At its core, the St. Louis Outsider Art Fair is less about art insiders and outsiders than it is about belonging. Shana Norton has organized and grown this inclusive art event over the past three years. This year the fair is sponsored solely by the nonprofit organization Resources for Human Development – Missouri (RHD-MO).
The circle encompassing these artists is very wide. Artists and art organizations from all over the country have answered the call for submissions, not with lists of their previous successes, though perhaps with what would be an anti-resume in the art world. Their work is as varied as they are.
The term “outsider art” has a complex history. The conceptual origin of recognizing unknown artists who work outside of art institutions can be traced to French painter Jean Dubuffet (1901-85). Dubuffet referred to art created by artists who had not received formal training as “art brut.” Yet, the appearance of self-taught “genius” artists predates Dubuffet.
Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) was a customs officer in France when he was “discovered.” During Rousseau’s lifetime he was often ridiculed and his paintings were referred to as “naïve” or “primitive,” but his style was greatly influential on following generations of artists.
Today the more general term, “outsider” includes artists whose practice is guided as a form of art therapy, as the artists working for RHD-MO. Reclusive artists or artists living on the margins of society are also placed under this umbrella of “Outsiders.”
Jackie Lewis-Harris of the University of Missouri-St. Louis brought the largely unknown paintings of self-taught East St. Louis artist Abraham Lincoln Walker (1921-93) to the Outsider Art Fair last year. Lincoln Walker reportedly told his wife that spirits would wake him in the middle of the night and urge him to go paint. He refused to consult art instruction books or to take classes, as he believed training might muddy his vision. Norton is pleased to again include Lincoln Walker’s work this year.
But Norton does not present the art at the Outsider Art Fair as representative of the artists’ biographies. She does not include didactic material about the artists, though they may choose to do so themselves. Her interest is in showing compelling art and in showcasing that work.
Tim Ayres’ Koken Art Factory is the perfect venue for the Outsider Art Fair. The event takes place in the Pingle Building, one of the larger buildings in the expansive industrial complex that Ayres has developed in the Benton Park neighborhood. Koken was once a manufacturing center for Koken barber chairs (picture plush leather, chrome and porcelain thrones with ashtrays built into the armrests). Today, the space feels edgy and underground. Like the art celebrated at this event, the Koken complex is raw and exciting.
Norton has found that organizing spring events in St. Louis is forever challenging. This city bursts into action as the trees come into bloom. No weekend is without conflicting events. This year the Saint Louis Outsider Art Fair is an official celebration partner with St. Louis 250 and it’s just around the corner from the Cinco de Mayo festivities, so attendees can check off multiple cultural accomplishments in one fell swoop. In addition, the Broadway Oyster Bar will cater both days of the Fair and the Southside Jazz Trio will perform on opening night.
Where: Koken Art Factory, Pingle Building, 2655 Victor, St. Louis 63104
When: Friday, May 2, 6-10 p.m. and Saturday, May 3, 12-5 p.m.
Cost: $5 suggested donation
Related Events: Thursday, May 1, is installation day. Norton is looking for volunteers.