Artist Susan Brown shared with me last week that she cannot wait to get back to Pure Vision Arts, the New York City studio she calls her professional home. Located in Chelsea, surrounded by some of the most prestigious galleries in the world, Pure Vision Arts (PVA) is the first artist studio and gallery that supports artists with Autism Spectrum Disorder or intellectual and developmental disability. Proud to hold a respected place among its neighbors, there are approximately twenty-five artists working at PVA producing what is typically referred to as ‘Outsider Art’ or ‘Raw Art’.
The story of “Outsider Art”
The history of ‘Outsider Art’ is traced through the production of visual imagery created by individuals pushed out of the mainstream of society. In the early 20th century, the psychiatric community studied the drawings created by institutionalized patients. These images fascinated Jean Dubuffet, a French painter and sculptor. Dubuffet coined the term ‘raw art” because the artists themselves were not trained or influenced by an outside art world and he interpreted this as ‘uncooked’. Due to this lack of training and awareness about art, these creations were sometimes viewed as an exercise of simply transforming consciousness into imagery.
Raw Art came to be known as Outsider Art in the 1970’s, when Roger Cardinal, an art scholar, used the term as a title for his book. Over time, Outsider Art referred to art created by people who are untrained, have some form of disability, or experience social exclusion.
Outside is the new inside.Dr. Pamala Rogers, Director of Pure Vision Arts
Dr. Pamala Rogers, the director of PVA likes to say, “Outside is the new inside.” Preferring to use the term, “self-taught,” Dr. Rogers emphasizes that the limitations these artists experience in day-to-day living may shape their perspective, but it does not hinder their creative process.
“This is their passion. The Artists have an intensity that can be driven by Autism. They work nights and weekends creating. They have what I call ‘hyperspecificity’ where the stick with what they know and do. We give them high quality materials to work with and this just lets them do what they do bigger and grander and share it with the world.” She notes that much of the work created by the artists at PVA enjoys broad mainstream acceptance. “Many of our artists do pure folk and contemporary art and their work is recognized as such.”
Raw Art success stories: William Britt and Chase Ferguson
The term ‘outsider’ does seem questionable when the artists are showing at museums and galleries around the world, purchased by well-known collectors, or, in the case of William Britt, honored at the Kennedy Center for Outstanding Artistic Achievement. Britt, who is represented by Pure Vision Arts, received this recognition in 1986, along with a poem dedicated in his honor by Maya Angelou:
Fancy a distressed solitude, beyond the grasp of
human reason. So far separate the sounds are like
the noisome clattering of unwelcome guests, and affection
an inexplicable mirage
Fancy that William Britt lived in such a desolation
from the age of five. The magic of puberty and the maelstrom
of adolescence arrived and departed leaving him locked
behind a door that had no key
A miracle happened. Divine imagination and
human concern reached into that barren otherness and
claimed Britt as Special. As Artist. He drew on paper,
on wooden boards and finally on canvas.
The triumph of William Britt is our triumph.
He is telling us our individual stories; despite the
ignorance which imprisons us, and the loneliness of
our lives, each of us can be reached and liberated by
Divine imagination and Human concern.
Greetings to the Special Artist who allows us
all to be special at his side.Maya Angelou
Born in 1935, Britt spent the first thirty-four years of his life in Willowbrook State School due to his developmental disability. An overcrowded, abusive and dangerous environment, he was given paint and paper and encouraged to express his emotions through art. After Willowbrook was closed, he was able to move to a group home and support himself through his art and work as a custodian. Eventually, he moved into his own home and lived independently, supporting himself through his art. Now, at 85-years-old, Dr. Rogers says they like to call him “Grandpa Moses” because of his prolific art practice.
Chase Ferguson, a painter, and sculptor, also represented by PVA, began creating models of cars, trucks, and trains as a small child. “He didn’t have many toys,” Dr. Rogers commented, “So he created them.”
Using cardboard, hot glue, and paint, Ferguson creates miniature, scaled replicas of all transportation forms. Detailed and exact, one of these replicas can be viewed in the New York Transit Museum. Ferguson is known both nationally and internationally, and his work has been acquired for both private and museum collections.
A Vision of Hope
The mission at Pure Vision Arts is ultimately about letting artists create art. “We are not trying to change or cure anyone. We see our artists as possessing a unique gift. Their art has a magical quality and we wouldn’t want to change. It is why or name is Pure Vision.” The greatest challenge to this mission is the exorbitant cost of art supplies. Artists who sell their art through PVA split their commission with the studio. Dr. Rogers describes how the proceeds are used to pay for, “Supplies, framing, art fairs, and art exhibitions –the most expensive parts of the art business. We are a nonprofit. We use the money to support the studio.” PVA also receives numerous grants and donations.
“Pure Vision Arts is about hope and inspiration.”Dr. Pamala Rogers
When people see all of these incredibly creative, gifted individuals who are productive members of society, it allows them to see how autism can be a gift,” Dr. Rogers shared. “Artists are important and deserve to be supported. I hope people will support this art. We’ve made dreams come true for a lot of people.”
Betsy Scotto-Lavino is the Director of Education and Research for The Artistic Fuel Foundation. She is also a Ph.D. student, wife, mother of three, and a nature lover. If you can't find me, I'm probably in the woods.