of Modern Art -  Art Historian Riann Coulter is the current Outsider Art Fellow

The Prinzhorn Collection  - The first collection of art by the mentally ill, begun in the 1920's by Heidelberg psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn

GALLERIES

Cavin-Morris Gallery, New York  - Sheri Cavin is an invaluable resource on the topic of Outsider art, especially in the context of the New York art world.

San Angelo Folk Art, San Antonio  - Gallery

Webb Folk Art Gallery, Waxahachie, Texas.  Bruce and Julie Webb are non-stop storytellers, knowledgeable and passionate about what they do.  I recommend a visit to Waxahachie for everyone!  

Yard Dog Gallery, Austin  - Gallery, owner Randy Franklin

RESOURCES

Art Cars in Cyberspace  - Comprehensive art car site

Christies New York January 2003 Auction of 20th century self-taught and outsider art - See how much money some of this art sells for.  Not a single one of these "high end" works lists magic marker as a material.  It is also interesting to note that these prices were lower than expected, due to a falling art market.

Folk Art Society of America    They publish the Folk Art Messenger, and promote Project SAFE (Save Art and Folkart Environments).    Here's a sample article from the Folk Art Messenger:  Smudging the edges: folk art goes commercial, by John Foster.  John publishes "Envision", for the Missouri Folk Art Society.

Interesting Ideas website    Here are some quotes from an Essay on Prison Art on that site:

        "Whatever the content, the ingenuity prisoners use to transform prosaic materials into art is consistently impressive."

            "Harms [an artist], who is now at another Illinois prison, equips each of his chairs with an index card that records the number of pieces in the chair (usually around 30 to 60), the number of hours it took to make it, the pieces and hours that went into the display box, and other information, including care instructions. One example, a chair finished May 6, 1994, contains 49 pieces and took 21 hours. The materials are Ivory soap (the "state soap" doesn't work for carving, he says), white glue, acrylic and varnish. The display case has 48 pieces and took 17 hours to build using Popsicle sticks, white glue and plastic. The rose that sits on the chair has 34 pieces and took three hours. It was made from an emulsion of colored pencil shavings, water and glue."

Jane's Addictions is a most thorough and interesting inventory of all things outsider art

Kohler Foundation Wisconsin  -  Their motto:  "Preserving the art preserves the artist's soul."

Raw Vision Magazine   An article by Tessa DeCarlo: Outsider biographies vs. outsider art

SPACES: Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments  L.A. based Preservation resource and granting agency

EVENTS

San Francisco Art Car Festival - West Fest

ARTISTS

Bob "Daddy-O" Wade, artist, Austin    He has an amazing collection of snowdomes, "dirty chickens", toothpick, popsiclestick and matchstick sculptures, prison cigarette pack art, and other odd things, and he was nice enough to tell me about his relationship with self-taught artist The Texas Kid 

The Highwaymen         A group of S. Florida African-American artists who sold their work from the trunks of their cars in the 1950's and '60s.  The exhibit of 22 paintings can be rented, door to door, for $1,000!   Al Black  is one of the original Highwaymen.

 

Outsider Art Survey Questions:

1)         What are your expectations for a work's longevity?

2)          What is the importance of the genre to the cultural heritage?

3)          What are the impediments to sustaining the artistic integrity of individual pieces?

 

Art Car Materials Survey Questions:
(Interactive survey and response compilation available soon!)

1)         What stuff is on or in your car?  Please list brand names and colors, if you can.

2)         When did you put the stuff on your car?

3)         What adhesives did you use?  Again, brand names, please.

4)         How often has your car been exposed to sun, rain, snow, hot, cold, major humidity or dryness, dramatic changes?

5)         Is it a daily driver?  Is it garaged or not?

6)         What signs of deterioration have you noticed on which materials? 

            (Flaking, rusting, brittleness, peeling, fading, turning to powder, melting, insects eating it, etc.)

7)         What have you done to preserve your car, or to fix things that fell off, flaked, rusted, etc?

© 2006 The Cochineal
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