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  • Heroic ExpressionsOutsider Artists & Their Stories
  • Kristine Somerville

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Untitled, Madge Gill, 1940, ink on card, courtesy of the Henry Boxer Gallery, London

[End Page 151]

I don’t copy what I see, I make it better.

—William Hawkins

Outsider artists typically lack formal training, reside outside the margins of canonical structures of reputation and fame, and may not even consider their creations art. From their enigmatic existences comes raw, urgent, and often irrational work. They do not share approaches, styles, or attitudes, and we might struggle to account for them using customary art world terms. They are marginal figures, their work coming from unexpected places: an asylum in Switzerland, a squalid one-room apartment in Chicago, notebooks carried in a backpack of an indigent college dropout, the channelings of a spiritualist English housewife, or the late-life creations of menial laborers from the South.

Whatever mental illnesses or social obstacles they face, they turn their art into an exciting reason for living. Their work reveals passionately engaged, unusual lives and inner journeys into unfamiliar realms. Once their art is discovered, it is valued for its meaningful interweaving of life and work into marvelous acts of storytelling. In many ways, they are heroic figures who turn the challenges of their circumstances into a strength. Their impulse to communicate through a visual language—dark, whimsical, unruly, enigmatic, intense—gives expression to what they can’t convey with words.

Henry Darger’s collage watercolor drawings depicted an unfolding narrative he called The Story of the Vivian Girls in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. He painted them on twelve-foot-long sheets of butcher wrap not only to make art but to invent the children he was not allowed to adopt. In 1917, a Catholic Church in Chicago denied his request for an adoptee. They didn’t give children to “feeble minded” unmarried janitors who made $25 a week and lived cloistered in a single room stacked with magazines, newspapers, coloring books, paint sets, and balls of yarn and twine. To penetrate his loneliness and perhaps heal the abuse he had suffered as a child, Darger invented a violent epic vision of an alternative universe where the Vivian Girls, seven “noble dare devils,” fought battles against the child-enslaving forces of Glandelinia. On an imaginary planet “a thousand times as large as our own,” dragonlike creatures protect the children as they war against their corrupt elders. [End Page 152]

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Spangled Blengin All Nations of Christian Nature. Child Headed. All Islands of Every Sea, Henry Darger,

© ARS, NY. Photo courtesy of the Estate of Henry Darger/Art Resource, NY

Darger was born in Chicago in 1892. His mother died when he was four, and his father, a tailor, was often ill, leaving the boy to run the household. Lonely and awkward, he found comfort in reading L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, the work of Charles Dickens, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin and writing his own versions of these stories. When he was eight years old, his father entered a hospital for indigents, and Henry was sent to the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois. His odd behavior earned him the moniker “Crazy,” and the asylum directors determined that any further education would be a waste. He was put to work. Despite trying to escape several times, Henry remained at the asylum for seven years, neglected and abused. Eventually he made it to Chicago, where he found a job as a dishwasher, bandage roller, and lavatory cleaner at a Catholic hospital. He would work menial jobs for the rest of his life. [End Page 153]

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Young Rebbonna Dorthereans. Blengins. Catherine Isles. One a Whip-Lash-Tail. Females, Henry Darger,

© ARS, NY. Photo courtesy of the Estate of Henry Darger/Art Resource, NY

In the evenings after work, he retreated to his room in Lincoln Park and invented an apocalyptic realm where he was creator and master. He made up for his lack of ability as...


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