The Man Who Introduced The World To Vivian Maier

I had scheduled a meeting with John Maloof today, but the snow here in Chicago has been falling for most of the night, and when I woke up to the blanket of white outside my 15th floor window, I knew that we were not going to be able to meet in person…so Skype it was!
John Maloof was at the top of my list of people to meet with here in Chicago. For me, as for many, it was the Finding Vivian Maier documentary, directed by Maloof, that first brought her photographs to my attention.

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“Finding Vivian Maier is the critically acclaimed documentary about a mysterious nanny, who secretly took over 100,000 photographs that were hidden in storage lockers and, discovered decades later, is now among the 20th century’s greatest photographers. Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, Maier’s strange and riveting life and art are revealed through never before seen photographs, films, and interviews with dozens who thought they knew her.”
So much has been written about Vivian Maier‘s secretive world of photography that it is no longer the main focus of what I want to speak to John about. I’m most interested in the responsibility that comes with discovering a body of work like Maier’s and how those who bring the work to the attention of the world after an artist has passed away have, both an ethical and a practical burden placed upon them, often unwittingly.

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In this vein, other parallels include the discovery, by Henry Darger’s landlord after his death in 1973, of Darger’s fantastical world of the Story of the Vivian Girls; or Marian Harris who bought the pieces of Morton Bartlett’s world and pieced his dolls together for the world to see.

I asked John Maloof how he feels about his relationship with Maier and her work, ten years after he bought the first box of Maier’s negatives and ephemera: “I feel as if I have a moral responsibility to Vivian and her work and to make sure her work is represented by the best gallery and that we work with the best publisher.”
With the exception of around 10% of her known output, which is now in private hands, Maloof has been able to keep Maier’s body of work together: “Looking at Vivian’s work over time, you can see her street photography technique develops from still, composed shots to capturing people in motion in a much quicker, more sophisticated way. You can also see how she became compulsive about taking pictures of particular subjects like taking photographs of newspaper headlines and newspaper stands. This was probably her way of documenting what was important or interesting to her at the time, just like us taking screen shots of things we want to remember on our phones now.”


Maloof also describes how looking at Maier’s work chronologically shows her work becoming more abstract over time, as well as moving from black and white to colour film photography.

I asked John Maloof about the myth that Vivian Maier never developed any of her photographs in her own life time: “Its just not true. Vivian did develop some of her photographs and she did it herself, although she didn’t actually share the pictures with anyone. One of the most remarkable things for me as an artists and photographer is knowing that Vivian carried on her practice for over 50 years without feedback or encouragement. She did visit other people’s exhibitions and was widely read, but she didn’t get feedback on her work from other photographer, yet continued her work.”

Now, over a decade after Vivian Maier entered John’s life, we talk about where he’s at. “I now have a not-for-profit gallery here in Chicago that champions the work of emerging artists. The artists receive 100% of their sales, although it’s always nice when they do give some money to the gallery to enable others to show their work too.”

I’m also really interested to hear that since discovering Maier’s work, John has started to take his own photographs, using a black and white Rolleiflex, just as Vivian did. He tells me how taking his own photographs has shown him just how difficult good street photography is, but has also given him an increased appreciation for Maier and her work.

 

 

 

 

The Windy…and Snowy City

On Monday I left New York, for the second leg of my Winston Churchill Travel Scholarship research trip to Chicago, which meant that I took the first of two internal USA flights.

It was a little bit like getting on the train to London to be honest, including the fact that people are allowed to travel with cats and dogs! Apparently up to seven cats and dogs are allowed on each flight. Who knew?!

Two hours and 20 minutes after leaving New York I landed at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and decided to share a shuttle taxi to the hotel. I found myself in the middle of a group of people heading to a Postal Convention!

As soon as I left the relative warmth of the Arrival hall, the cold air of Chicago hit me and there was snow as far as I could see. In the shuttle car, the temperature display read -10 degrees.

My 8 fellow passengers, plus the driver and I, hit the highway to downtown Chicago. The roads were really busy because it was rush hour, but everyone was really friendly and completely fascinated by the fact of my Scholarship. In no time I arrived at the hotel and back into the warmth.

After being shown to my room, I opened the curtains to find a wall as my view – a very nice wall, but still a wall. A week of looking at that wasn’t going to be ok, so I paid $20 and upgraded to a front view. As my fourth week of travelling starts, I’ve come to realise that a sense of what’s outside is really important, otherwise you can actually start to feel quite isolated, something I hadn’t actually considered when selecting the hotels for this trip.

So, where and what am I doing during this second leg of my trip? Well, more of the same really – still researching Outsider Art practice and looking at the 5 key areas, although other interesting elements are creeping in, especially the conversations I’ve had about bodies of artwork that are discovered posthumously.

On Wednesday and Saturday, I’m spending the day at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, with curators and artists discussing the approach of the Centre, which was established in 1991, and houses ‘a legendary collection of Outsider art’ including the work of artist Henry Darger.

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Henry Darger’s The Vivian Girls

I’m spending part of Wednesday at the Chicago Health Disparities Centre talking about stigma with Patrick Corrigan, who is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology.  Currently, he is principal investigator of the National Consortium for Stigma and Empowerment. I think it will be a fascinating discussion!

On Friday, snow permitting, I’m spending the afternoon with John Maloof, who made the Oscar nominated documentary Finding Vivian Maier. I’m sure our conversation will include works discovered after an artist dies.

‘Finding Vivian Maier is the critically acclaimed documentary about a mysterious nanny, who secretly took over 100,000 photographs that were hidden in storage lockers and, discovered decades later, is now among the 20th century’s greatest photographers. Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, Maier’s strange and riveting life and art are revealed through never before seen photographs, films, and interviews with dozens who thought they knew her.

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‘Maier’s massive body of work would come to light when in 2007 her work was discovered at a local thrift auction house on Chicago’s Northwest Side. From there, it would eventually impact the world over and change the life of the man who championed her work and brought it to the public eye, John Maloof.
Currently, Vivian Maier’s body of work is being archived and cataloged for the enjoyment of others and for future generations. John Maloof is at the core of this project after reconstructing most of the archive, having been previously dispersed to the various buyers attending that auction. Now, with roughly 90% of her archive reconstructed, Vivian’s work is part of a renaissance in interest in the art of Street Photography’. [http://findingvivianmaier.com]

Sunday will probably be spent trying to squeeze my ever-growing possessions into my case ready for the flight to San Francisco on Monday morning. Leaving New York, at the check in desk, my case was half a kilo over and I had to, embarrassingly, quickly remove some things and put them in my hand luggage!

I’ll update this blog as this week’s meeting end encounters take place.

The Living Museum; A Spot In Paradise

Thursday was a really special day that I had been trying to arrange for a while, but with persistence and after a call out on twitter, bingo – the arrangements were made for me to visit the Living Museum.

Directed by the brilliant Dr Janos Marton, the Living Museum is part of Creedmoor Psychiatric Centre, which takes some getting to from Manhattan! First you take a train into Queens, almost to the end of the line, and after a 45 minute bus ride and several kind strangers later, I arrive at the vast, sprawling Creedmoor site with huge buildings as far as the eye can see.

Once home to more than 7,000 in-patients, the Creedmoor Psychiatric Centre now has 1,600 in-patient beds alongside day patients. Others attend on a less frequent, long-term appointment basis, as well as receiving support in the satellite clinic across New York. Notable patients treated at Creedmoor include Lou Reed and jazz pianist Bud Powell. Legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie, who had been institutionalised for many years while suffering from Huntington’s disease, was transferred to Creedmoor in June 1966 and died there in October 1967.

After witnessing the commercial side of the Outsider Art world at the Fair in Manhattan, I was anticipating to experience the antidote to that, but as soon as I enter the Museum an artist make a beeline for me and offers me her painting for $20. Everyone laughs and she’s half joking, but only half.
I couldn’t have had a warmer welcome into a place that Dr Marton describes as ‘a spot in paradise’ and I have to say it’s hard to disagree with him.
Run by Dr Marton and a group of dedicated volunteers, patients at Creedmoor are able to use the space from 10am -12pm and 2pm – 4pm Monday to Thursday. All the art materials are provided and the space is a safe space where artists, both trained and self-taught, are free to create and express themselves as they wish.

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Walking in, Dr Marton’s desk is in an open space… no door or walls, and people are free to approach him with questions or queries and they frequently do. On his desk is a sprawling collection of cheerful pictures and papers. Opposite is a paper star with pencils and pastel chalks in bowls for artists to use as they wish. One artist is sitting at a table reading one of the many books that are free to use. This room leads to the main ground floor space, with smaller, studio spaces leading from it.

It’s not long before I find myself sitting at a table with three artists who are keen to show me their work and share their stories. The work is brilliant! One artist is known as The Bic Man because he creates intricate designs using just black Bic pens. Drew, as he prefers to be called, had what he calls ‘a regular job’ as a boiler maker, until his depression overwhelmed him and he started to attend Creedmoor. We talk about the importance of his artwork and the space he works in, and he describes feeling exhausted when he leaves after a day at The Living Museum. He compares it to the heavy, lack of motivation he experiences with his depression, “it’s like being up to your neck in mud. When I leave here after a good day I feel exhausted, but it’s the right type of exhausted.’
Nyla works in oils and acrylics and shows me her floral painting. The standard of work is impressive to say the least. Trained at art school, Nyla uses the main room space as much as she can, and there’s real commercial interest in her work.

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We drink tea together and the artists and Dr Marton are keen to hear more about Winston Churchill as an artist and quick-as-you-like Churchill’s watercolours are searched for on a smartphone. The artists like his style and think he would have loved it here.
Dr Marton gives me a tour of the upper floor, and as we walk and talk, the word ‘family’ comes up more than once, and I think that’s it. The atmosphere here is one of respect, dignity and creativity – some of the best traits of a family.
The Garden Room, with Billie Holliday’s image among the undergrowth; the Battle Ground, which is a series of whole room installations, and the sewing room where an artist sits embroidering, all bring a feeling of calm creativity, as well as endless possibilities.

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I wonder how this space can be replicated in the UK? Would our health and safety rules prohibit the scissors and the pencils and the embroidery needles? Would the relative freedom that the artists enjoy be smothered in paperwork or a need to fill out satisfaction surveys, or would this approach have possibilities and find a home?

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All of the artists I have spoken to have talked about the importance of this space in their recovery, but it’s not always plain sailing for some. One of the most impressive spaces in the Living Museum belongs to an artist whose circumstances has meant that he has returned to Creedmoor as an in-patient, which prevents him from using the creative space at the moment. Unlike other spaces, his work isn’t packed away to make space for another artist. Instead, it’s left exactly as it was the last time he painted there, awaiting his return.

Why I’m Here in New York

I can’t believe it’s almost a year since I wrote this blog post for the Huffington Post describing the areas of Outsider Art that I’m hoping to look at during my time in the US and Japan.

Things have developed since then, but the basic premise is still the same.

A Letter From Winston Churchill

15/03/2017 10:40 GMT | Updated 15/03/2017 10:40 GMT

It seemed to take forever for the letter to arrive, but when it did it was worth the wait: “Dear Angela, I am delighted to let you know that you have been awarded a 2017 Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. Very many congratulations. 2017-03-13-1489417885-6761645-IMG_9371.JPG

 

Those words mark the start of an exciting adventure! The letter went on to invite me to attend a seminar just a few weeks later, during which I would meet the other successful recipients along with Churchill Fellows who had completed their travels this past year.

Weeks before, as I sat waiting to be called into my final Churchill interview, I met one of my fellow applicants who was also waiting to be called in. Despite our nerves, we started talking about our projects and right there and then. I remember thinking ‘If I don’t get my project funding I really hope she does’. Her project was to travel to the USA to research culturally appropriate services for black women with multiple complex needs. You can imagine the smile on my face when I walked into the seminar for successful applicants to see her familiar face as I walked in. It was her – Geraldine Esdailee.

The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust states that it funds individuals from the UK to “Travel to learn – return to inspire. We fund British citizens to investigate inspiring practice in other countries, and return with innovative ideas for the benefit of people across the UK”. This year has awarded 150 Travelling Fellowships across the UK totalling £1.4 million. The Fellows will be travelling to 49 countries between them, across six continents, where they will carry out a wide range of projects, designed to benefit their communities and professions in the UK. The average length of a Fellowship is six weeks, but I will probably be away for closer to eight.

My project will bring together my experience of working both in mental health and the Arts as I visit New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Tokyo to look at Outsider Art practice. The definition of Outsider Art is often subject to debate as discussed by Priscilla Frank in What Is The Meaning Of Outsider Art? The Genre With A Story, Not A Style. First used in 1972 by Roger Cardinal as the title of his book, Outsider Art was an exact translation of the term ‘Art Brut’ used to describe artwork produced by untrained artists since 1948.

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Some have argued that the term Outsider Art is itself exclusive and not inclusive, serving as a divisive term rather than a useful label. Outsider Art is often viewed as work produced not only by formally untrained artists, but also by those who often face physical or mental health challenges.

As you can imagine, it would be impossible to thoroughly investigate all Outsider Art in just 7 weeks, so the scope of my work will specifically look at Outsider Artists with mental health challenges, exploring 5 specific aspects;

1. Is the label Outsider Art useful? Does it help us to navigate the complex intersections between health and creativity, work and wellbeing, mainstream and marginality?

2. How is Outsider Art best curated? Should convention mean diagnosis/biographical details are included on labels and interpretation?

3. What are the ethical and moral considerations of exhibiting Outsider Art, especially in a commercial setting, managing finances, the expectations of the artist and the gallery?

4. What are the clinical and therapeutic implications of Outsider Art? What is the source of the tension between formal art therapy and facilitating Outsider Art. Should we in the UK adopt a non-interventionist approach?

5. Should Outsider Art be more closely aligned with public health services in the UK as it is in Japan? How/should we make this happen?

…and so my journey begins, almost 10 months before my first plane takes off in January 2018. It will be almost a year filled with forging links in the places I’ll visit; talking to artists, curators and mental health professionals working in the field in the UK and making sure I can share what I witness in the USA and Japan when I return.

 

Why ‘The Art That Doesn’t Know Its Name’?

Yes, it’s an unusual name for a blog, so I thought I’d explain where it came from.
On the first night I arrived here in New York, on my Travel Scholarship, I was invited to the premiere of Eternity Has No Door Of Escape, a fascinating film by Director Arthur Borgins, which charts the history of Outsider Art:

Outsider art challenges established art historical categories and artistic movements. A translation of the French “art brut”, a term coined by Jean Dubuffet in the aftermath of the Second World War, this label was applied to works produced by artists suffering from mental illness, practitioners of Spiritism, and self-taught visionaries. It compels us to question our aesthetic and cultural norms, and the place attributed to madness in our society. This documentary retraces the tumultuous history of art brut and introduces us to some of its pivotal figures Jean Dubuffet, André Breton, Hans Prinzhorn, Harald Szeemann… based on analyses, interviews, and a treasure trove of rare archival footage, often previously unreleased. It allows us to encounter leading experts in the field, and the key places and institutions where its history unfolded and continues to unfold, in France, Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium. This documentary is also an invitation to lose ourselves in a maze of universes beyond logic and reason, in the works of Adolf Wölfli, Aloïse Corbaz, Augustin Lesage, August Natterer… Art brut is too often overlooked by art history. This documentary allows us to make the acquaintance of this enigmatic, disquieting stranger, and to raise questions about the mysteries of artistic creation.

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The film was a trip through most, but not all, of the significant historic moments that have helped to position this type of work in the contemporary art world today. There is a definite European, particularly French, focus which was both welcomed and informative.

 

Following the viewing, there was a Q & A session with New York based art dealer, curator and author Jane Kallir, Harvard’s Raphael Koenig and the film’s Director Arthur Borgins. It was during this discussion that an audience member asked the panel about how useful the term Outsider Art was in categorising this type of art work. Taking a deep breath, Chair of the discussion Koenig described this inevitable part of the Q & A as term warfare. Jane Kallir added that “this discussion has been going on for years and I suppose this is still the art that doesn’t know its name.’

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Of course, she was right. This debate has gone on for years with terms like Art Brut, Visionary Art, Outsider Art, Non-Academic Art, Self-Taught Art….all being used to describe this type of work and it’s artists’ various iterations. Each name seems loaded, not in a way that the artists feel comfortable or happy with, but rather to encapsulate what the art market or the dealers need – a catch-all phrase that brings together a critical mass of diverse work that is now unified in the international Outsider Art Fairs in Paris and New York – which incidentally is the starting point for my trip.
From all that I’ve read and seen, I still feel that none of these terms actually fully encompass the work. An alternative view of Outsider Art is ‘You know it when you see it’, which I admit isn’t a satisfactory theoretical or scientific way to categorise artwork.
Later this week I’m meeting with Becca Hoffman, the Director of the Outsider Art Fairs, to get her take on the name and contemporary definition of Outsider Art. I’ll report back after our conversation.

 

Walking In Agnes Martin’s Shoes

Agnes Martin is an artist who has always held a strange fascination for me and as I write this I’m sitting in a coffee shop opposite her old studio at 3 Coenties Slip, New York. I could actually cry at any second. Although I’ve wanted to sit in this exact spot for many years, I never expected to feel so emotional when it actually happened. Maybe I was a bit naive. I’ll admit that I’ve actually google street-viewed this exact spot so many times that my search history probably indicates me as obsessive.

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Agnes Martin’s Studio today 3-5 Coenties Slip, New York
Really, it was my fascination with her grid paintings that first sparked my interest in so-called Outsider Art and those who make work that falls into this diverse category. I always knew that there was something about Agnes that no one seemed to be talking about, and it was during my research for my Masters in Art History and Curating, that I decided to write my dissertation about Martin’s work. I was fortunate that Frances Morris, now Director of Tate Modern, shared my fascination and was researching Martin at the same time I was. Mine was dissertation research, but Frances’ was for the Agnes Martin retrospective at Tate. Frances’ knew that it was hard, almost impossible, to find the information I needed, and in one of the greatest acts of kindness I’ve ever been shown, she gave me access to her research – a shelf in her office with everything that you could ever wish for. I was like a child in an Agnes Martin sweet shop!

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SILVER PRINT, 18 X 17 IN. GIFT OF D. FREDERICK BAKER FROM THE BAKER/PISANO COLLECTION, 2012.1.50
Agnes Martin by Diane Arbus (1966)
It was during this time that I read about Martin’s diagnosis of Schizophrenia for the first time. Everything dropped into place. The missing episodes in her biography. The periods spent in hospital. The way Martin talked about the ‘inspiration’ that sent paintings to her as fully formed images, the size of postage stamps which she re-drafted onto canvas. The mystery about why she left New York so abruptly in 1967. Decades later Martin said, “I left New York because every day I suddenly felt I wanted to die and it was connected with painting. It took me several years to find out that the cause was an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.”
Sometimes curators fall into the trap of pathologising art work once they discover that an artist has a mental health diagnosis. They believe that the paintings have been produced because of the diagnosis as opposed to the mental health issue playing some part, but not all parts. In a way, it’s a good thing that Agnes kept her Schizophrenia secret from all but a few of her close friends. That way, her work has been protected for many years from this pathologising, and I hope it stay that way. Agnes Martin did not produce her work because of her Schizophrenia, but I do wonder whether her work provided some kind of coping mechanism, or had a therapeutic effect. When you look at Martin’s paintings, the canvas is so controlled that it may have provided her with a level of control that fell outside of Martin’s everyday exprience as someone hearing command voices that she didn’t feel in control of.
Yesterday I visited the New York Outsider Art Fair. Many pieces of the work shown by the over 80 participating galleries was made by artists with a mental health diagnosis and I was really relieved to see that the agents and gallerists behaved more or less in exactly the same way as they have in every other art fair I’ve ever attended. They were definitely interested in sales and definitely looking over my shoulder to see if anyone interesting was coming through the door after me. I was worried that the same pathologising that Martin sometimes suffers, would be apparent here and that the work would be talked about in hushed, patronising tones, but nothing could be further from the truth. Red dots appeared more often than I’ve seen in other Fairs and probably a similar number of artists were there too, speaking for themselves and enthusiastically describing their artworks.

Treatment for Schizophrenia was still archaic in 1957 and Martin’s diagnosis must have seemed heavy with the weight of the stigma of the day. As I sit here looking up at the studio she was brought back to after her hospitalisation and ECT treatment at Bellevue Hospital, I wonder how she found the emotional strength and tenacity to pick up a paintbrush again.

There is something so moving about walking up this street where she would have walked after she was released from hospital and that she walked down for the last time when she decided to leave The Slip for the last time. I suppose when we breathe the same air they did, it somehow brings us closer to them. I don’t think I’ll forget this afternoon for a long time.

…and so the journey begins.

It seems like a lifetime ago since in 2017 I was given a Winston Churchill Travel Scholarship. Now, it’s 2018 and I’m sitting writing this in a hotel in New York and I can’t quite believe it.

When you apply to the Churchill Trust it’s with a specific project in mind. For me it was a real opportunity to investigate an area of the art world that I’d been interested in for a long time – Outsider Art. Some call it Art Brut, others call in Visionary Art…it’s a discussion we’ll have later.

For a long time the two paths of my life, art and mental health, have run parallel to each other, crossing now and again, but really existing in isolation. For several years I’d been working in the arts while also working in suicide prevention. It was really only when I worked on a photographic exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool that I started to think seriously about bringing the two worlds together.

The same year I left the Walker Art Gallery where I’d been running the John Moores Painting Prize, I made a documentary with the BBC and also complete my Art History and Curating Masters – see what I mean about the two worlds running parallel!

The Trust gave me a grant that allowed me to visit New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Tokyo, Kyoto and Shiga investigating Outsider Art practice. I’ll be sharing my experiences here. My first stop is a pilgrimage to the old studio of my favourite painter…Agnes Martin.