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 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.

Overwhelmed

Firstly, I’d like to apologise for being so quiet, but basically I’ve been completely and utterly overwhelmed. I’m not sure how I anticipated I would feel after almost 3 weeks in New York researching a subject that’s preoccupied me for years, but the cumulative effect of this experience so far has been both fantastic and yes, overwhelming.

Today I’m having a ‘letting it all sink in’ day. Other Winston Churchill Fellows, with the benefit of experience, told me that I’d need days like this to absorb the experience and to make sense of everything that I’ve heard and seen.

After last weekend spent walking over 40 New York City miles sightseeing with the gorgeous Benjamin (17), my youngest boy, and my ever-brilliant sister, Helen, I had a whole series of visits, meetings and follow-up conversations this week.

On Monday I met with Becca Hoffman, the Director of the Outsider Art Fair both in Paris and here in New York. My first weekend here was spent at the Fair, which Becca tells me, was double the size of the Paris event, which I can quite believe. Now in its 25th year, this year’s Fair was spread across one floor of the Metropolitan Pavilion, there were almost 80 booths, with most selling artworks.

Of course, my conversation with Becca came around to the term “Outsider Art’. We both agreed that we don’t think it’s either the right term or indeed a useful label, but until there is an alternative that can be collectively agreed upon, the Outsider Art Fair will still, well, be called the Outsider Art Fair.

I was interested to hear that the Fair is run pretty much in the same way as every other fair. There is a definite commercial aspect, with a vetting process for those coveted booths and the price for each stand is again, probably a similar cost as it is for every other fair. I was relieved in a way to hear that. I was afraid that allowances were being made and that a patronising virtual pat on the [Outsider] artist’s head was coming…but it wasn’t the case. This is a commercial operation carried out with respect and a great critical eye.

Later that evening I met with Arthur Fournier, an independent dealer of books, serials, manuscripts, and archives, specialising in primary source materials related to the transformative cultural movements of the late 20th century; modern conflicts, disruptive technologies, music and the visual arts. We first met at the film screening on the opening night of the Fair and we agreed to follow-up. I was interested in his thoughts on bodies of work that are discovered posthumously, as this seems to be an aspect of Outsider Art that keeps surfacing in my conversations.

We talk about my research and Arthur tells me that he was currently trying to place an archive of amazing Outsider Art research. We talk about the importance of keeping archived material together as a source of knowledge for future generations with different reasons to revisit the work.

As for work that may be discovered after an artist passes away, we agreed that, as in all fields, this can be an absolute nightmare of litigation. By the very nature of Outsider Art practice, the work is often kept secret, a private retreat, rather than work intended for public consumption. Arthur tells me that in his experience of working with archives, there’s always a rightful owner or custodian if the lawyers look hard enough. Another factor is of course that how such works are viewed, like most artwork, will change over time, and the significance and value, both financially and otherwise, can change enormously.

Arthur brings a different perspective again. We talk about the philosophical aspect of ‘Outsider Art’. I told him that I think the term makes me feel uncomfortable because it focuses on the individual rather than the formal qualities of the artwork. I’m relieved to hear that he agrees.

The following day I attended an event at the Tenement Museum to discuss Ai Wei Wei’s latest work in the public realm here in New York. Ai’s Good Fences Make Good Neighbors project includes over 300 works and installations, at least one of which sits quietly in the shadow of one of the Trump Towers.

 

IMG_5385.jpgThe discussion is powerful and moving and there is consensus that art has the power to express and move us even at the darkest of moments, when migrant communities both here in the US and across the globe are surrounded by a virtual wall of hate-filled rhetoric.

…and it’s only THURSDAY.