Visions of Baltimore
January 1, 1970Last week, I flew to Baltimore to serve on an arts panel with three other writers. We did not know each other before, but we had a good idea of each others’ tastes in literature by the time we finished. We were so “in sync,” that we finished early and were let loose upon the late fall Baltimore landscape. It was a happy city. Two days before, Barack Obama’s win had been celebrated in the streets.
After sitting for a day and a half straight, first on an airplane, then on the panel, I walked around the Inner Harbor, a redeveloped area of Baltimore that was turned from a working waterfront to a tourist destination. I am not sure if that is a good thing, but it is beautiful. My destination was the American Visionary Art Museum.
I knew I was close when I spotted the triangular tree made of reflective glass. It echoed the mosaic work on the outside of the swooping, snail-shaped museum. Founded in 1995, the museum is dedicated to outsider art – that created by people who have no formal training in art, or at the most were kicked out of the only art class in which they enrolled.
When we have dreams, these artists have visitations. Angels, animals, aliens, and repetitive patterns inhabit these paintings and constructions. Some of the artists were people who had no access to instructions or art supplies, and so made art with the materials at hand – broken plates, gum wrappers, used paper and scraps of cloth. These range from the poor in rural areas to those in psychiatric wards.
There are also artists who practice other professions – rabbis, neurosurgeons, bird whisperers like Walter Kitundu, who make art anyway. Finally, there are unclassifiable artists whose work breaks out across all categories to qualify as alien abduction music theory physics. Kenny Irwin, Jr. exemplifies the latter.
These artists have some commonalities. Many are interested in the natural sciences, the nature of things, both seen and unseen. Many are reclusive. Almost all have had these impulses the whole of their lives. I suspect that some of the artists who lived in the early twentieth century and were institutionalized would now be classified as having Asberger’s Syndrome. Marcos Ramirez, a Mexican national who was institutionalized in California for many years, now has work exhibited and sold for high prices all over the world. Too bad he never lived to see it. Others simply protect their unique view of the world by limiting their exposure to it. One artist is 112 year old Gerald Hawkes, still going strong. He makes sculpture out of matchsticks.
If you go, be sure to stop by Sideshow, the museum gift shop, where the staff will try to sell you their own work as well. Pick up little packages that turn into a pair of socks when you drop them in water, sequined loteria designs, and watches with Obama’s face on them, surrounded by rhinestones. What do these have to do with visionary art? Nothing, but so what? Enjoy. www.kathleenalcala.com