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Face to Face with Self-Taught Art

Today’s post comes from Alyx Raz, class of 2016 and Art Center Student Docent.

FLLAC’s current exhibition is confrontational—and I’m not just referencing the show’s visually suggestive and potentially triggering content. In stating this, I’m thinking of the Art Center’s effort to join in a wider conversation on art typically outside of the mainstream, art that’s been called outsider, naïve, primitive, raw, child-like, visionary, imaginative, and self-taught, among many other aliases over the past century. Now more than ever, museums are beginning to highlight these works in their collections, or are even beginning to place the outsiders in the same galleries as the insiders. It seems fitting then that the Art Center’s summer exhibition is Faces and Figures in Self-Taught Art, curated by the Emily Hargroves Fisher ’57 and Richard B. Fisher Curator and Assistant Director for Strategic Planning, Mary-Kay Lombino.

Inez Nathaniel Walker (American, b. Inez Stedman 1911–1990), Two People in Profile, 1976, Graphite and colored pencil on paper, Gift of Pat O’Brien Parsons, class of 1951, 2005.33.51

Comprising over fifty 20th-century works by artists such as Henry Darger, James Edward Deeds, Minnie Evans, Howard Finster, Bessie Harvey, Bill Traylor, and Inez Nathaniel Walker, the show forces us to swallow our preconceived notions of fine art. Adjacent to the galleries containing Pollock, Lichtenstein, and Rothko, Faces and Figures shows us an equally powerful display of modern art, just by artists visitors may not recognize. In the third and final gallery, though, FLLAC presents viewers with the biographies of each artist, and often within those bios, interpretations of each artist’s work or style. It’s here that we can associate “a face” with each artist, and witness how their individual stories affect our perceptions of their work.

Bessie Harvey Belahaw
Bessie Harvey (American, 1929–1994), Belahaw, Root, wood, paint, Courtesy Blanchard-Hill Collection

We see the afflictions (mental, physical, developmental, and circumstantial) that burden many of these artists. Inez Nathaniel Walker committed homicide after a former male friend assaulted her. She found herself in prison often drawing the “bad girls,” but gave us what appears to be a more light-hearted and whimsical view of her dismal situation. Bessie Harvey, with eleven children after two abusive relationships, found shelter in the forests by creating root and found-material sculptures. Her art helped her not only persist and endure, but helped her illuminate the spirits of her African relatives who also suffered from systematic oppression. Then we see artists like James Edward Deeds, Donald Mitchell, and Martín Ramírez, who were all diagnosed with schizophrenia, and artists like Howard Finster and John Harvey, who channeled their strong religious beliefs through their works.

In creating these links between the artists we begin to realize just how many exceptions there are: some of the artists aren’t truly outsiders, some don’t have any of the aforementioned conditions, and some of the artists aren’t exactly self-taught. In Faces and Figures we see how difficult labeling “self-taught” art is, and can begin to unravel its controversial place within the mainstream art world.

Nonetheless, there is one connection that can be made—an enthralling characteristic of the works on view, and that exists in so many “self-taught” pieces. When I was speaking with one of the exhibition’s artists, Malcah Zeldis, she stated that her paintings are products of her own intuition, and this is the connection I find strongest; each artist in Faces and Figures is clearly intuitive, in that each of their works elicits a sense of individual refinement, style, energy, and imagination—something that can’t always be seen, but certainly felt when immersed in the galleries.

Each time I enter this exhibition, I face art that’s been historically marginalized, art that challenges classic perception, art that’s naïve, outsider, raw, imaginative, and visionary; beyond the monikers, it’s the art of individuals expressing their visions, desires, and emotions physically, and in the end succeeding.

Several of the exhibition’s works can be seen on Vassar’s Flickr, and you can view each artist’s biography on FLLAC’s blog page,

Faces and Figures in Self-Taught Art is on view through August 31.

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