Detour Art in Park City, UT

“Iowa” by Melissa Polhamus, Virginia Beach, Va. Courtesy Collection of Kelly Ludwig


BY GLEN WARCHOL

The Salt Lake Tribune
First published Sep 23 2011 05:46PM
Updated Sep 23, 2011 11:20PM

For many humans, making art isn’t a profession; it’s an obsession.

The most striking example of this primal and irrepressible urge is found among the so-called “outside” artists — amateurs who often are destitute, isolated, marginalized, mentally ill or even imprisoned. The only unifying factor between these folk artists is that they have no formal training in art production or history.

The phenomenon, which has created remarkable edifices, such as the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, Houston’s Beer Can House, and Salt Lake City’s Gilgal Garden, seems to be under-represented in the Intermountain West, and in Utah. Or at least yet undiscovered, according to two experts who spoke recently at the Kimball Art Center’s “Detour Art: Outsider, Folk Art, and Visionary Environments from Coast to Coast.”

The Kimball exhibition is drawn from the outsider-art collection of Kansas City-based Kelly Ludwig, who travels America’s blue highways to find and document outside artists. The show presents the spectrum of the often primitive or childlike genre — from the graceful wood carvings of Kentucky’s Minnie Adkins that draw from the folk art of duck decoys, to the crude but powerful tin cut-outs of Betty Sue Matthews, plus the intuitive modernism of Thornton Dial.

Ludwig says outsider art is a “celebration of creativity.” She labels the genre as “detour art” because it’s an escape from so-called fine arts, and usually requires driving into rural backwaters to find.

“These artists are thrifty,” Ludwig says. “Nothing ever goes to waste. The best definition I can think of for outsider artist is: Ordinary people using the material they have at hand to make art.”

In the exhibit’s “Indian Chief,” Jimmy Lee Sudduth of Fayette, Ala., used dirt, Pepsi-Cola, and leftover house paint to create. Charlie Lucas, also of Alabama, used bicycle sprockets and a broken rake to make “Face.”
Terms applied to the genre — including “folk art” and “outsider art” — are fuzzy and getting more so, as academics, collectors and media continue to discover outsider artists, says Duff Lindsay, a collector and dealer in the art form from Columbus, Ohio.

“I call it ‘contemporary self-taught,’” Lindsay says. “Outsider art is almost a historical term now.” After all, can anyone be “outside” anymore, asks Lindsay, a former television producer, given the media saturation of the modern world.

It’s nearly impossible for folk artists — with the exception perhaps of the severely mentally ill — to be unaware of the greater world of art and the growing market (and upward-spiralling prices) for outsider art, Ludwig says. But she doesn’t think that scrutiny and study will destroy what’s sometimes labeled art brut; that is, works that grow out of an almost obsessive need to create with “whatever material at hand.” “This art just transforms,” Ludwig says. “It will evolve.”

Ludwig and Lindsay ended a tour of the Kimball exhibit with a challenge to aficionados: Find outsider/folk/untrained artists in Utah.

“This art is everywhere you go,” Ludwig says. “But I don’t know of any self-taught artists in Utah. But I know they are there.”