Posts Tagged ‘Self-Taught’

I have a real soft spot in my heart for self-taught and outsider artists, the untrained artists who are driven to create by forces that no one truly understands.  There is something about their passionate need for expression that really fills in the voids of the work they do,  making their sometimes unsophisticated creations sing as a reflection of the artist.  Many of these artists have interesting stories or lives that have been overtaken by their need to create their work.  One of these is the late Lee Godie.

Godie (1908-1994) showed up on the steps of the of the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 60’s and for the better part of the next three decades was a fixture there, hawking her rolled canvas paintings to museum-goers and art students.  Her work was often made in ballpoint pen and watercolor and depicted mainly figurative work, often fashionably attired people in a style resembling fashion plates.  Over the years,  her work and her persona became almost legendary in the Chicago area and there was a career retrospective of her work at the Chicago Cultural Center in 1992,  just two years before her death.

I mentioned her persona, which may have been the biggest part of her work. While little is known of her life before her years as an itinerant artist on the steps of the museum, she was a big personality.  Although not French and with work that was not of the Impressionist school of art, she called herself a French Impressionist and often attached the title to her name on the back of the canvases she painted.  It was actually a nod to the inspiration she got from the Imprssionist paintings she saw in the museum.  As she said of her favorite artist , “Renoir was the greatest artist of all time. He always said he painted beauty. Now I always try to paint beauty, but some people say my paintings aren’t beautiful. Well, I have a beauty in my mind, but it isn’t always easy to make paintings beautiful.”  

Like many Outsiders, Godie lived a hard and homeless life, often sleeping in the bus terminal or, when sales were good, in flophouses.  But it didn’t deter her search for beauty.  One of the interesting things she did was to take advantage of the bus terminal photobooth, taking a series of photos over the years of her in different personas, often in heavy stage makeup.  She would often touch-up these photos with the colors with which she painted, creating photos that in themselves are as much works of art as her paintings.

I didn’t know much about Lee Godie before stumbling across her work but there is something quite special in her work, a childishly naive yet full view of her world that reaches out beyond the surface.  Knowing a bit more of her story makes that sensation even more profound.

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I’ve always been drawn to the work of self-taught artists and the way they synthesize their experience into their work, finding forms for their need for expression.  There is a great freeness and rawness to much of the work of self-taught artists, an energy that is so electric that many well trained artists try to capture it in their own work.  Expressionism is pretty much based on this energy.

This point is well made in Purvis of Overtown,  a 2006 documentary made about outsider artist Purvis Young who lived his life in the Miami neighborhood called Overtown.  Being not well educated and poor, Young found trouble at an early age and spent time in prison before pursuing the art that led him to some pretty spectacular heights before his death in 2010 at the age of 67, from diabetic complications.  He has said that he was called to his art by a meeting with angels in a dream.

He basically lived much of his life in the warehouses where he painted, sleeping among the accumulated trash and eating junk food.  His whole existence seemed to be driven by his need to create and he produced what appears to be a huge body of work.  The work itself had that electric energy that I wrote of above, a blistering raw qualityand rhythm that marks it as authentic.  It was not a contrivance for Young, not the product of some intellectual exercise.  It was pure emotion and it can’t be replicated through style alone.

Here’s the trailer for the documentary Purvis of Overtown:


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Work by James Castle, Self-Taught Artist

I came across a very interesting website, The Foundation for Self-Taught American Artists .  I have featured a number of self-taught painters here, always finding their will to create and find a form of self-expression a truly fascinating thing.  I love how they overcome their lack of training or lack of materials to form a vocabulary that speaks of their own unique place in the world.  This site is dedicated to these artists who overcome.

James Castle

On the opening page of the site was a trailer for a documentary featuring the work of James Castle, who was born in 1899 in Idaho and lived there until his death in 1977.  Profoundly deaf since birth, Castle never learned to sign or even read or write but instead found expression in the drawings he created from a mixture of soot and saliva that he applied to scraps of paper with a sharpened stick that acted as a crude ink stylus.  Over the course of his life he created thousands of drawings, collages and other constructions that make up a truly unique and wonderful body of work.  He gained some regional recognition for his work but it wasn’t until after his death that he gained a wider audience.

I find great inspiration in seeing the work of artists like James Castle and hearing their stories.  Their work is a triumph of the creative spirit and I am grateful for the people and institutions that keep the work alive.  If you feel the same, The  Foundation for Self-Taught American Artists is a great site to visit.

Here’s the trailer for the Castle documentary, James Castle: Portrait of an Artist.   I’ll be looking for it.

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