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Collected Visions: African American Self-Taught Artists from the Southeastern United States

 

Collected Visions: African American Self-Taught Artists from the Southeastern United States has been developed and created by the Rockford Art Museum from the private collection of Rockford residents Steve and Susan Pitkin and from the Museum's own permanent collection of self-taught art gifted by John and Diane Balsley of Milwaukee and by James Hager of Rockford, IL. Sponsored by the Rockford Association for Minority Management, Collected Visions is on view in the Museum's prestigious Funderburg Gallery February 6 through April 25, 2004.

The development of the self-taught genre of American art parallels the history of African Americans in the United States: In the early to mid 20th century, many African Americans migrated to the northern United States " believing that there was more economic opportunity there. In a nation struggling with racism, this was hardly the case. For African Americans seeking formal training in the visual arts, however, New York did hold more opportunities. (left: Mose Tolliver, North African Lady Looking for Food to Feed Her Children, 1987, courtesy of Steve and Susan Pitkin)

But, what became of those whose remained in the South? According to Howard Dodson, Chief of the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York, self-taught art "shows how the creative impulse is inherent in the human experience. No matter how much oppression and exploitation people undergo, the creative impulse will find a way to emerge through song, through dance, through religion, and through art."

The history of the South's African American culture is rich with the music of gospel, jazz, blues, and rock and roll. In music there existed a sense of community as musicians performed in congregations, bands, churches and nightclubs in both cities and rural communities. The visual artists of the South, however, existed in isolation with only a compulsion to create. Without access to a visual arts community that a formal education could provide, these individuals were left with solely their visions and the impulse to create. That there is no formal influence other than the need to create is both the curse and the blessing of the self-taught artist whose art works are both beautifully spontaneous and energetic, ranging in themes of desire, culture, religion, compulsion, race relations, and socio-economic status. The irony is that the creative purity of these isolated self-taught artists has had a profound influence on the not-so-isolated mainstream art world.

More than 100 works by self-taught artists comprise the Rockford Art Museum's Hager Collection. Gifted to the Museum in 1995 by Rockford businessman James Hager, these important works form a significant focus area of the Museum's permanent collection.

An artist and commercial photographer by trade, local collector Steve Pitkin became interested in the self-taught genre while photographing works from the Rockford Art Museum's Hager collection. He traveled to the southeastern United States where he met with Atlanta collector Bill Arnett, an avid promoter of the self-taught genre. This meeting validated Pitkin's passion for the untrained artists' pure vision. Seeing this commonality of passion for the artists and their art, Bill Arnett selected Pitkin to photograph artwork for Souls Grown Deep, a comprehensive two-volume book that serves as an indispensable reference to the understanding of the origins of the self-taught genre.

 

Following is additional text from an article in the Winter 2004 issue of the Museum's magazine:

 

This exhibit is culled from the private collections of Steve and Susan Pitkin and Rockford Art Museum acquisitions from the collections of John and Diane Balsley and Jim Hager.

These Rockford and Milwaukee area collectors were influenced by the passions of Atlanta collector Bill Arnett, one of the most active promoters of the self-taught genre.

Museum trustee Jim Hager, a businessman who collected Asian furniture and jade carvings, knew Arnett through his own art interests. Arnett introduced Hager to some of the southern regional artists to whom Hager instantly felt a strong affinity because of his own impulsive desire to create art without formal training. (right: Thornton Dial, Jr., Crucifix of Jesus Christ, 1988, courtesy of Steve and Susan Pitkin)

Steve Pitkin, an artist and commercial photographer by trade, began his passion for outsider art while photographing works from the Hager collection that had been donated to the Rockford Art Museum. His interest led him to travel to Alabama where he sought out artist Lonnie Holley and collector Bill Arnett in order to learn more about the art that he had photographed. These meetings consecrated Pitkin's fervor for the untrained artists' pure vision. Seeing a commonality of passion for the art and artists, Bill Arnett selected Pitkin to photograph artwork for the comprehensive, two-volume book set, Souls Grown Deep.

Drawn from these private and public collections, the artwork created by self taught artists in Collected Visions addresses many of the essential questions about creativity and art in society such as: "Who is an artist?", "Why do people create artwork?", "Is creativity an innate or learned attribute?"

Why focus on the self taught African American artists of the southeastern United States?

In the early to mid 20th century, many African Americans migrated to the northern United States because of the general belief that there was more economic opportunity for them in the northern states than in the South. In a nation still reeling with racism, this was hardly the case. There is truth, however, that for African Americans seeking formal training in the visual arts, New York held more opportunity for minority artists.

But, what became of those who stayed in the South? According to Howard Dodson, Chief of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York, self-taught art similar to what is shown in Collected Visions "shows how the creative impulse is inherent in the human experience. No matter how much oppression and exploitation people undergo, that creative impulse will find a way to emerge through song, through dance, through religion, through art. Again, if you look at the trajectory of African-American visual arts, the individuals who were recognized were those who migrated to the North. But there were many others who stood their ground and fashioned art out of the resources -- and, indeed, lack of resources -- of the South, and they, too, need to be understood and appreciated and made accessible to the public."

Thornton Dial, Sr., now recognized as one of the premier contemporary artists in the country, created artwork in his spare time. His early pieces included the materials close at hand in his everyday life: objects from his yard, house paint, and aluminum from his family's furniture store.

Dial's works have been compared to those of Baselitz, Kiefer, Schnabel and other celebrated artists. Although his perspective and technique may have peers in the mainstream art world, those qualities coupled with such profound emotional power and piercing socio-political commentary make a rare combination. It is through his symbolic use of animal and plant images as well as found objects that he is able to express poignant observations about personal relationships, families, individual character, aspirations, race relations, government, industry, and the environment.

Today, Dial and many artists represented in Collected Visions are recognized not for being self-taught, but for their important contributions to American art. Many artists shown in Collected Visions have gone beyond the niche of "outsider" by being shown in exhibitions alongside formally trained artists. Of note, Bessie Harvey's work appeared in the 1995 Whitney Biennial followed by works by Thornton Dial, Sr. appearing at the Whitney in 2000. Both have transcended their "outsider" status and have reached critical acclaim at first because of, and then despite, being self-taught. Many museums have holdings that include these and other self-taught artists. The latter half of the 20th-century to the present day has thrust many artists into the mainstream art world regardless of past categorizations of "outsider," "raw," or "native" art.

The history of the South's African American culture is rich with the music of gospel, jazz, blues, and rock and roll. With music there exists a community influence and outreach as musicians performed in congregations, bands, churches and nightclubs in both cities and rural communities. The visual artists of the South, however, existed in isolation with only a compulsion to create. Without access to the visual arts community that formal education can provide, these individuals were left with solely their visions and impulses to create objects. This is both the curse and the blessing of the self-taught artist - that there is no formal influence other than the need to create. Thus we, the viewers, get to see work that is beautifully spontaneous and energetic ranging in themes of desire, culture, religion, compulsion, race relations and socio-economic status. The irony is that the creative purity of the isolated self-taught artists, whether conscious that they are "artists" or not, has had a profound influence upon the not-so-isolated mainstream art world.

 

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