There is an Outside spread Without & an outside spread Within
Beyond the Outline of Identity both ways, which meet in One:
An orbed Void of doubt, despair, hunger & thirst & sorrow.
– William Blake, Jerusalem (1818).
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRIDERIKE HEUER
Let me not mince words: I despise the term outsider art. Yes, I know the definition is loose – it can refer to anything, from art by those not trained as artists, or not affected by a particular culture, or living on the margins of society, or living with a disability or mental illness – often in any possible combination of all of these. And yes, I know we are stuck with the term, since it has taken on a life of its own ever since people started collecting this art. It is part of a commodity market always on the lookout for something new, something striking, something that money can be invested in.
The very fact that you call some artists “outsiders” (including those living with disabilities, who are our family, our neighbors, our clients and, yes, our friends) perpetuates a tendency toward segregation rather than integration, to the loss of all involved. All, that is, but cutting-edge curators and collectors who boost their bottom line, staging art fairs and exhibitions of the few among the legions of creative “outsiders” who somehow make it to the top of the art market. Yet such art has its own life and energy, without regard for the market, and can be highly creative and life-affirming without apology or categorical pigeonholing. I found a good deal of such ebullient art recently at the Portland Art and Learning Studio, a project of Albertina Kerr. And so can you: Ebullience, an exhibition of work by PALS artists is featured this month at Portland’s Gallery 114.
One might argue – and people do – that the invitation to show and sell outsider art removes some of the stigma that is associated with being different from societal norms, and alleviates the poverty that is often correlated with the struggle to make it as a person living with disability. Well, if the art is good enough to break through, why add to it a diagnostic label, triggering stereotypes of illness which we know to be still so pervasive? A bit of frisson? A bit of a kick that you are now leaving the comfort zone? Why invite the demarcation painfully experienced in real life at the boundaries between norm and not-norm into the language, perpetuating it?
IN THE 19th CENTURY they called people like William Blake, one of the first and finest protagonists of this art genre, “madmen,” or eccentrics, not outsiders. They still used those words in the 20th century when psychiatrists started to write about the art produced by their patients in asylums. Walter Morgenthaler’s A Mental Patient as Artist (1921) and Hans Prinzhorn’s Bildnerei der Geisteskranken. Ein Beitrag zur Psychologie und Psychopatologie der Gestaltung (Artistry of the mentally ill: a contribution to the psychology and psychopathology of configuration) (1922) made a splash in their time, leading to some cross-fertilization with the emerging art movement of Surrealism.
Painters Jean Dubuffet and André Breton coined the term Art Brut, Raw Art, collecting innovative and sui generis works of art of those outside the mainstream. (A more detailed definition and a treasure-trove of art can be found at the Collection de l’Art Brut at Lausanne, Switzerland.) It was not until the 1970s that the term Outsider Art was introduced, in a pathbreaking book with the same title by Roger Cardinal. These days, variations abound. Marginal Art, or Art Singulier, are terms applied to anyone who is not fully included and shows novelty of expression or culture-independent vision. Closer to home we often find self-taught as a term being used to describe art produced by the above populations. In a society that values educational achievement as much as ours, this seems to replace one stigma with another, but perhaps weaker one.
LUCKILY THERE ARE PLACES where art is being made and displayed and terminology is of no interest – where the creative experience of singular human beings rules the day. In one of my most pleasurable moments in recent weeks, I discovered just one such place close by: The Portland Art and Learning Studio (PALS) in Northeast Portland. PALS is a program of Albertina Kerr—a nonprofit that empowers people experiencing intellectual or developmental disabilities, mental health challenges, and other social barriers to lead self-determined lives and reach their full potential. The program is made possible by gifts and grants from the community.
The building alone is inviting, and the staff, from a genuinely friendly receptionist to multiple instructors and interns to the intensely engaged and perceptive Assistant Director Chandra Glaeseman, serves about 90 clients with visible dedication. Both Chandra and instructor Malcolm Hecht took time out to introduce me to the program and the participants and show me around the space.
A large industrial hall is divided into multiple work stations that offer about any creative activity you can think of. Ceramics, painting, fabric arts, digital art, music, writing, beading, you name it. Tables provide spaces to interact, have lunch or snacks, and be creative. Some corners allow for more uninterrupted time to make books, or paint. A 1:4 or 5 ratio of staff to clients allows for individualized attention. A loudspeaker system helps to remind people that their transportation has arrived, and they independently move about.
The place is open to the public, who can come and visit a brightly lit gallery that displays art both of local participants and traveling exhibits from allied organizations, among them the Land Gallery in New York City, Creative Growth in Oakland, California, and Creativity Explored in Richmond, California. Visitors can also peruse the works at the different artists’ stations, and purchase work directly from the artist or craftsperson.
PALS WAS OPENED ABOUT 19 MONTHS AGO and still has capacity to accept more clients. Glaeseman is an engaged, hands-on leader of the program. Educated at the Maine College of Arts, she went on to receive her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2008, winning a Sculpture Magazine Outstanding Student award and RISDY’s Award of Excellence, juried by Ian Berry of the Tang Museum at Skidmore College. During stints as adjunct faculty at Pacific Northwest College of Art, Lewis & Clark College, and Willamette University she added teaching experience to her artistic practice. I am glad she did not waste resources to pursue additional achievements in social work or clinical psych, since from everything I observed, interacting with people in a genuinely caring and simultaneously pragmatic eye-to-eye fashion comes naturally to her.
Chandra (a truly apt name, I thought, when I learned it means “bright star in the sky”) has multiple goals for the growth of the organization, goals that are actively supported by management, in particular Albertina Kerr’s CEO, Jeff Carr. Her vision, for one, is to help clients increase their autonomy, and to provide tools via any kind of creative practice, not just visual art, to achieve more independence. In her experience, making art provides a skill set that is transferable to everyday problem-solving, however non-lineal the process might be.
Secondly, she also promotes an attitude toward risk-taking which signals that failure is acceptable, even welcome. Providing a safe space to fail, a space free from judgmental criticism, secures learning. In the best-case scenario, it also increases self-confidence and the tools to take on real jobs in the community that recognizes the ability levels achieved at PALS.
Last but not least, the hope is to connect PALS’ artists to the outside world, participating, for example, at the Outsider Artfair in New York City, where progressive studios have national representation and organizations can network to support each others’ work in the field.
“Museums are managers of consciousness. They give us an interpretation of history, of how to view the world and locate ourselves in it. They are, if you want to put it in positive terms, great educational institutions. If you want to put it in negative terms, they are propaganda machines.”
– New York City-based German artist Hans Haacke (2019)
WHO NEEDS NEW YORK CITY when we have Gallery 114 in Portland, not a museum but an artist collective that was founded in 1990? Haacke’s views of the role of art institutions, and his artistic focus on the social, political, and economic structures in which art is produced, exhibited and purchased, seem to be a good reminder of what progressive galleries can and should do: educate.
Gallery 114’s dedication to inclusion of less-represented populations is remarkable, whether they open their space to poetry readings by Street Roots vendors, or hang exhibitions like the one this month, on display through Feb. 28. The current show, Ebullience, presents the diverse creative outpouring from PALS’ artists. The title couldn’t be more fitting: The work on display lights up the gallery’s rooms, which are tucked in the Souterrain.
Sculpture, weaving, drawing, and painting all hold their own, thoughtfully curated in cooperation with PALS staff by artists Diane Kendall, David Slader, and Joanie Krug (who as a volunteer at PALS saw the potential and made the connection).
The work might open new perspectives on how to view the world, a world not necessarily familiar. Viewing this world might shift the rigid boundaries between “us” and “them,” locating all of us on a continuum, rather than in disparate regions, inside for some, outside for others.
Make time for a visit in the gallery or at PALS’ studio space: It will brighten your day. There is an effervescent mood at both places right now that gives rise to hope: hope for more empathy, for more understanding, for unbridled joy in making art and, importantly, for inclusion.
Through Saturday, Feb 28, 2020
Hours: noon-6 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays
1100 N.W. Glisan Street, Portland
Portland Art and Learning Studios
Open 9 a.m.2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays
4852 N.E. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd, Portland
- Friderike Heuer’s photo essay was originally published on Wednesday, Feb. 1s, 2020, on her site YDP – Your Daily Picture, under the headline Portland Art and Learning Studio: Ebullience. It is republished here with permission.