Monday, March 11, 2013

Outsider Art--A Guest Post by She Reads Writer Ariel Allison Lawhon

My mother, Emily Allison, at work on one of her sculptures.

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?


Megan Sayer said...

I actually studied art, which kind of makes me a not-outsider artist, but I've felt it, felt those same feelings because I didn't study English literature.
It's taken a lot of years of questioning why I ever went to art school when I'd known all my life almost that I wanted to be a writer, but I finally came to the following conclusion: studying English may well have killed the writer in me. It's taken me years to want to make art again, and to accept that the art I made back then was good. Studying English may have saved my confidence as an artist, but I'm happier as an untrained writer.

Patti Hill said...

I should not be a writer. I did not grow up in a book-loving home. I only remember my mom reading to me once. Our house, however, was filled with creativity. My mother could make anything with fabric and her sewing machine. She lamented not being able to make shoes, but she did make herself bras. I woke up most mornings to the sound of her sewing machine making the wall vibrate. I studied journalism and earned a degree in English Lit because I was often told I was a storyteller, even as a child. The degree gave me the confidence to try and the hunger to join in the party of creating delicious stories. Why should Joyce Carol Oates and Flannery O'Connor have all the fun?

Wonderful post, Ariel. Your mother's art is amazing. And so is yours.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I grew up in an artsy fartsy home (although I would have gotten soap in mouth for saying 'fartsy'). My mom is a painter, my dad a novelist who illustrates his own writings. Neither of my parents went to college fr their art. Self taught art was the only thing I knew for a long time. "Just try it" was my mom's instruction. Works for me.

After college (where I studied theology and literature...the combination made me dizzy most days), I applied for an MFA program. I am SO GLAD that didn't work out for me. Not that it wouldn't have been helpful. Or that I look down on people who have that education. But because I wasn't the right "Susie" for it at the time. I wasn't comfortable in my writing skin yet. I mean, I couldn't even write the "Why I Write" essay for the application for months because I was paralyzed trying to figure out what they wanted it to say. I had a lot of growing up to do.

For years, my only regret was that I couldn't get a gig teaching creative writing in a college setting. But, last year, I was able to serve as a teacher's assistant at my alma matter for the creative writing class. That was satisfying enough for me.

Ariel, I love that you included pictures of your mom and her art. Gorgeous.

Josey Bozzo said...

I shouldn't be writing.
I, like Patti didn't grow up in a book loving home. I did not go to college at all, let alone study English or Literature.
I started writing by accident when my church asked me to write my testimony for a missions trip.
It was like a damn bursting.
I found P31 Ministries, and the She Speaks conference. A scholarship contest prompted me to start a blog. I've blogged for about 5 years.
I have started three different fictional stories. But I don't know what is going to happen in either of them and that holds me back from working on them more.
I've written devotions for my church, but it takes me a long time to get it right.
Two years ago I actually wrote a book proposal for a devotional book. I pitched it at She Speaks. A few months later I got my rejection letters.
Then, came the sad time when I didn't write at all. I gave up.
So how have I earned a spot at the table?
First, I'm not sure I have truely yet.
Secondly, last summer I entered a nonfiction writing contest. I didn't win, but I got the attention of an agent. A very well known agent. Someone I could only have dreamed would say to me "I love your book idea"
Ariel, thank you for this. It is good to know that I don't need a degree to be a writer.

P.S. I am still waiting to hear from this agent since we had a face to face meeting in September. I could use all the prayer I can get because it is discouraging to get the attention of an agent and then hear nothing. Also, any advice would be appreciated.

Ariel Lawhon said...

I love my time here every month. So much of what I do is reader-oriented and I often forget how energizing it is to sit in a room (even the virtual kind) with other writers. Thanks for giving me a place at this table, ladies!

Megan: sometimes we have to take the circuitous route to this writing life. Even my mother (who was clearly born to be an artist) avoided the visual arts in favor of writing for a number of years. Sometimes it's easier to do the similar thing than the actual thing. But I'm glad you found your way! Welcome to the table.

Patti: I'm pretty much convinced that any type of creativity in a home will fuel the soul--especially the artist's soul. Given half the chance I would have earned the same degrees you did. I like to think they are in my future. Not because I have to have them to do this job, but because I'd love to learn the more traditional route and compare it to the take-the-bull-by-the-horns method I've always used.

Susie: I think that essay would have paralyzed me as well. I have this terrible tendency to over-think everything (don't ask how long it took to write my post). It's a brave soul who can write what they NEED to write instead of what others WANT them to write. I think you might be just such a person.

Josey: you are a writer. You are writing. That is all that matters. The rest is just a journey, and one not to be missed! Welcome to this room and to this table and to this amazing life of putting words on paper.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Ariel, what a fabulous, encouraging post.And what beautiful work from your mother! That's just the type of art I love. Thank you for sharing your insights, and for sharing your mother's gift.

Jennifer Major said...

Ohhhh, Ariel, how I loved your mom's story!!!

I've always kept a journal. Someday soon, I should dip a few of them in gasoline and burn them until nothing is left. You know, lest the guy I was writing about leads the Paraguayan invasion of Canada, finds me, digs through the bottom drawer of my dresser, finds the journal, flips to the middle and see his named scrawled in tiny cursive writing.
Hey, it could happen, you know...or not.
I started an online journal/blog almost 12 years ago after a miscarriage and realized I had ALOT to deal with. My very best friend suggested a site she was on and my online writing began. I learned alot in those 12 years. The biggest lesson? Write what I'd want to read and stop trying to appease the picky masses. Express ME. Who I am. Not who I think others want me to be.
I also write for the local paper. And yes, I've had people come up to me and say "aren't you ...her?"
And believe me, it was a hard lesson to be looked at like I was the dumbest human who ever walked the green grass of Canada. Think of an agent rejection, only in person. I've been asked (okay, TOLD) to write mission reports because I made them interesting. Apparently I have a slight ability to inject humour into a story about driving 12 hours in a jeep and not wanting to send the smelly colleague next to me straight to heaven for his lack of foresight into personal hygiene.
Part of what motivates me is the concept of justice. I see people being hurt and I can't stand there and no nothing. Even if it means bringing light to a 150 year old story, I still feel a passion to right a wrong.
So what if I don't have an MFA? So what if none of us do? Should that stop me from picking up my sword and fighting however I can? No. My weapon of choice is language.
I can stand beside alot of writers and hold my own.

It's not what letters come after your name that count, it's the ones you slap down and sign your name to and answer for, that all the world to see and that you own.

Not the letters you earn, but the ones you own.

Megan Sayer said...

Ha! Jennifer your last couple of sentences made me giggle. Reminded me in big neon memories of what people (well, people down here) say MFA (or BFA) really stands for :)
And it just about sums it up.

Katherine Scott Jones said...

"I grew up with the understanding that art was something created in the midst of real life." This has the ring of truth. Great post. Thank you.

Cherry Odelberg said...

I think, in everything I have ever done, I have had to earn my spot at the table a different way.