Art is vital to humanity. Millions of people, all over the world, rely on art. Whether they are creating a piece or just examining one, art is a gateway to emotional fluency, to show others how we feel when words fail. The internal desire to manifest emotion through painting, sculpture, architecture and so much more attracted art history professor and art collector Arthur F. Jones to an assembly of art outside of the world of formal training and fineness, into that of self-taught and outsider artists. Jones’ collection, comprised of pieces from a variety of self-taught artists, is now on display in the James W. Palmer Gallery in the College Center, which opened on Tuesday, Jan. 21.
What is self-taught art? Jones sees the practitioners of self-taught art as those who are motivated to express themselves despite having no formal training. “I applied the term particularly to works by artists who developed their own methods for making art, rather than attempting to imitate what trained artists do,” Jones explained in an email correspondence. “A talented self-taught artist works boldly with confidence in their own inventiveness, without making attempts to follow the ‘rules’ of schooled art.”
The professor’s move to Kentucky in the 1970s and his subsequent discovery of contemporary folk art sparked an interest in this “unschooled” mode of art-making. His growing involvement with the folk scene, and the absence of major museums where his career brought him, introduced him to numerous self-taught artists, whose work he would begin to collect and curate some years later.
Aside from collecting, Jones worked in academia, receiving a PhD before teaching at the University of Kentucky, Radford University and the University of North Dakota. But Jones took his teachings far beyond the typical PowerPoint presentation in his art history classes. “When I taught college courses on self-taught art and outsider art, I frequently brought original artworks from my collection into my classes and taught directly from the objects (and not just from slides),” he said. Sharing his collected artwork with his students has led him to refer to the Palmer Gallery sample as a “teaching collection.”
On display is the work of Inez Nathaniel Walker, also the subject of an exhibition called “Freehand” at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center last spring. She emerged in the world of self-taught art while incarcerated at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York State. She mainly drew pictures of other inmates, one of which can be found in Jones’s collection, a piece made from pencil, markers and paper, titled “Woman.”
Ike Morgan, another featured artist, gained recognition as an outsider artist with his drawings, which he made when he was hospitalized for schizophrenia. Morgan’s “Singer,” a pastel on paper piece, joined Jones’ collection in the 1980s, a highlight of the exhibition, a colorful and contemplative portrait. Another prominent piece is Charley Kinney’s “Wild Cat.” This painting, depicting a cat with blood oozing from its mouth as it eats a rat in its claws, haunts passersby.
But the scope of the gallery extends beyond two-dimensional pieces; various sculptures and photographs of outdoor installments, which Jones visited and photographed himself, are scattered throughout. In fact, one of the first pieces that greets you as you walk into the space is a small brain-shaped sculpture with pencils jutting out of it, fittingly titled “Pencil Holder.” Charles Williams, a janitor for IBM from Kentucky, created the brain-shaped piece from melted plastic, coiled wire and spray paint. The short biography of Williams, which is available to read in the gallery, shares the motivation behind his art: “Williams… [had] a desire to make things that are useful and not just ‘pretty,’ such as pencil holders that were often made out of trash retrieved from IBM dumpsters.”
The piece was a favorite among many of the students who entered the gallery, not only for its flashiness but also by virtue of the curating choices. “I was drawn to the ‘Pencil Holder,’” Melanie Carolan ’23 recalled. “It was right at the entrance, so my eyes were drawn to it.”
Works by self-taught and outsider artists challenge the conception that only official training makes a work of art valid, an impression that pervades educational spaces that promote the study of tradition and acclaimed historical figures. With the diverse backgrounds and experiences of the artists it features, the teaching collection unleashes a spirit not confined to any formal teaching or knowledge, or of specific techniques that have already been established by supposed creative authorities.
An enthusiast as much as an educator, Jones’s curation questions the meaning of art as we know it. “Self-taught and Outsider Art from a Private ‘Teaching Collection,’” is available in the James W. Palmer Gallery until Feb. 16.