Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

'Visual Sophistication' and Originality Meet at St. Louis Art Museum

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

'Visual Sophistication' and Originality Meet at St. Louis Art Museum

Article excerpt

"I was born an artist. I have been doing everything which you have to go to school for. I can do, beat you doin' it."

- William Hawkins (1895-1990), quoted in "Self-Taught Genius"

What is genius? What is the source of artistic inspiration? How important is training in expressing that inspiration? Those are questions that "Self-Taught Genius" puts out for pondering.

"Genius," which opens Sunday at the St. Louis Art Museum, features the work of self-taught artists and work that's been labeled "outsider art." Ranging from the mid-18th century to the early 21st, the touring exhibition encompasses a wide range of objects, all drawn from New York's American Folk Art Museum, selected by Stacy C. Hollander, the museum's director of exhibitions, and curator Valrie Rousseau.

Sometimes the genius is expressed through conventional means; sometimes it comes out of left field. There are quilts, delicately stitched by the hands of slaves, and a gate built and painted to resemble an American flag, with an idiosyncratic arrangement for its field of stars. A startlingly realistic carved lion that once carried passengers on a carousel shares the space with seemingly random assemblages of words, of yarn, of wood.

There's an arresting, beautiful portrait of a little girl in a red dress, with a white cat on her lap, painted in the 1830s by Ammi Phillips, an itinerant artist in New England. At the exhibition's entrance, visitors are met by an 11-foot-tall "Encyclopedic Palace" from the 1950s. It was intended by its creator, an auto mechanic named Marino Auriti, as a model for a massive building, to cover 16 blocks in Washington, D.C., and tower 136 stories above the landscape.

"These are the best things from the Folk Art Museum, right here," says Melissa Wolfe, the St. Louis Art Museum's curator of American art. "Some of them are iconic, like the Flag Gate," created around 1876 by an unknown artist in upstate New York. More of them will be completely new to visitors.

Wolfe points out that folk art collections are lacking in this region. "In some ways, that's why this is a great show for the art museum," she says. "This is our way to offer something no other museum in this area has."


"Self-Taught Genius" is divided into seven categories. There are "Achievers," showing the subject's accomplishments or something grandiose. There are "Encoders," which may hide a message or use symbols to convey a secret meaning. "Messengers" may express a belief, religious or otherwise. "Improvement" celebrates the young American republic, its people and institutions, as well as the idea of self-sufficiency. "Reformers" covers ground including scenes from the Civil War and a screed painted on wood by Fulton, Mo., original Jesse Howard (1885-1983). In "Ingenuity," innovation and adaptation get their due. …

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