GRACE Notes: A Grass Roots Art and Community Effort

Article excerpt

In this article, I use data collected from research conducted in the summer of 2001 at the Grass Roots Arts and Community Effort (GRACE) in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. I present case studies of artists with developmental disabilities, who along with other isolated groups, are considered to be Outsider Artists. I begin the article by defining this term as it is understood and defined by the art world. While this label is expedient and the participants of GRACE fall within this label, I suggest that the socialization found in the GRACE workshops is atypical of Outsider Art, and thus requires that we think more deeply about this label. Later, I discuss how the interaction between the staff and participants raise questions about teaching and learning, and suggest that public education has something to learn from this interaction.

True art is always where you least expect to find it. Where nobody thinks about it or utters its name. Art hates to be recognized and greeted by name. It makes its escape at once. Art is a personage with a passion for going incognito. As soon as he is detected and someone points a finger at him, he makes his escape leaving in his place a laurelled understudy who carries on his back a big label marked ART, and everybody regales him at once with champagne and lecturers take him from city to city with a ring in his nose. That is the false Mr. Art. That is the one the public knows, since he is the one with the laurel and the label.

-Jean Dubuffet ( cited in Thevoz, 1976, p. 15)

The sophisticated visitors who make their way to Grass Roots Art and Community Effort (GRACE), where making art is "contagious rather than exclusive" (Lippard as cited in Rexer, 1986, p. 2), are often beset with questions concerning legitimacy, cultural preferences, and the categories and distinctions made when viewing works of art. Deep in the rural Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, individuals who never before considered themselves artists are making works that are so compelling (with a strange and unfamiliar vernacular) that they remind the viewer of the endless debate concerning the subjectivity of defining and categorizing art. These artists are unaware that they deeply challenge the presumptions of the official art world's insularity of self-selected aesthetic standards of taste and quality.

Vernacular, Untrained, Folk, Visionary, and finally, Outsider Art, the more recent and popular term coined by Roger Cardinal in 1972, leads to a convolution of terms and categories. Don Krug (1992) interprets Cardinal's term, Outsider Art, as something other "because it wasn't passed on or down in a regional, ethnic, religious, or occupational tradition. It wasn't fine art because it wasn't learned in an academic setting, and it wasn't commercial because it wasn't made to sell" (p. 107).

Journalists, educators, and other art professionals who make the journey, look and wonder about the GRACE artists, and often pronounce them "Outsiders" (Rexer, 1998b, 2001). These artists are not participants in the self-selected tradition of society's culturally dominant group (Krug, 1992). They are the poor, uneducated, mentally ill, elderly and physically frail, developmentally disabled, as well as healthy children, teenagers and retired adults. It is an unlikely bonding of humanity, gathered together to make art; a disenfranchised group whose artistic products are considered outside of the official art world. Their art is considered outside the taste and quality preferences of a dominant group (Krug, 1992).

But now Outsider Art is ushered into galleries and museums-albeit sporadically-when once its home was the mental health institution, prison, or rural back road. In an art world where trained artists co-opt the naive charm of their outsider counterparts, these categories begin to sound counterintuitive. If Outsider Art is accepted by these same museums and galleries-and even imitated by their trained impostors-then what are we to call this other kind of art that challenges the very concept of orthodox art (Cardinal, 2003). …