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  11 December 2017  |  Vol: 4 facebooktwitterrss  
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Inside an Outsider Artist

Blond with Bouquet - painting by JC

It’s real art if you have no choice but to do it.”
- Holly Solomon, renowned art collector

The countertops are covered. The corners are filled. The walls enveloped. Even the spartan landscape surrounding her house is filled with the vestiges of past art projects and objects recently planted, the buds of future work.

The artist whose home I describe–known only as “JC”–provides a perky explanation for the dandelion field of art around her: “I can’t help myself. I always need to be doing something or making something. It’s the only thing that calms me and grounds me.”

JC did not attend any of the prestigious art schools; there’s no Rhode Island School of Design diploma prominently hung on the wall. Nor has she experienced years of training at urban workshops or under the wing of mentors. She does not meet the lofty standards that the art world upholds as benchmark of “fine art.” But a mere glance over the work of this fierce yet warm and maternal woman settles the matter–her place among them is deserved.

JC’s work carries notes of Folk Art with images of cowgirls and the weathered patinas of Americana. But she is more easily grouped into the category of Outsider Art – a term that has expanded since its introduction into American Art Dialect in 1972 by Roger Cardinal. Once considered to represent a very narrow margin of people on the outskirts of mainstream society–many were in prisons or were physically and/or mentally challenged, like California artist Martin Ramirez who spent most of his life institutionalized for catatonic schizophrenia–Outsider Art has over the decades grown to include those whose process and history does not meet the “normal” expectations of an artist.

Holy Cowgirls - painting by JC

Mr. Webster concisely (and coyly) defines an artist as “a person skilled in one of the fine arts.” For many the term “fine art” implies certain prerequisites that offer an apparent sense of security when defining “Art.” But with this definition we also must acknowledge the notes of elitism, highbrow pretense and privileged intellectualism. It’s a private club with ivy-covered degrees and secret handshakes. The irony is that artists tend to emerge from the commoners locked outside those gates (and, oftentimes, those same artists relish the darker corners of society). They live life along the margins, forging their own paths somewhere beneath society’s ivory balconies.

“Art shouldn’t be about how much money you have,” JC says. “It should be available to everyone.” Her primary motivation is less material, more inertia. “It’s like an obsession really,” she explained, “I have no idea where it comes from but I see things and I just get these ideas.”

Like many among the patchwork ranks of the Outsider Artists, JC does not create art with buyers, collectors or anyone else in mind. Her artwork flows organically, unbidden by rules and schools, like the free verse poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Taking as an example JC’s “Holy Cowgirls" (shown above), her mixed media portrait pilfers at will from Western iconography, Catholic symbolism and, specifically, Mexican Devotional Art.

Our Lady of Guadalupe - painting by JCIn keeping with the traditions of Outsider Artists, her artwork becomes even more profound in the context of the artist’s life story. JC was born in Oklahoma but moved to southern Arizona, near the Mexican border, with her family when she was in elementary school. As the oldest of five children, she spent the first 10 years of her life in a devoutly Catholic family. Then, her mom abruptly changed religions, abandoning the ironclad traditions and severing all connections to Catholicism and the Catholic community.

“It was a huge changing moment in my life,” JC notes. “Everyone around us had always been Catholic and all of a sudden it was gone. We had to change schools and were not allowed to play with our old friends. She took away all these parts of our culture. It’s because of religion that my mom did not allow me to pursue what I loved like art school.”

Now 67 years-old, JC says she is deeply spiritual but does not consider herself at all religious. Even so, the cultural mark of her early childhood emerges as a central theme in her work along with women and, specifically, what she calls “the Mother figure.” These are more than just undertones in her work, as illustrated in the striking painting titled, “Our Lady of Guadalupe” (shown above).

“I think the Mother is the power figure of the world,” she says. “A mother has the gift of giving life. I like how the Virgin Mary and Our Lady of Guadalupe represent that–especially in the cultures I grew up around.”

Blond cowgirl - painting by JCHer portraits of women–be they cowgirls or saints–command attention with their vibrant southwest colors and the comforting simplicity of their composition. “Being so close to Mexico, I used to skip school with friends and go down there for the day,” says JC. “The Catholic influence was everywhere but I was so affected by the importance of the Virgin Mary. In Mexico they called her, ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe.’ Every home had at least one little alter, and most were devoted to the Virgin Mother.”

JC’s art is complex and layered, as if over the years she has been slowly adding clippings and anecdotes from her own life. These details and sophisticated subtexts are magnetic. Shown above, one of JC’s dynamic cowgirl portraits depicts a woman in a simple, almost ageless appearance. But the painting is largely construed upon tiny bits of newspaper (detail, shown below). Every inch of the red-washed background shows the typeface and taglines of shredded coupon sections, advertisements, headlines and anything else that JC intuitively placed there. Suddenly, the deceptively straightforward content reveals more and more, deepening with every investigation.

Detail of 'Blond Cowgirl' - painting by JCThe beauty of Outsider Art is that it is not only subjective for the artist but also for the viewer. “You either get my art or you don’t,” JC says, and though her tone is light, she adds, “And really I don’t care either way.”

The dynamic category of Outsider Art continues to grow with international recognition, like the throngs flocking to New York's Outsider Art Fair, a February mainstay on the East Coast art calendar. The lack of formal training and the freedom from institutionalized critique allows a pure varietal of art to surface. Outsider Artists like JC follow their own path. The truth emanating from her work challenges, even provokes the viewer. The form cannot be limited to a concocted “fine art club” or that which is handsomely dressed in Curriculum Vitae. Outsider Art qualifies itself through the integrity of the work and authenticity of the artists’ commitment.

One of the world’s most famous Outsider Artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat said, “I don't listen to what art critics say. I don't know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.”

And while many artists will lose themselves in a bid to access the exclusive gardens reserved for the upper echelon, you will find JC happily enjoying life on the outside, striving toward a truly one-of-a-kind masterpiece. -BM

Author's Note: JC's art is available via the SKS Art Company or the Ecce Gallery in Bozeman's Emerson Center.

Contributor photo of Sarah SkoglundSarah Skoglund loves all things art & design. She is an art consultant ( based out of Bozeman, Montana, where she specializes in curating private and corporate art collections.

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