hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts and Culture August 2015


Celebrating the self-taught artist

‘Grassroots art’ is focus in exhibit at Bennington Museum


Contributing writer


Stephen C. Warren’s “Memory Ware Tower” (1894). Photos courtesy of the Bennington Museum

The Mona Lisa has been in the Louvre since 1797; one of Monet’s water-lily paintings sold at auction for more than $60 million in 2008. These and other works from renowned masters are recognized globally.

If the Bennington Museum has a say, though, its major exhibition of the year will offer the public a much different but no less important perspective on art. The show, “Inward Adorings of the Mind: Grassroots Art from the Bennington Museum and Blasdel/Koch Collections,” opened July 3 and continues through Nov. 1.

Jamie Franklin, the museum’s curator of collections, said that even the most famous artists started from simple beginnings – as do the overwhelming majority of people creating art today.

“When you think about it, virtually every artist began the creative process on their own, with no formal instruction,” Franklin said as he offered a gallery walk through the show. “What we don’t often express as well is that most artists continue in that vein their entire lives -- and unnoticed. Yet their work speaks to so much that is inherently human.”

“Inward Adorings” brings together a selection of nearly 150 objects, ranging from textiles, ceramics and weathervanes to drawings, paintings and sculpture. They were created by individuals with little or no formal artistic training who worked, or still work, outside the framework of the traditional art world.

The exhibition includes pieces from the museum’s collections of historic folk art as well as a private collection assembled over the past 50 years by Vermont artists Gregg Blasdel and Jennifer Koch.

“We’re probably in as good a position as any museum in the country to tackle this subject, given our ownership of many of Grandma Moses’ works,” Franklin said.

He was referring to the Bennington Museum’s collection of art created by Anna Mary Davidson “Grandma” Moses (1860-1961), one of the nation’s most popular “primitive” painters. Moses’ genre is often identified among the “grassroots.”

“Grandma Moses is arguably the quintessential example of a 20th century American self-taught artist,” Franklin said.

The museum, seeking to provide a broader context for understanding Moses’ work, has recently begun to collect the work of modern and contemporary grassroots artists with ties to the region, including Gayleen Aiken, Larry Bissonnette, Paul Humphrey, Ray Materson and Jessica Park.
The new show, which also includes works by Jesse Howard, Howard Finster, Mose Tolliver, Inez Nathaniel Walker and Joseph Yoakum, emphasizes thematic connections between creations by everyday people from the 18th century to the present day.


Building a collection
Blasdel popularized the term “grassroots” in connection with the arts nearly 50 years ago in an article and photographic essay in Art in America. Since then he has been instrumental in bringing the creations of idiosyncratic, self-taught artists to public attention.
In the 1960s, Blasdel found inspiration in the work of Clarence Schmidt, Ed Root, Jesse Howard and others, all self-taught makers who created sophisticated, all-encompassing installations.
He explained that he began documenting their work and the work of other grassroots artists as a student -- and continues to do so today.

“My first experiences with collecting was through my mother, who was a casual collector of antiques,” Blasdel said in an interview from his home in Burlington. “My family also kept things, rather than replacing them or discarding them. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I also kept things -- small collections of cards, marbles and found objects I couldn’t part with.”
Blasdel added that when he started to document and research self-taught artists, he had no compelling interest in collecting other than an occasional purchase or token gift. But this began to change when he moved to Vermont in the 1970s.

“My interest changed as I saw more and more folk art sites destroyed, and I slowly began to collect contemporary folk art,” Blasdel said.

Even so, he added, “I was a serendipitous collector and didn’t actively pursue collecting.”
Blasdel said that when he met his wife, Jennifer Koch, her artwork relied on a wide variety of found objects, and she depended on finding materials in junk stores and yard sales.
The couple shared common interests and eventually became partners in collecting folk art. Their collection has been established from works they wanted to be around as part of their daily lives.
“Inward Adorings” is the first time the Blasdel-Koch collection is being seen outside of the couple’s home, and Blasdel said he is delighted with the result.

“The Bennington Museum exhibition is a terrific show, and Jamie Franklin did an exceptional job selecting and displaying the work,” Blasdel said.

He called Franklin’s pairing of objects from the Blasdel-Koch collection and the museum’s own “deft, instructive and playful.”


Themes and pairings
The show is laid out thematically, with objects from the two collections intermixed and paired in four major subject areas.

Franklin said this was to emphasize underlying links among the works of diverse, often anonymous, self-taught artists across centuries and cultural backgrounds.

The first section is “History, Memory and Memorials” and focuses on public history, personal memories and the penchant for commemoration. These have been key ingredients in the work of many grassroots artists from the 18th century through the present day.

The featured works range from the craft tradition of 18th century American gravestone carvers to the fad for “memory ware” in the late 19th century. Also included are quasi-historical “memory” paintings and drawings by Grandma Moses and Joseph Yoakum, made more recently, in the mid-20th century.

“Many of these were self-taught artists who have found rich and expressive territory in their exploration of the past and their desire to preserve it through their work,” Franklin said.
The next thematic grouping is “Signs and Symbols/Words and Images.” In their ardent desire to communicate with the world around them, grassroots artists often stress bold imagery and frequently combine their images with text to buttress their message.

Examples of this include a trade sign used by one of Bennington’s first doctors and Jesse Howard’s signs extolling his eccentric personal views on politics and religion. Also included are textile samplers of the 19th century.

In addition, there are comic-like combinations of images and words in what Franklin called Gayleen Aiken’s “manic, incantatory drawings based loosely on her memories of growing up in Barre.” And the overall exhibition’s title, “Inward Adorings of the Mind,” is a quote from text in an 1835 work by the Bennington artist Caroline S. Love.

The third theme is “Faces: Fact and Fiction.” Historic portraits, such as those created by the itinerant artists who plied their trade in New England during the first half of the 19th century, tend to be thought of as documentary evidence that provide insight into the past.

“This was why they were collected in large numbers by the Bennington Museum during the early-to-mid 20th century,” Franklin said. “When these portraits are paired with images of invented characters by contemporary self-taught artists, like Gayleen Aiken’s Raimbilli cousins, the highly wrought nature of portraiture becomes apparent.”

The show is rounded out by “Everyday Beauty: Whimsy and Utility.” This section focuses on functional objects, found or discarded materials, and the artists’ apparently routine day-to-day experiences, which together form the foundation of a large percentage of grassroots art.
“This section brings together a selection of utilitarian objects, such as furniture, pottery, and textiles, with more whimsical, purely decorative or fantastic images and constructions,” Franklin said. “They question just how far apart function and fantasy really are -- or not.”


A grassroots journey
One artist with works in the show who epitomizes the self-taught ethos but who has also found a measure of recognition and commercial demand is Ray Materson of Kalamazoo, Mich., who is originally from Vermont.

In the 1990s, while living in New England, Materson ran afoul of the law and served time in prison for a number of drug-related convictions. He said it was then that he came to recognize his gift in creating embroidery.

“My first piece was a University of Michigan emblem, which I sewed onto a small cap that I also made,” Materson said from his Michigan studio. “While wearing the cap around my cellblock, other inmates approached me and asked where I had gotten it. A business was born overnight. Other inmates asked if I could make something for them.”

Materson said he was paid for his prison work in cigarettes and coffee. He realized he was not only gaining respect from fellow inmates but also avoiding the normal tedium of prison life.
“Since I had no access to art supplies in prison, I learned to unravel socks for embroidery floss,” he said. “Men there happily donated socks to me of various colors.”

Eventually he began creating pieces that depicted his own life, even after he was paroled. Over the years, his work began to attract attention and was exhibited in New York and London, and he has lectured internationally about his art.

In 2013, Materson was commissioned to create 36 individual images for the Sports Museum of Los Angeles. It took him about 18 months to complete the project.

“Each one of those works contain about 1,200 stitches to the square inch,” he said.
Franklin said Materson was one grassroots creator who lived the art that defined him, becoming the first artist to receive the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Innovators Combating Substance Abuse Award in 2003.

“Since getting out of prison, Ray has been a vocal advocate for substance-abuse education,” Franklin said. “From 2009 to 2011, he was back in Vermont, making a living as a social worker and witnessing the horrors of our state’s opiate addiction crisis first-hand.”

He added that Materson’s embroideries, which use everyday materials and draw on his own personal experiences, “bring the tradition of American needle arts into the 21st century.”
Reflecting on Materson’s journey and some of the other stories and artworks featured in “Inward Adorings,” Franklin said famous works such as Monet’s water lilies are indeed grand, but grassroots artists have much to contribute to the creative aesthetic.

“This is somewhat of a difficult show to summarize,” Franklin said. “But what we see here draws power from every part of the human spirit across a number of centuries. Right now, in countless homes, anonymous, humble grassroots artists are creating something viscerally human. ‘Inward Adorings’ is an attempt to give them all a voice.”


“Inward Adorings of the Mind: Grassroots Art from the Bennington Museum and Blasdel/Koch Collections,” runs through Nov. 1 at the Bennington Museum. For more information, visit www.benningtonmuseum.org or call (802) 447-1571.