When I was a child I could not sleep unless there were lumps of papier-mâché drying on my windowsill. I often woke to find them standing sentry, gray shapeless things, not so unlike the goblins or dwarves or gargoyles that littered the books on my shelf. Each abstract form was part of a whole—a hand, a face, or torso—in one of my mother’s works-in-progress. Sculptures formed from the flotsam and jetsam of our lives: a teak bowl, a rusted bedspring, a bottle cap, steel wool. Random bits and pieces that, when assembled, would stop you cold with their beauty.
Back then it wasn’t uncommon to find my mother stirring a pot of beans with one hand and mashing a bucket of papier-mâché with the other. I grew up with the understanding that art was something created in the midst of real life, not a secret that could only be learned at some distant university. It was something you made. Not something you learned.
In those days my mother’s artwork was mainly found in gift stores and curio shops around northern New Mexico, small pieces that could be taken home for less than the price of a dinner at a nice restaurant. It helped pay the bills. And she would be the first to say that those early sculptures helped her learn the craft and figure out who she was as an artist. Twenty years later, her work can be found hanging on the walls of Gallery 202 along with Picasso and Warhol. Like her more famous roommates, my mother is innovative, bold, and intelligent. Unlike those cultural giants, she was never formally trained. My mother is an Outside Artist.
“The term outsider art was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for art brut ("raw art" or "rough art"), a label created by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the boundaries of official culture.” - Wikipedia
The original usage of Outsider Art specifically applied to creative works made by the mentally ill, or, in some cases, children. But for the sake of this post, we’ll stick with the more relaxed definition: those relentlessly creative souls who teach themselves and then bring their offerings to the table for others to enjoy.
My mother earned a spot at the table by force of will and immense natural talent. She knows who she is and does not let the lack of pedigree daunt her.
I think about this often when the subject of higher education comes up among writers. The MFA (all the better from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop) is to writers what a degree from Massachusetts College of Art and Design is to my mother’s colleagues. (And who wouldn’t want to study under such gifted teachers?) But the reality for many a creative soul (my mother and I included) is that those opportunities were/are/will be impossible. A plethora of circumstances and obstacles can prevent the Outside Artist from taking the traditional route. She must earn her spot at the table in another way.
She has to do the work. And she has to be good.
That's what I told a friend recently at lunch. She wants to be a novelist. But she fears that she cannot write professionally without an MFA. But my friend is already a writer. And she's good. The kind of good you can't learn in a classroom. And for her, like thousands of other self-taught artists, a degree can never replace the act of creating. Writers write. Sculptors sculpt.
It has been over two decades since I needed a lump of papier-mâché on my windowsill to usher in a good night’s rest. I sleep well these days because I know who I am. A writer in all my art brut glory. Perhaps technically untrained but not uneducated. Next month I’ll tell you about the teachers I’ve had (hint: they’re all modern-day literary giants) and how their tutelage has shaped the course of my career.
I’d love to hear from the Outsider Artists in this virtual room. What has your creative path looked like? How have you earned a spot at the table?