Notable Figures in Folk, Outsider &
Self-Taught Art + Americana
by Aron Packer,
As we approach our first ever Folk, Outsider & Self-Taught Art + Americana auction on Thursday, August 12, 2021, we would like to provide background on some notable figures, including several with works set to be offered during the sale. For historical context on these overlapping artistic movements, we invite you to read a previous article, “Folk, Outsider & Self-Taught + Americana Art Auction on August 12,” which covers the release of Jean Dubuffet’s 1947 manifesto on art brut (“raw art”), the publication of Roger Cardinal’s influential book Outsider Art in 1972, and various important contemporary exhibitions and fairs showcasing Folk and Outsider artists.
Consignments Invited for Folk, Outsider & Self-Taught Art + Americana on August 12
On August 12, we will feature quite a range of artists from Chicago, the Midwest, and beyond, such as: David Butler, William Dawson, Howard Finster, Lee Godie, Mr. Imagination, Eddy Mumma, Judy Onofrio, Elijah Pierce, Jack Savitsky, Pauline Simon, Charles Steffen, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Myrtice West, Willie White, Wesley Willis, Snap Wyatt, and others.
If you would like to consign artwork for potential inclusion in the Folk, Outsider & Self-Taught Art + Americana auction on August 12, please email photos with any relevant details to [email protected] or complete our Request an Estimate form. The consignment deadline for the sale is Friday, July 9, but early submissions will be given priority consideration.
Biographies of Folk, Outsider & Self-Taught + Americana Artists
Ultimately, the best way to get a sense of Folk, Outsider & Self-Taught Art + Americana is to learn about the artists themselves and view examples of their work. Presented below are concise biographies for selected artists as well as relevant results and previews of material that will be offered at auction on August 12.
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein was an American self-taught artist from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Over the course of 50 years, from the 1930s until his death in 1983, Von Bruenchenhein produced an expansive oeuvre of poetry, photography, painting, drawing, and sculpture.
His body of work includes over 1,000 colorful, apocalyptic landscape paintings, hundreds of sculptures made from chicken bones, ceramics, cast cement heads, pin-up style photos of his wife, Marie, plus dozens of notebooks filled with poetic and scientific musings. Never confined to one particular method or medium, Von Bruenchenhein continually used everyday, discarded objects to explore imagined past and future realities.
Born in 1955, Joe Coleman is an active American artist best known for his intricate paintings, along with illustrations, performance art, and his work as an actor. He has achieved legendary status among collectors of Outsider Art, and while one may debate whether or not Coleman should be labeled as such, he is like no other, and his desire to live and celebrate the fringes on which he works, makes him a truly unique artist who defies categorization.
Coleman’s paintings can take years to complete. Working often with single hair brushes, Coleman slowly builds his compositions over time, not unlike a Medieval or Renaissance master. His subjects have included the likes of renowned Outsider artist Henry Darger as well as many notorious figures, including Charles Manson and John Dillinger.
(For additional background, see a previous article: “Joe Coleman and The Mystery of Woolverine Woo-Bait”)
David C. “Snap” Wyatt was the most well-known painter of circus banners, primarily working in the 1940s and continuing into the 1970s. He was famous for his bold, stylized figures with quick caricatures. Only the essential details of the performer were outlined in black to make them stand out. Wyatt’s bright and colorful banners drew in crowds with the mystery of what lay inside the tent. Considered among the top circus artists in the field, Wyatt’s huge canvases played to attendees’ sense of wonder and directed them to walk right inside to view sideshows.
After growing up in Asheville, North Carolina, Wyatt joined the circus at age 14. Initially, he performed magic and mind reading before transitioning to touching up and painting original sideshow banners. During the Great Depression, Wyatt studied art at the Cooper Union in New York City and refined his skills in a Coney Island studio. After World War II, Wyatt relocated to Tampa, Florida and began a three-decade stretch of remarkable productivity, painting up to 200 circus banners per year. Wyatt’s art was largely thought of as a commercial curiosity in his heyday, but his work has since garnered greater appreciation for its skill and ingenuity. Today Wyatt’s banners are housed in several museums and galleries and regularly attract strong bidder interest at auction.
Lee Godie (born Jamot Emily Godee) was an American self-taught artist who was active in Chicago during the late 1960s until around the early 1990s. She was a prolific artist who was known for her paintings and modified photos.
Godie was a self-described French Impressionist. She was particular about who she sold her art to and even to whom she talked, preferring to interact with artists. She would only sell her work to those she liked.
Examples of her artwork may be found in the permanent collections of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
Chicago native Wesley Willis was a complex human being who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his late 20s, but the voices he began to hear, along with related maladies and tics, contributed to the powerful art and music that he would later create. In the mid 1980s, Willis was given space to draw and trained informally at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he also first took up playing music on a keyboard. Art historian Rolf Achilles gave Willis postcards of Chicago that served as models for Willis’ freeform, perspective renderings of the skyline. Eventually, Willis started drawing en plein air all around the city and selling his works for $10 or $20 each. Although Willis regularly broke formal rules in composing his architectural sketches, he nonetheless created consistently compelling packed urban visuals across a broad artistic spectrum.
In the 1990s, Willis pursued music in tandem with his art, generating over 50 albums and 1,000 songs in a coarse yet jaunty style in which profanity was commonplace and he incorporated aspects of pop culture and lines from advertisements with tracks like “I Whipped Batman’s Ass” and “Rock N Roll McDonalds” over Muzak-influenced instrumentation on his programmable Technics keyboard. Willis went on to perform live and tour as the front man for The Wesley Willis Fiasco, whose sound had a harder edge than Willis’ solo recordings. All the while, Willis continued to produce his lively drawings of Chicago from all manner of angles. In recent years, Willis’ cult following has expanded such that his music is streamed regularly online and his drawings command ever higher resale prices.
(For additional background, see a previous article: “The Artistic Rendering of Wesley Willis”)
Mr. Imagination was born Gregory Warmack, the third child in a family of nine, in Chicago and had no formal training as an artist. In 1978, he was shot in the stomach during a mugging and lapsed into a coma. During his hospitalization, he had a spiritual vision that he described as “very peaceful, almost as if I was traveling through history and looking at ancient civilizations.” The incident spurred Warmack to focus on making art, and shortly after he began using the name Mr. Imagination.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Imagination worked extensively on sculptures carved from industrial sandstone or hundreds of bottle caps fastened to the surfaces of sculpted objects. He also used paint, wood, nails, putty, and cement, and incorporated found objects, such as tools, instruments, and mirrors. Many of his works were thematically influenced by African and Egyptian masks and dress. Mr. Imagination’s first solo exhibition was assembled in 1983 at the Carl Hammer Gallery in Chicago. He lived and worked in Chicago until 2001, when he relocated to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In January 2008, his home was destroyed in a fire and he moved thereafter to Atlanta, where he continued working and exhibiting until his death at age 64.
William Dawson moved to Chicago as a young man and worked in the produce industry. He is known for his three-dimensional wood carvings as well as paintings on wood and paper. Dawson’s work was featured in the groundbreaking show, Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC in 1983, as well as several other exhibits and publications.
His art at first consisted simply of works he whittled out of pieces of scrap wood he found in alleys or on the street. He then added such materials as chicken bones and driftwood. His most frequent early carvings were totem pole stacks of faces. In later years, he added painting to his body of work. His work is now in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC, the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, and other esteemed institutions.
Charles Steffen was born into a family of eight children in Chicago. He studied drawing, art history, and photography at the Illinois Institute of Technology in the late 1940s. Around 1950, while still in school, he suffered a mental breakdown and was institutionalized at Elgin State Hospital from 1952 through 1963, undergoing treatments and electroshock therapy for schizophrenia.
Steffen continued to make art while institutionalized. After leaving the hospital, unable to take a job, he moved into his childhood home with his sister, Rita. Steffen spent most of his time drawing, mainly on brown wrapping paper, with graphite and colored pencils. When the family home was sold upon his mother’s death in 1994, Steffen moved into a small room in a men’s retirement home in northern Chicago.
Previously, Rita had instructed her brother to destroy his piles of drawings now and then, believing them to be a fire hazard. Upon his move, Steffen was prepared to throw away a vast body of drawings but instead gave pieces to his nephew, Christoph Preissing, who had shown interest in his work. When Steffen’s drawings were discovered in storage around 2006, they became a significant part of the newly increased public awareness of Outsider art.
Elijah Pierce is one of the most well-known wood carvers in the American Folk tradition. He carved animals, figures, and narrative reliefs with religious stories. Settling in Columbus, Ohio, he opened a barber shop. He carved sculptures during every spare moment in the shop. Memories of his childhood inspired him to carve images based on scenes from the Bible.
He believed God had given him the talent to carve and that his life’s purpose was to make manifest “every sermon [he] never preached.” Pierce was honored with the National Heritage Fellowship for his art and influence in the wood carving community in 1982. His work is included in the collections of the Columbus Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC, among many others.
Jesse Howard created an art environment on his property in Fulton, Missouri comprised of hundreds of hand-painted signs. Howard’s preferred canvas was most often a wooden plank or scrap metal salvaged from farm equipment with a flat surface big enough to whitewash with house paint and cover with various political, social, and local rants. His work is held in the permanent collections of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City and the Milwaukee Art Museum. Howard was also part of the seminal Naives and Visionaries show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1974.
Howard Finster was an American artist and Baptist minister from Georgia. He claimed to be inspired by God to spread the gospel through the design of his swampy land into Paradise Garden, a Folk Art sculpture garden with over 46,000 pieces of art. Finster came to widespread notice in the 1980s with his album cover designs for the bands R.E.M. and Talking Heads.
Seeing no contradiction between his divine artistic mission and commercial success, Finster would sometimes make copies of his own work, not unlike Andy Warhol, when demand dictated, occasionally getting help from family and friends. In fact, Finster fully embraced his celebrity, appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and in People magazine.
Popular among Folk Art collectors, works by Finster are also housed within the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and elsewhere.
Jimmy Lee Sudduth was raised on a farm at Caines Ridge, near Fayette, Alabama. He began making art as a child, surrounding the porch of his parents’ house with hand-carved wooden dolls and drawing in the dirt or on tree trunks outside. As his talents became known in the community, he began collecting pigments from the earth, along with rocks, plants, foodstuffs, and industrial products for use in his finger paintings.
Sudduth used his fingers because, as he claimed, “they never wore out.” His numerous works were typically executed on found surfaces such as plywood, doors, and boards from demolished buildings. He experimented with mixing his pigments with various binders to make them adhere better, including syrup, sugar, soft drinks, and caulk.
Alabama artist Mose Tolliver was self-taught and signed his work, “Mose T”, with a backward ’s’. He regularly worked with house paint on plywood, creating whimsical animals, people, and flora.
Tolliver’s painting style is flat, full frontal, or straight profile with a muted palette. Never able to walk well following a work injury, he painted many self-portraits with crutches or would sit on his bed and balance painting surfaces on his knees.
Tolliver’s themes were drawn from his direct experience with subjects who tended to be familiar to him. Tolliver’s work has been exhibited in the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC as well as the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama.
David Butler was one of the first recognized stars of Southern African-American yard art. Butler installed a fantastic, tin zoological environment on and outside his home in Patterson, Louisiana over the course of several decades. Butler turned to art in middle age, after a work-related injury at a sawmill. However, he managed to bridge his private environment and the broader art world, first rising to prominence with the landmark 1982 exhibition Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
Only a year later, his yard environment was dismantled when illness required him to move in with family. The classic works for which he is known are brightly-colored tin cut-outs, sometimes incorporating found objects, mounted both in windows and on poles and stakes in his yard.
Purvis Young was an American artist from the Overtown neighborhood of Miami, Florida. Young’s work, often a blend of collage and painting, utilizes found objects and the experience of African-Americans in the South. A self-taught artist, Young gained cult recognition on the contemporary scene, with his celebrity collectors including Jane Fonda, Damon Wayans, Jim Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and others.
In 2006, a feature documentary entitled Purvis of Overtown was produced about his life and work. His art is today found in the collections of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.