Artist and Maker Spotlights Creative Things

Discover Outsider Artists

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I happened to have zero self esteem when I was a freshman in college. I mean, I knew I had some talent since I got into all the art schools I applied to, but I was insanely intimidated by the other kids who seemed far cooler and more at ease with being on their own for the first time and choosing a major.

When I chose painting as a major, it was based on a pure love for painting. When I got to the first day of painting, I internally freaked at:

1. All the hipster art boys who knew a lot about painters

2. The idea of being ‘taught’ to paint

I suddenly wanted to keep painting pure and unlearned. I wanted to get through art school without having picked up other peoples’ ideas of what making paintings should be.

It sounds so pretentious in a way, but 4 years later, when I discovered Outsider Artists, I identified with their sensibility and simplicity and pure emotion. I’ve always been drawn to straightforward, unpretentious art, and I first discovered that with traditional African masks.

Related: see my African mask project 

The paintings I made in my 20’s came from my heart, and I taught myself how to get the acrylic paints to do what I wanted. I painted whatever I felt like, without the ghost voice of a professor popping in to my head to influence me.

Back to Outsider Artists. If you don’t know what this means, they essentially are people who make art without having been formally taught art. They are people working outside of the traditional art world, and sometimes their art isn’t even discovered until after their death. Some of these artists are mentally ill, some are isolated from the rest of the world, some just identify as Outsider Artists, based on the intuitive nature of their work.

Bill Traylor was the first outsider artist I happened upon, and still probably my favorite. Born into slavery in Alabama in 1853, he didn’t start painting until he was 85.

Artwork by Bill Traylor - Outsider Artistsimages via

Henry Darger – Oh my goodness. You haven’t lived until you’ve been to a Henry Darger exhibit, slowly becoming more and more uncomfortable with each work you look at. Uncomfortable in a fascinated way, of course.

Darger’s work was discovered by his landlord right before his death, and he had worked as a janitor. His art and accompanying 15,000 page manuscript described a dystopian world where mixed-gender children abounded.

Outsider Artists- these are paintings by outsider artists Henry Dargerimages via here and here

I previously featured the art of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who was a new discovery for me, here, and despite her lack of training and contact with the art world, her work is so modern and lovely.

Emily Kngwarreye art

image via

More on Outsider Artists

Raw Vision

Center for Intuitive and Outside Art

Art Brut Museum 

American Folk Art Museum in NYC

American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore

Children’s Book about Bill Traylor

Henry Darger biography

Jessica Yu’s documentary of Henry Darger – this is the trailer

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  • Hi! I lived in Elmhurst (all 52 years so far) and I have an older postcard from maybe Art In the Park years ago? Are you still painting your characters – loved them (the guy with the head and grey pants – lol)! I’m just going through the business cards I’ve collected of artists I love from shows, etc. I love your site (craftwhack) and your list of outside artists! I visited the Henry Darger installment as well (LOVE)! I hang out with Donna Castellanos (maybe you know her?) and she is having her own show at the Elmhurst Art Museum (March 16) if you are still in town or around the area! Love the coloring book title – aren’t there just tooooooo many of them out there now? LOL Stay well! Dawn Castro

    • Oh my goodness! Yes, I was in Art in the Park so long ago…. I have started up recently painting stripes instead of the characters; I got a little burned out on those, but I’m sure will pick them up again at some point. 🙂 So good to hear from you- I am living in Naperville now, so not too far away. Haven’t been to the Elmhurst Art Museum in a while, so I will definitely plan a visit to see the show.