Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum
The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) is a Baltimore treasure housing the art of self-taught artists – many of them working class, some with histories of mental health breakdowns, of exile and genocide, of poverty and exclusion. This is outsider art that leaves you gasping with awe at the dazzling work people can create out of matchsticks or crocheted yarn remnants or broken dishes. Many of the exhibited pieces are sparkly and intricate and wrenching and extreme. This museum honors, among many others, the intuitive art of an American truck driver, a Ukrainian farmer, a Turkish baker, and an English laborer. These artists are not Fine Arts graduates: they are plain, often troubled, folks whose talents plow through the obstacles in their lives.
Stanley Wright constructs from telephone wire a nude life-size self-portrait illustrating the first time he heard and danced to music at age 54. Vanessa German uses found objects to celebrate Minstrel Blood for her Menstrual Show. One well-known AVAM piece is a self-portrait figure whittled from a single apple tree trunk by a British mental asylum patient. His deeply concave tubercular chest and the way his hip bones protrude produce a troubled feeling in the viewer. This anonymous sculptor committed suicide just two years after having been released by the hospital.
When James Harold Jennings’ nerves “went bust” on his tobacco farm, he began constructing complicated large whirligigs from the bits and pieces of machinery laying around. Although his witty work got media attention in 1976, he still lives on the land with no electricity or running water.
Perched over the main wall in the permanent collection is a quote from Albert Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” But Mary Proctor had a bit of both. When three family members burned to death because of doors that wouldn’t open, she began creating auto-biographical artworks using the doors as canvas, her grandmother’s broken plates as paint, and her grandmother’s wisdom as content.
Emily Duffy’s Bra Ball is a collaborative effort. 18,085 women sent in their bras – and their stories – and she wrapped them around each other to create a ball that is five feet round and weighs 1,500 pounds. If she proved one thing, it is that women hate bras. But then we knew that already.
A “Truth and Reconciliation” project supported by Desmond Tutu gave illiterate women a chance to record their personal testimonies of “the worst day of their lives under Apartheid” via the needle and thread. Quilted, embroidered panels relate potent factual narratives. One self-taught artist who has gained a serious reputation, Ted Gordon, is the headliner in a room entitled OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). A California mental health worker until his retirement, Gordon works with pen and pencil, drawing obsessively detailed self-portraits, his only subject.
The campus of the American Visionary Art Museum is itself a work of art. The exterior is wrapped in a mosaic of broken mirrors and in front of the entrance stands a matching bus, a big piece of mechanical confetti that sparkles and entices you to love it. Inside is the lovely restaurant/bar called Mr. Rain’s Fun House and a museum store, Sideshow Shop, packed with bric-a-brac and shiny objects. Outside is a wild flower garden and a barn of oversized camp pieces, including a 10-foot statue of the actor Divine by her friend Andrew Logan, and a 15-foot fluffy pink poodle. Altogether the mix of outsider aesthetics with playful decorative arts and profound emotional exposures makes AVAM a museum that delivers a magnificent and unique impact.
American Visionary Art Museum
800 Key Highway
Baltimore, Maryland 21230
Photos by Dan Meyers and courtesy of AVAM.
Sue Katz, an author, journalist, blogger and rebel, used to be most proud of her martial arts career and her world travel, but now it’s all about her edgy blog Consenting Adult. Sue is a regular contributor to Open Media Boston.