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Visionary Art

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image[1].jpg Clowning around with Chicagoan Ted Frankel at his Sideshow gift shop in Baltimore.

5:15 p.m. Nov. 7--

BALTIMORE, Md.----I liked the American Visionary Art Museum (AMVA) from the jump when I bumped into the Arthur Clarke epitaph in the first floor gallery: "He never grew up, but he never stopped growing."
Been there, accused of that.
The quote is part of the dedication of "The Marriage of Art, Science and Philosophy" exhibit up through Sept. 6, 2009.
The exhibition incorporates the works of more than 100 visionary artists/scientists/inventors who address the core values of light, color, sound, pattern and number. It reminded me of a good night at the Fillmore West in San Francisco........


......Most impressive is the work of 112-year-old Frank Calloway, who paints rural, childlike scenes on long sheets of butcher block paper. Some scrolls are as long as 30 feet. The resident of Tuscaloosa, Ala. unknowingly reveals an intuitive devotion to rhythm, pattern and number in his ballpoint pen and crayon works. He has lived in mental hospitals since 1952 and draws up to seven hours a day. He made it to Baltimore for the exhibition opening. It was his first time out of Alabama.
Here's a gander at his work:
yellow cow 2.jpg
"I've always been interested in how you accomplish a communal dialogue," museum founder-director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger told me. "Instead of showing the best of outsider artists--much like INTUIT does in a very good way in Chicago--I kept looking at art brut or outsider art collections around the world. I would see certain themes would organize and be repeated over and over again." So, in addition to the museum's permanent collection of more than 4,000 pieces there is always a temporary show to be seen. "The Marriage of Art, Science and Philosophy" is the AMVA's 14th such show since it opened Thanksgiving, 1995.
Before I move along, its important to try to define "Visionary Art."

FOLK ART is generally handed down, traditional, learned at the knee. We can agree on that, right?

VISIONARY ART wells up from something with materials used at hand. It is how art intermingles with real life. It is not created in a vacuum. "I didn't like the word 'outsider' because it led to so many plebeian debates in that once they've been shown, are they no longer 'outsiders'," Hoffberger explained. "But the terms 'outsider' and 'visionary' are interchangeable."

OUTSIDER ART --Chicago is also a mecca for outsider art. INTUIT (The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art), 756 N. Milwaukee Ave (312-243-9088; www.art.org ) honors the work of artists who demonstrate "little influence from the mainstream art world and who seem instead motivated by their unique personal visions,"according to their website.

The AMVA incorporates three buildings over 1.1 acres along Baltimore's beautiful inner harbor. The 35,000-square foot main building features the exhibition space that holds rotating exhibits, my pal Ted Frankel's excelled Sideshow gift shop (read my Detours column in the Nov. 9 Sun-Times Travel section) and selections from the museum's permanent collection. Here I found the toothpick Lusitania ship from Chicagoan Wayne Kusy. He made the 20-foot long boat with 193,000 toothpicks and five gallons of glue. Back in 1996 Wayne was also known as Roy Clark Hendrix, guitarist for the heavy metal bluegrass band The Flannel Tubs. They once name checked late outsider artist Wesley Willis in the hard-driving "Bill & Hillary Went Down to the Empty Bottle."

The Tall Sculpture Barn is reborn from the old Four Roses whiskey warehouse. With 45-foot ceilings, this space serves up artwork that simply cannot fit in the other buildings. The barn also is a site for lectures and private functions.
The Jim Rouse Visionary Center is anchored by an 11-feet tall depiction of John Waters' actress Divine. She is made from glass, canvas, resin and metal. Don't miss the permanent display of more than 40 pieces from the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre of London. Visitors crank whimsical figurines who play behind a long glass window. The theater sits across the way from a ball made with 18,000 bras.
Just like most of her artists, Hoffberger took a naive approach to museums.
"I had never been in the museum world," she said. "I had been a consultant to many non-profits. But I had worked with intuitive people who were brilliant, but they weren't academically trained brilliant. They were fierce individuals. I was working for the Department of Psychiatry at Sinai Hospital (in Baltimore) and became sad that if you heard voices throughout America that's schizophrenia. Look at all the famous inventors who would take a nap and wake up with an eureka moment into a creative process."

Hoffberger is proud that most of the visionary stuff is on display. "I was always disgusted by museums with vast warehouses that had to be climatized, she said. "I remember hearing early on that the Guggenheim shows less than 3 per cent of what they hold. I never want to be that kind of museum.
"We have been offered by the City of Los Angeles any piece of municipal property to put a west coast branch (of AMVA). But we have to wait and raise or minimum endowment goal which is $25 million here in Baltimore. Our shows would always originate on our home campus but it would be wonderful to send it fully blown to the west coast."
Hoffberger's spiritual muse is Frankel, the owner of the Uncle Fun and Paper Boy gag n' gift stores on West Belmont Avenue in Chicago. He opened the Sideshow gift shop at the AMVA in 2004.
"Baltimore was so different than Chicago it was fascinating," Frankel said in a separate interview. "I learned to love Baltimore. It has a quirky vibe: the people that moved from the south, ran out of money and decided to stay in Baltimore instead of going to New York. Its becoming a very creative community. Artists and creative people make a city. It doesn't have the expenses of New York and Washington D.C.
"And its the dividing line between the north and the south."
Frankel also loves the access to New York City. He's a regular on what he calls "The Bagel Bus," a daily round-trip shuttle on Superior Tours (www.superiortours.com) between Baltimore and New York City. He often goes to New York for buying trips.
Baltimore native Hoffberger said, "Ted so quickly got how unusual our museum is and the way we do things. He's one of the finest human beings I've ever known in my 56 years on this earth."

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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This page contains a single entry by David Hoekstra published on November 7, 2008 3:53 PM.

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