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‘Singular Visions’ of self-taught artists shine at Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem

The show of “outsider art” by some 30 creators with no formal training illustrates art in its purest form: Art for the sake of art, art for the artist.

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Living Studios artists, "Walker after Judith Scott," 2023, mixed media, courtesy of Living Studios (Cornerstone Associates Inc.), Corvallis.
The “Singular Visions” show includes this piece by artists from Living Studios in Corvallis. “Walker after Judith Scott” (2023, mixed media) was created as a homage to the Ohio-born artist who wrapped found objects in yarn, twine, and fabric. Some of her work found its way to major metropolitan museums and earned her national recognition.

A few years ago, Jonathan Bucci, the artist and curator who presides over the Hallie Ford Museum of Art’s collections, mounted an exhibition for the woodcarver Russell Childers, who by today’s diagnostic standards, was probably autistic.

The exact reason Childers was placed in the old Oregon Fairview Home in Salem at the age of 10 in 1926 isn’t clear. But he spent most of his life there, presumed by officials to be deaf and mute. A couple of decades later, upon seeing an article about woodcarving in Life magazine, Childers started carving wood himself — and became quite good at it.

Childers died in 1998, and the discovery of this neurodivergent artist’s work inspired Bucci to pay closer attention to art from the grassroots — “outsider art” as it is sometimes called, often made by artists with no formal training or education. One connection led to another, and the result is the Hallie Ford Museum has a small but growing collection of work by self-taught artists — and they’ve unveiled it.

A sampling of this work may be seen through April 22 in the Salem museum’s Study Gallery and Print Study Center. Singular Visions: Self-Taught Artists From the Permanent Collection is curated by Bucci with help from Corvallis artist Bruce Burris. It is inspiring in a singular way: This is the raw material from imaginations unhindered by theory or direction from teachers or other artists. In many instances, it is art that the artist never imagined would be exhibited in a gallery or museum or sold to anyone — or seen at all, for that matter.

James Castle (American, 1900-1977), “Staircase,” undated, charcoal soot on paper, collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Maribeth Collins Art Acquisition Fund.
James Castle (American, 1900-1977), “Staircase,” undated, charcoal soot on paper, collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Maribeth Collins Art Acquisition Fund.

“The work operates as a reflection of each artist’s reality,” Bucci explains in the show notes. “The way they see the world, generated from both personal life experiences and the community in which they live and work. Art-making is a form of communication, as artists choose to express themselves and share their personal vision to connect with others.”

The show features nearly 100 individual pieces by 30 or so creators. They range from a few who went on to make names for themselves nationally or regionally in the art world to others who remain all but unknown outside, perhaps, their family and/or a tight circle of friends. The museum will offer docent-guided tours of the show at 12:30 p.m. April 2, 9, and 16.

Childers is among those known in the contemporary art world, and the show includes one of his pieces. There’s also James Castle, in whose body of work a sense of isolation and fantasy coalesced, sometimes in stark pieces rendering basic scenes into liminal spaces, such as the undated Staircase, which was made with soot on found paper.  

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Matt Conklin (American, born 1989), “Untitled (apartment building),” 2022-23; paper, cardboard, digital photographs, and acrylic paint; collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Maribeth Collins Art Acquisition Fund.
Matt Conklin (American, born 1989), “Untitled (apartment building),” 2022-23; paper, cardboard, digital photographs, and acrylic paint; collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Maribeth Collins Art Acquisition Fund.

There’s also a painting by the self-taught Native American artist James Lavadour, who was a co-founder of the Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, with which the museum has enjoyed a long collaboration. Important regional artists from around the country — Louisiana Bendolph, Gregory Blackstock, and Royal Robertson, for example — also have work in Singular Visions.

But there’s also a wide range of work by virtually unknown, emerging artists. Many are from Living Studios, and that’s where Burris comes in.

Living Studios is part of Corvallis-based Cornerstone Associates, which supports a variety of social services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. As the studio’s director, Burris (who has spearheaded similar nonprofit efforts around the country since the 1970s) connected Bucci with dozens of artists in his program.

Calvin Cooper (American, 1921-2011), “Spotted Cat,” 1992; wood, metal, and paint; collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, gift of Lloyd Herman and Richard Wilson.
Calvin Cooper (American, 1921-2011), “Spotted Cat,” 1992; wood, metal, and paint; collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, gift of Lloyd Herman and Richard Wilson.

Hallie Ford “purchased approximately 30 works at prices which are amazing and fair, which is still unfortunately uncommon in this field,” he told me. “I believe that this represents the largest institutional purchase of work created by self-taught artists ever in Oregon.”

The first piece visitors to the museum see is in the lobby at the base of the stairs, and all the Living Studios artists had a hand in it. Walker after Judith Scott is a homage to the Ohio-born artist of that name. Like Childers, she was institutionalized for most of her life (with Down syndrome and deafness). She wrapped her sculptures — found objects such as bicycle wheels, plastic tubes, shopping carts, etc. — in yarn, twine, and fabric, and some of her work found its way to major metropolitan museums and earned her national recognition.

This piece, a walker wrapped in the same way Scott developed for her own work, was created by Living Studios artists for the exhibition Voices from Home at the Corvallis Art Center last fall.

Upstairs, not quite as large as the encased walker but just as spectacular, is a sculpture by Matt Conklin, an artist in his thirties. Untitled (apartment building) was constructed with paper, cardboard, digital photographs, and acrylic paint. In terms of the design, the color schemes, and construction, it is an impressive feat of the imagination.

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Patrick Hackleman (American, born 1989), “Help and Hope from an unlikely source Volume I: The Return of Princess Sally,” c. 2016; color photocopies, cardboard, and marker; collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Maribeth Collins Art Acquisition Fund.
Patrick Hackleman (American, born 1989), “Help and Hope from an unlikely source Volume I: The Return of Princess Sally,” c. 2016; color photocopies, cardboard, and marker; collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Maribeth Collins Art Acquisition Fund.

Singular Visions includes sculpture, paintings, drawings, prints, and even comics. The latter is a stunning collection of Sonic the Hedgehog comic books that are drawn, inked, and colored by Patrick Hackleman, with a twist: These books, based on the character in the Japanese video game and media franchise, feature different endings from what  appeared in the originals. Hackleman, Burris said, decided he wanted a happy ending to the stories, so he simply made his own.

“They are very complex and really unique in terms of the depth he goes into with these things,” Bucci said. Maddeningly, the comics are in a glass case and thus can’t be paged through. “I could tell he was a little disappointed when he saw where we were putting them, and he asked if people would be able to look through them. I said, no, we can’t monitor how they’re being handled. He understood, I think.”

The exhibition appears in the museum’s two smallest spaces, but given the number of pieces and the density and variety of imagery and subject matter, it doesn’t feel like a small show. Whether one calls it folk art, art brut, or outsider art, it’s inspiring to take in. Looking at some of the pieces, I remarked to Bucci that I occasionally had the feeling of seeing something like art “in its purest form,” art as a kind of play where the artist had no connection to the “art world” or expectation that the work would ever be included in it.

Amy Turner (American, 1945-2015), “Untitled,” no date, ink on paper, collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Maribeth Collin Art Acquisition Fund.
Amy Turner (American, 1945-2015), “Untitled,” no date, ink on paper, collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Maribeth Collins Art Acquisition Fund.

Bucci said he knew what I was getting at, and if any single artist illustrates what I was trying to say, it would be Amy Turner, a Corvallis woman who worked as a hairdresser and waitperson and was a well-known presence where she lived at Benton Plaza.

What was not known was that she made art, a lot of it. When she died in 2015, her drawings were found — nearly a thousand of them, according to Burris.

The drawings are basically doodles, with “smiling and whimsical faces of adults and children with wide eyes inviting the viewer to engage with them, as well as plants and insects, vibrant suns, and playful fantastic creatures” that fill the entire page right up to the edge. Some were in notebooks, while others were on loose paper and damaged with cigarette burns.

She didn’t draw them for anyone, she didn’t give or show them to anyone and so would have had zero expectation that they’d ever be seen, sold or discussed, period. Art for the sake of art, art for the artist — art in its purest form. The museum purchased some of the undamaged ones, and they are part of the permanent collection.

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“People didn’t really know she was drawing these, she drew them totally for herself,” said Burris. “Her daughter, mind you, is so proud. She was an absolutely fascinating, wonderful artist.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

David Bates is an Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a
newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering
virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in
arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and
is working as a freelance writer. He has a long history of involvement in
the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players
of Oregon and other area theaters. You can also find him on
Substack, where he writes about art and culture at Artlandia.

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