For the last seven years, the sound and the sights of the Mississippi Delta have been found in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the House of Blues.
Carole Crittenden will tell you: "There's no question that the South has percolated this American art form both in blues and visually in outsider art."
Crittenden is a curator who has assembled the 7,000-piece House of Blues outsider art collection, which hangs on the walls of the chain's six restaurants and clubs.
Says Crittenden, "Most of these artists just love what they do and they're not self-conscious about it at all. They love the creation process. Just like in music. I think it's a vehicle or an instrument, whether it's art or music, it's their expression. I think there's a great freedom in that."
Both late at night, amid beer and jambalaya, and during the day, before a group of fifth graders, staffers at the House of Blues are missionaries for outsider art.
"Outsider art is self-taught art," a teacher tells a class. "These artists, you know, didn't go to school to become artists. And a lot of time, they're not even really sure that that's what they are. They use it to express themselves, express how they personally feel about their relationships with God, and about social situations."
Nellie Mae Rowe was an artist of deep faith and spirituality. Filmmakers from The Center for Southern Folk Lore videotaped her at work and at play before her death in 1982. Rowe left behind a collection of paintings, dolls, and sculpture that bridge two confusing but complementary categories: outsider art and the more traditional folk art.
Lee Kogan, curator of an exhibit of Rowe's work, explains: "It's rooted in her life as an African-American, southern, a woman, 1900 to 1982 from Georgia. So that there are customs, traditions, beliefs and so on that are rooted in community. That's the folk aspect. But the outsider aspect would be that aspect that's singular, that's individual, that's personal."
The exhibit of Rowe's work is on display at New York City's Museum of American Folk Art until mid-May. Like many collectors and critics, Kogan finds the term "outsider art" slightly distasteful.
Says Kogan, "We don't prefer using the term 'outsider.' We think of it as a marginalizing term."
Yet Kogan agrees that Rowe's work does fit the textbook definition of outsider art. "First of all, she created an alternate world," she says. "What is an altrnate world? The place, her home, was decorated, completely embellished, inside and outside."
Rowe sculpted all sorts of things. "She was, as one would say, obsessive," says Kogan. "She did this activity every day and spent most of the parts of the day doing this. She used everyday material - crayons, papers, ballpoint pens, felt-tip markers, and chewing gum, which she used in her sculpture."
Whatever it's called, Rowe's work is wildly popular.
What is it that attracts people to the outsider art created by Rowe and others? Kogan says "It's catchy. It's different. And perhaps it says something about what is not happening in the contemporary art world."
Outsider art is indeed catching on. For the seventh year in a row, New Yorkers braved a snowy January weekend to flock to the Outsider Art Fair, the city's largest exhibit and sale of this type of art.
One attendee, Tori Winn, says: "This is nourishment. This is great. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I look forward to this every year."
Barry Fleck was also there. Why does this art speak to him? Fleck says it's "because it's not mainstream. It's people who are doing things basically with what they have, with what they can find around them, is my understanding, and they just turn it into something beautiful."
For Sheryl Collier, it is "because they're not trained; it is actually sort of a divine intervention if you will. And so when you look at the art you can see some recurring patterns and so you never get tired of looking at it."
Intensity and spirituality are obvious in the work of Howard Finster. He says: "I get my inspiration from God. I had visions..I've been having visions ever since I was a small kid."
The 81-year old minister from Alabama says he thinks his ministry with his art has been far more successful than his ministry in the pulpit.
Says Finster, "I asked my church where I've been 15 years - I asked them that night what I preached to them that morning, and there wasn't a person could remember my text.. And I just said to myself, 'God, I've got to reach more people'."
So far, Finster has produced some 48,000 works. He's one of Carole Crittenden's favorites at The House of Blues.
"People love his work," Crittenden says. "He's an interesting human being. I think in this society, as we approach the millennium, there's a certain amount of religiousness and a real human factor that people really react to."
This art, she continues, is "simply whatever is beautiful, whatever is descriptive of the African-American culture, of the blues, of the process of invention. What a great thing to just be able to buy what is beautiful or great or moving."
For more on the Nellie Mae Brown exhibit in New York, go to the Museum of American Flk Art site.
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