Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Art of Compulsion

If you’re quirky enough,
Howard Finster: Henry Ford fulfilling a prophesy
creative enough, and driven enough, you can become famous – even if you launch yourself at age 60  -- or 80.  
The proof is in the Outsider art exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where artist after artist became compelled, late in life, to do the only thing for which they are now remembered.
Take Howard Finster a revivalist preacher in Georgia who got a message from God, or so he believed. At age 60, while painting a bike, he believed that a white smudge on his finger had transformed itself into the face of God and directed him to make “sacred art.” He couldn’t stop cramming his paintings with small constructions and biblical texts, numbering, dating and time stamping each one until they totaled 48,000, said our tour guide, Art Museum docent Meighan Maley.
“He had a fascination for Henry Ford because there’s a prophecy that predicted a man would create a horseless chariot." Meighan explained.  "Finster believed that Henry Ford fulfilled that prophecy.”
Finster became famous in his lifetime, creating prize-winning album covers for groups like REM and Talking Heads, and appearing on the Johnny Carson show.
Sam Doyle drew islands's  first African American doctor 
Sam Doyle, who was born in a Gullah community on Helena Island, S.C., worked as a porter and laundry worker, only taking up art seriously in his early 60s.
 Working often in corrugated metal, he depicts people on the island, especially African American “firsts” – the first embalmer, the first doctor. His art was shown in 1982, three years before his death, at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Felipe Archuleta

Felipe Archuleta
Felipe Benito Archuleta, who had worked as a field hand, stone mason, cook and carpenter, at age 54, unable to find work, prayed for help; God told him to carve sculptures. “His animals, to me, there’s a sweetness to them but there’s also a ferociousness about them. Something that reminded him that life was not always easy,” Meighan said.

But it’s Bill Traylor, who really gets the late start. The child of slaves, himself born a slave in 1853, Traylor worked his life as a farmhand. And at age 82, with no wife or kids around anymore, he moves 35 miles away to Montgomery, Ala. where he starts working in a shoe factory. But his hands are so arthritic, he can’t work and becomes homeless, sleeping in the storage area of a funeral parlor. Finally, “he sets up a  box outside a pool hall under an awning and just begins to create art from whatever he can find… scraps of paper on the ground,” said Meighan. A recent art school graduate,  impressed with his work, provides him with materials.
Runaway Goat Cart (Bill Traylor)

Men Drinking, Boys Tormenting, Dogs Barking (Bill Traylor)

Turning to Traylor's piece, “Men Drinking, Boys Tormenting, Dogs Barking, Meighan explains why he's recognized as one of the top Outsider artists, someone with no connection to what was going on in the art world, who nonetheless starts playing with perspective and shape, like the Cubists:  “He’s telling stories that are superimposed, juxtaposed. This is the interior and the exterior of a building," she said. A man in the doorway connects the two. Traylor "really becomes a master of using color, shape and space -- not only the shape of the figures but the negative space that surrounds them (the background) to convey movement and emotion to tell his story. He becomes very well known long after his death.”
Meighan Maley

Our tour had gone well beyond the hour allotted; Meighan's group was thrilled. Meighan, who worked as a hospital pharmacist for 20 years, was too.
"I retired in need of something that, in addition to taking care of my family, would fill my soul," she wrote me later in an email. As a volunteer docent, she said, "I quickly realized I found that 'it', which had been indefinably elusive for so long. For many reasons, this gives me joy."
Of the Outsider art exhibit, she said, "I didn't expect for the artists and their works to touch me so deeply."
The show, "Great and Mighty Things." made up of works from the  Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection, is open  at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through June 9, 2013.

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