Breaking with Tradition: The American Visionary Art Museum

:: Follow downtown Baltimore's Key Highway and it will not be long before you tap your brakes to observe a stunning architectural oddity projecting into the traditional city streetscape. "The idea was to make an urban wonderland and to welcome people in," recalled American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) Founder and Director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger. A large glass mosaic encases the circular facade of the museum's main building and illuminates the entire street. Several monumental, free-standing sculptures and other artistic objects are woven in between the three-building compound, each with its own unique artistic accoutrements. While the museum itself could be considered a work of art, the reflective beauty and creativity of the exterior mirrors and expounds the objects within.
 
The AVAM is the official national museum and education center for self-taught and intuitive artistry. Visionary art beats to the rhythm of its own drum, or rather, it's own fantastical self-made instrument. The American Visionary Art Museum provides an inclusive space for 'outsider' art. However, there is a fine line to walk when 'fringe' or 'outsider' art is concerned. 
 
According to AVAM, visionary art emphasizes the "process and consciousness" of the artist, rather than "mere artifact." The museum's mission statement suggests visionary art "refers to art produced by self-taught individuals usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative art itself." The artworks at the AVAM are the product of individuals who perhaps never even sought to create 'art' at all. In fact, the work included in AVAM's permanent collection or its thematic exhibitions may be the only object select individuals ever created. Often, the works they create do not fit within the rigid categories of what could be considered 'fine art.' Perhaps the materials are recycled objects rather than paint on canvas; or, the work is created in backyards rather than loft studios; or, the content is constructed from a life experience rather than an art historical theory. But what is common in all of the works at the AVAM is the ability to tell a story. Each piece contains a unique story about its creator and the means of its creation. 
 
The museum's latest exhibition, The Art of Storytelling: Lies, Enchantment, Humor, and Truth!, hones in on the expressive and narrative function of visionary art. The show covers vast mediums both in and outside of the traditional fine arts canon. Embroidery, graffiti, diorama, film, sculpture, PostSecret confessions, and multimedia works come together to tell a story about the power of storytelling itself. The Art of Storytelling reminds us there many stories to be told from the fringe and beyond.

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The American Visionary Art Museum. Photo by Dan Meyers

The American Visionary Art Museum opened its doors to the public on November 24, 1995. The main quarters of the museum (pictured) transformed a historic industrial building into the new museum space with updated architectural elements. The Community Mosaic Wall covering the street-side exterior of the American Visionary Art Museum's main building is the largest mosaic in the United States designed and executed by youth-at-risk student artists. Photo by Dan Meyers

::  "Visionaries perceive potential and creative relationships where most of us don't. Without visionaries' willingness to be called fools, to make mistakes, to be wrong, few new 'right' things would ever be birthed." - AVAM Founder and Director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger

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The Hoffberger Family Welcome Plaza. Photo by Paul Burk

The Hoffberger Family Welcome Plaza connects the Jim Rouse Visionary Center, which opened in 2004, to the rest of the museum complex. The plaza hosts several works including Phoenix by Dr. Tom Evermore and Cosmic Galaxy Egg by Andrew Logan. Photo by Paul Burk

::  "What we're looking at in visionary art is the human mandate to make something. What good is art? Why is there such a primary impulse in human beings to have to make something? Often we find that when the life experience is too big for words, you have these people who never thought of themselves as artists, who never made anything artful, but they had some experience in life either extremely ecstatic and joyful or totally devastating and they’ll start making art. They don't have words for it so they will start expressing it someway else." - AVAM Founder and Director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger

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Andrew Logan. Black Icarus. 1999. Mixed media mosaic. Permanent Collection of the American Visionary Art Museum. Photo by J. Rachel Gustafson

Andrew Logan. Black Icarus. 1999. Mixed media mosaic. Permanent Collection of the American Visionary Art Museum. Photo by J. Rachel Gustafson

::  Andrew Logan transforms the mythological figure Icarus with a striking mosaic twisting wingspan and creates a large sculptural figure which forever hovers mid-air above the Marilyn Meyerhoff "Stairway to the Stars" in the AVAM main building. 

"I think it [visionary art] has always been around. It speaks to why art has endured. There's a hardwiring throughout the universe for a level of aesthetic and beauty." - AVAM Founder and Director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger

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Gerald Hawkes. My Beccy, Woman of the Year. 1993. Matchsticks, food dye, glue, polyurethane paint. Permanent Collection of the American Visionary Art Museum. Photo by J. Rachel Gustafson

Gerald Hawkes. My Beccy, Woman of the Year. 1993. Matchsticks, food dye, glue, polyurethane paint. Permanent Collection of the American Visionary Art Museum. Photo by J. Rachel Gustafson

::  Gerald Hawkes, a Baltimore resident and artist, was the first person to step foot into the American Visionary Art Museum on opening day. His first reaction were tears of disbelief and joy. Hawkes's matchstick sculptures are the product of an enduring fascination with precision, numbers and geometric shapes. However, this journey to this creative process was not an easy one. As a victim of a brutal mugging, Hawkes was unable to return to his commercial printing job. He lost most of his sense of taste and smell. He turned to drugs out of complete anguish and eventually became homeless. Striving to escape his own anger, Hawkes began to compulsively create sculptures and other objects out of matchsticks. According the AVAM's exhibition material, Hawkes stated: "They are like people, matchsticks have the capacity to give light – or not." 
 
"We believe that most of the art of visionary artists is often so obsessive. And so, we think a lot of our fan base must be too." - AVAM Founder and Director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger

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Anonymous. Recovery. c. 1950. Wood sculpture. Permanent loan to the Visionary Art Museum by the Edward Adamson Collection. Photo courtesy of the American Visionary Art Museum

Anonymous. Recovery. c. 1950. Wood sculpture. Permanent loan to the Visionary Art Museum by the Edward Adamson Collection. Photo courtesy of the American Visionary Art Museum

::  Carved from the trunk of an apple tree, Recovery was sculpted by the hands of an unknown British mental patient. It has been attributed as a self-portrait as the patient's own concave chest (the result of tuberculosis) is replicated in the wooden figure. Edward Adamson, a thought-leader in art therapy for mental patients, encouraged the individual's work on the tree trunk. After a month of whittling, Recovery was born. The piece is the only identified work of the unknown creator. 
 
"There was a great push made early on, mostly from gallery dealers, to show the product they sold. There are probably about ten or 12 famous visionary artists. I have shown all of them but I didn't want just show what was marketed. We wanted a way to show people who may have only made one thing in their lives. And you'll see the man dying of tuberculosis – a British mental patient – who made one of our most beloved sculptures. That was the only thing he ever made artistically in his whole life. Galleries don't care about it because there is no market. It is a one-off, it is an oddity." - AVAM Founder and Director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger

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Axel Erlandson. The Telephone Booth. Planted 1950, died c. 1992. Woven poplar trees. Permanent Collection of the American Visionary Art Museum, gift of Mark Primack. Three photos of The Telephone Booth by J. Rachel Gustafson

Axel Erlandson. The Telephone Booth. Planted 1950, died c. 1992. Woven poplar trees. Permanent Collection of the American Visionary Art Museum, gift of Mark Primack. Three photos of The Telephone Booth by J. Rachel Gustafson

::  Axel Erlandson was a farmer. He was born in the early 1880s and was influenced to 'sculpt' living trees after finding a natural fusion, or graft, between two sycamore trees. He would go on to craft more than 30 trees into patterns, each serving special functions – a birdcage, spiral staircases, and many others. He opened his own "Tree Circus" as a roadside attraction in 1947.The Telephone Booth was part of Erlandson's "Circus" and was brought to the opening of the AVAM in 1995. 
 
"It's wonderful to be in the company of very idealistic people – not so much on the fringe, but they know why they are getting up every morning. They have been working for 40 years building that Garden of Eden in the backyard. To be immersed in the energy of someone who is doing it [making art] not to please somebody else or to get into a show. To be with people who are so sincere about what has tumbled out of them. Sometimes is very sweet to see. They are as amazed as we are at their own production. In our opening we had quotes from visionary artists on the walls and they would say things like, 'Can you believe I have done all this?'" - AVAM Founder and Director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger

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DeVon Smith. The World's First Family of Robots. Dates unknown. Recycled materials. Permanent Collection of the American Visionary Art Museum. Photo by J. Rachel Gustafson

DeVon Smith. The World's First Family of Robots. Dates unknown. Recycled materials. Permanent Collection of the American Visionary Art Museum. Photo by J. Rachel Gustafson

::  DeVon Smith is the original rambling man. He was listed in The Guinness Book of World Records for the most miles ever hitchhiked – more than 500,000 documented miles. It was a record Smith held until 1983. When he stopped crossing the country, he made his living from collecting and selling salvaged materials. In his trailer residence in Wampum, Pennsylvania, he designed and gave life to The World's First Family of Robots. The 100-percent-recycled robots have names and personalities all their own: Father Jupiter, Wife Venus, Sis-tar, her brother Sun, and the faithful Robo-dog Pluto. 
 
"What I wanted were those people who got off the track. Maybe they started on the folk track but then they started doing their own thing. Or people who don't even have a sense of wanting to buy into an established anything. And my favorites, frankly, are the ones who don't even consider themselves artists." - AVAM Founder and Director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger

 

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Vollis Simpson. Life, Liberty & Pursuit of Happiness Whirligig. 1993. Painted metal and found objects. Permanent Collection of the American Visionary Art Museum, gift of the artist. Photo by Jack Hoffberger

Vollis Simpson. Life, Liberty & Pursuit of Happiness Whirligig. 1993. Painted metal and found objects. Permanent Collection of the American Visionary Art Museum, gift of the artist. Photo by Jack Hoffberger

::  Vollis Simpson's 55-foot-tall whirligig (a name made up by the artist) has become one of Baltimore's most cherished sculptural landmarks. Made of completely recycled materials, the three-ton creation is a kinetic, wind-powered sculpture. It is dedicated to salute Federal Hill, which hugs the back of the AVAM. Simpson, a mechanic, farmer, and visionary artist, was recognized across the country for his work. For more on Simpson, visit our online edition of 2012 NEA Arts, Number 3.  

"Consider Vollis – anybody looking at his work can see it’s beautifully engineered, incredibly balanced. It does everything you could ask of a work of art. But people were not nice with Vollis early on and he did not care one way or another. Vollis was tickled. He was in the business of joy. He said once, 'I'm really just in it because I like to watch the wind.' There's a poetry when you follow an idea to its end and it is so rich. It brings in the science the cross-cultural connections where you have a farmer saying things that speak to people all around the world. And that's when you know it's really right." - AVAM Founder and Director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger

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Entryway to the most recent AVAM exhibition, The Art of Storytelling: Lies, Enchantment, Humor and Truth! Photo by J. Rachel Gustafson

Entryway to the most recent AVAM exhibition, The Art of Storytelling: Lies, Enchantment, Humor and Truth! Photo by J. Rachel Gustafson

::  All exhibitions at the AVAM are based around a central and unified theme. Individual guest curators are invited to lead the various shows and who are likely to have their own special relationships with a particular exhibition theme. The museum follows their "Sure-Fire Recipe for Enchantment" guidelines to create these special thematic visionary arts shows. Some highlights of those guidelines are followed:

  • Take one grand spirited theme that has inspired or bedeviled humankind from the get-go.
  • Add the works of the world's best self-taught artists – known and first-timers – that have wrestled in their lives and art with some key aspect of that theme.
  • Spice the exhibition text with insightful quotes, lyrics, factoids, and humor on diverse aspects of that same exhibition theme – interweaving timeless, global wisdoms.
  • Integrate key historic, scientific, and social justice underpinnings of each theme via the well-researched exhibition text, and dynamic creative partnerships.
  • Top with community based programming that makes a difference. Never bore – enchant!

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Anonymous Bullying Confession. n.d. Postcards. Image courtesy of PostSecret.

Anonymous Bullying Confession. n.d. Postcards. Image courtesy of PostSecret.

::  PostSecret Founder Frank Warren has said, "The children almost broken by the world become the adults most likely to change it." In this opening section of the exhibition, AVAM looks at the 'misuse of story' and the realities of bullying. According to their website, PostSecret is an "ongoing community art project" that allows individuals from all over the globe mail in their secrets on a self-made postcard. Once received, Warren sorts through the thousands of anonymous secrets and posts a handful of them on his website. What can often be found is universality in the words of the anonymous. Warren helped guest-curate this section of the exhibition and selected an array of photographs he received over the years that addressed bullying. 
 
"There are so many stories here. In the exhibitions we try to always use the artists' words and push their own stories forward. We're not making judgment and it's not saying that this work is about something. We don't do that. We let the visitor decide what it is about. The interpretation is through the stories that are told and I think that's what really is kind of magical is that its participatory, it's in the DNA." - AVAM Communications Director, Nick Prevas

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Ester Krinitz. Road to Krasnik, No. 20. 1994. Embroidery and fabric collage, 28-7/16" x 32-5/16". Image courtesy Art & Remembrance, © 2004 (artandremembrance.org). Photo courtesy of the American Visionary Art Museum

Ester Krinitz. Road to Krasnik, No. 20. 1994. Embroidery and fabric collage, 28-7/16" x 32-5/16" Collection of Bernice Steinhardt and Helene McQuade. Image courtesy Art & Remembrance, © 2004 (artandremembrance.org). Photo courtesy of the American Visionary Art Museum

::  Ester Krinitz is a survivor. She was only twelve when Nazi's stormed into her rural home in Poland. By 15, Ester and her 13-year-old sister, Mania were the only members of their family to live to see the end of the Holocaust. A gifted seamstress from a very young age, Ester began her series of 36 embroideries in 1977. She had initially created them for her daughters to remember their heritage but went on to craft a narrative series that documented her story of survival, faith, and bravery. 
 
The text from the embroidery pictured reads: "October 15, 1942. After being abandoned by a neighbor whom my mother had paid to take us to Dombrowa, Mania and I met our cousin Dina, on her way to Krasnik with her baby and the other Rachow Jews. As the road began to curve around the mountain, I realized how close we were to Krasnik and I was suddenly terrified. I pleaded with Mania to come with me to Stefan. She finally agreed after Dina told her, 'Go Mania, go with Esther.'"

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Vanessa German. Imagination Tree. 2012. Mixed media and found objects. Collection of the artist. Photo by J. Rachel Gustafson

Vanessa German. Imagination Tree. 2012. Mixed media and found objects. Collection of the artist. Photo by J. Rachel Gustafson

::  Award-winning multidisciplinary artist Vanessa German grew up in an artistic family. Her mother, a well-known fiber artist, encouraged her children to create a story all their own. The artist describes her sculptural mixed-media works on display at the AVAM as "contemporary power figures" that serve as iconographic metaphors that become "alive by sight." 
 
"There is [a birth date] from the point of view of when the institution began looking and valuing the artwork from self-taught people. But I have find trouble with the whole linear notion of art history because, frankly, there have always been rogues. Those rogues have great resonance. Usually there is something archetypical about rogue-ness." - AVAM Founder and Director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger

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Mars Tokyo. Teatro della Battuta (The Joke). c. 2003-2007. Box assemblage. Collection of the artist. Photo by J. Rachel Gustafson

Mars Tokyo. Teatro della Battuta (The Joke). c. 2003-2007. Box assemblage. Collection of the artist. Photo by J. Rachel Gustafson

::  According to the exhibition materials, Mars Tokyo has a distinct message about her work as a self-taught artist and the significance they carry: "My stories presented in my 'theaters' are ones of personal rejection, alienation, and pain. They often reflect a life dealing with major depression. But throughout them, there is also a great beauty and hope because there is that in life." 
 
"Art is not just being able to put pigment on something that can be hung up. It is an amazing to be in the company of artworks that were the birthing of something that without that individual creator, they would never have come through. It is important to look for those highways of human experience." - AVAM Founder and Director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger

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Judy Tallwing. The Pipe Carriers. 2009. Resin, silver, 22 kt. gold, sterling, acrylic, copper and sacred piper dust. Collection of the artist. Photo by Dan Meyers

Judy Tallwing. The Pipe Carriers. 2009. Resin, silver, 22 kt. gold, sterling, acrylic, copper and sacred piper dust. Collection of the artist. Photo by Dan Meyers

::  The first painted item Apache elder Judy Tallwing sold was 25 cents. "We didn't call it art. We called it making things to sell along the road the help the family survive. I used to watch my grandmother and grandfather, and my mother all doing various forms of what I now know is art, to sell, and I wanted to help," said Tallwing, as included in the exhibition materials. Tallwing describes The Pipe Carriers as a work with "elements of tradition" since many Native nations did not allow women to carry prayer pipes for their own worship. However, in modern times "...more native women are carrying prayer pipes, more are dancing in sacred circles..." The women in Tallwing's work carry her own prayer pipe and she has placed individual prayers beads precisely on each surface to encourage viewers to touch the spiritual work. 
 
"Frankly, I'm looking for people who not looking for us. Groucho Marx said, ‘I never want to be a part of any club that would have me.’ I'm almost looking for people who aren't interested in trying to get into the top museum or into galleries. - AVAM Founder and Director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger

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Debbie and Mike Schramer. Fairy Tree House. 1995. Mixed media. Collection of the artists. Left: Detail of Fairy Tree House. Photo by Dan Meyers; Right: Fairy Tree House. Photo by J. Rachel Gustafson

Debbie and Mike Schramer. Fairy Tree House. 1995. Mixed media. Collection of the artists. Left: Detail of Fairy Tree House. Photo by Dan Meyers; Right: Fairy Tree House. Photo by J. Rachel Gustafson

::  Husband and wife team Mike and Debbie Schramer craft a magical world in their artistic creations. Both struggled with depression in their youth and, according to Mike, their artistic intuition significantly grew in the early months of their marriage. After finishing treatments for depression, they would walk together in the woods and ask 'Why couldn't we live in that kind of gentle world?' With nature as their inspiration, Mike and Debbie created a fairy world from all natural materials including sea shells, flowers, moss, and stones. Fairy Tree House was a multi-decade project and is made entirely of found objects from nature. 
 
"Maybe we are expanding the definition of art because what we're interested in is inspiring creativity – not necessarily in art at all but more in the way people think. Maybe fringe art is not the right word. I think in terms of people who are ‘fringe’ – those who report from the edge, they basically expand the boundary. If you look back at their thinking, usually that becomes the accepted norm for the next phase of evolution. And if you look at the dance between sci-fi and the practice of technology and the artificial world now – we're in a time when advancement is very fast. What's nice [about art] is that more people are invited to the party than ever before." - AVAM Founder and Director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger