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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Writer/Curator/Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project. Contributing Author to Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood, and Concepts of Normality by Wendy Lawson, and soon to be published Gravity Pulls You In. Writing my own book. Lecturer on autism and the media and parenting. Current graduate student Critical Disability Studies and most importantly, mother of Adam -- a new and emerging writer.

“There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope.” -- Baruch Spinoza

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


Outsider Art and the Value of Human Difference

Letter from Van Gogh to Theo, 3 September 1888
"...suffering as I am, I cannot do without something greater than myself, something which is my life -- the power to create….And if, deprived of the physical power, one tries to create thoughts instead of children, one is still very much part of humanity. And in my pictures I want to say something consoling, as music does. I want to paint men and women with a touch of the eternal, whose symbol was once the halo, which we try to convey by the very radiance and vibrancy of our coloring."

There was a time when people who were “mentally ill” were institutionalized -- as Van Gogh was – confined to desolate, sterile places likely made so because the people who lived within them were considered unworthy and barren.

Within the most putrid and lifeless places, the human mind has transcended barriers. Be it a prison for the criminal, or the cell for the so-called “insane,” many pieces of political manifesto, literary works, and visual art have been created. Now take the idea of prison to the human mind, or better said, the confines of physical or neurological impairment, or mental state --works of art can express lucid manifestations of those inner workings otherwise mysterious to an outside onlooker. To the person who creates art, the process is a breaking away, a freedom from those confines, either real or imagined. As Van Gogh alluded, art is like birthing an aspect of ourselves in order to become part of a larger whole. In the case of those with complex disabilities, art production is as much of a freedom to be, as it is a by-product of the Self. Many differently-abled individuals have found solace and esteem through art making. As Van Gogh said, art not only makes one a part of humanity, but it calls for the world’s interaction with both the art and the artist. For the disabled members of our community, many who have complex disabilities (a series of diagnosis’), art is enablement and a validation.

A Brief History of Outsider Art

People have been fascinated with “insane art” since the dawn of psychology as a legitimate field of study. Even Plato and Renaissance artists saw a connection between creativity and insanity, and the idea lay dormant until it resurfaced in the 19th century. As Freud was making breakthroughs as to the inner workings of the mind, in particular, the development of the conscious and subconscious, we have paid some credence to the inner workings of the “insane” mind in a romanticized fashion. As with the rise of modern, abstract art, which left conservative, academic styles behind, the personal style and psyche found its way into public acceptability.

The art of the insane garnered attention in the 1920’s when Dr. Walter Morgenthaler published his book, Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist) on Adolf Wölfi, his psychotic mental patient. Wölfi took up drawing spontaneously and the activity seemed to calm him. An itinerant Swiss farm laborer, Wölfi was institutionalized in Bern when he began to molest young girls and erupt in violent fits of anger. He was prone to hallucinations. Yet, after some years of confinement, he began to draw with no training in the disciplines that came to enter his work: art, music, geography, theology, and science. His vast oeuvre – an epic forty-five volumes in which he narrates his own imaginary life story, 25000 pages, 1600 illustrations and 1500 collages “is an attempt to describe his alternative scheme of the universe and represents, the locus classicus of schizophrenic art.” (Rexer, How to Look at Outsider Art, p. 55)

“While the causes of schizophrenia are most likely developmental and physiological, its effects are psychic and behavioral. At least since the eighteenth century, the display of its symptoms has been considered unacceptable by Western society, and those suffering from it have been cordoned off as much as possible into psychiatric and criminal institutions. Schizophrenic art has generally come to us from such institutions, most recently through art therapy programs. In the past, this artistic production was usually destroyed as a symptom of disease or even as a contributing factor.” (Rexer, p.57).

Of course, this treatment of the work as refuse is akin to how our society once regarded our differently-abled members. It is a clear indication of how we value humanity. Thankfully, the work of Outsiders is gaining respect and notoriety within public spheres, and the art market.

The French artist, Jean Dubuffet was particularly taken with the Bildnerei der Geisteskranken and began his collection of such art which he called Art Brut, or Raw Art. In 1848 he created the Compagnie de l’Art Brut along with André Breton. The collection came to be known as the Collection de l’Art Brut. It is now permanently housed in Lausanne.

Dubuffet characterized l’Art Brut as “those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere – are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professions. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, live so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade.” (from Dubuffet’s, Place á l’incivisme, Make Way for Incivism. Art and Text no.27 December 1987-Feb. 1988, p. 36).

Redefining Human Value

Dubuffet argued that society has asphyxiated genuine expression. The power of art, the heated core of one’s inner universe, cannot be filtered by “culture,” which has managed to assimilate every new development into an intellectual art discourse. Outsider Art-making then, quite the opposite of that executed by art “professionals,” becomes a shift from inscribing the “social codes of language…to action itself…desperate attempts to order the elements of personality.” (Rexer, p.57). Larry Bissonnette, an autistic artist who lives in Burlington, Vermont, finds solace in making art. It is a chance to fluidly express the world as he sees it, without correction. Fully aware that what he is making is art, it is clear that his motivation is the expression itself. This is how he describes one of his pieces:

“Larry leads an existence which promotes passion for colorfully patterned, open to attractions in environment like smokestacks. Past life of institutionalized person lets in novel ideas. Outsiders to this life can’t go out and obtain it. It’s significant that my artistic styles let me express personal perspectives of autistic but intelligent old Vermonter.” (Larry Bissonnette on his own work from Douglas Biklen’s Art and the Myth of the Person Alone, p. 177.)

Clearly, Larry is intelligent. Yet, based on his movements, his outward appearance, acceptance by society is a little more difficult. Larry’s art is the way he can bridge this difficulty, not only to affirm his views and intelligence, but to also bridge preconceived notions about human difference.

Modern art has embraced individuals with mental illness and difference to a degree, and the “modern artist” has come to be equated, stereotypically, with some kind of angst. Mark Rothko, Egon Schiele, Diane Arbus, Vincent Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, and Edward Munch are some who are notoriously associated with their psychiatric conditions. Perhaps because of artists like these, we have come closer to viewing art by individuals with differences as significant for the sheer humanity of it, if not just out of fascination. Possibly, the work serves to break down the invisible barriers that society has built to create an Us and a Them – the “normal” versus the “disabled.”

In contrast, Freud believed that art was evidence of a person’s failure to achieve maturity -- that a fully integrated personality was one that effectively reconciled internal and external demands. Art, for Freud, sublimated unresolved infantile conflicts and wishes into acceptable substitute forms of gratification. All art for Freud was considered pathological or deviant. Beginning in the 19th century, insane art was not only observed, it was promoted. While Freudians swarmed the art to learn about the abnormal mind, artists watched as therapists encouraged art as a way to relinquish stressors and also as a materialistic insight into the strange workings of their disturbed minds, in hopes of finding a cure.” (From Alexander Marra, Outsider Art: The Art of the Insane) Perhaps this approach is a cause of the sensationalist view towards Outsider Art and artists – a gazing from the outside in without engaging or accepting the variety of human functioning, much like a human safely viewing a Gorilla in a cage.

Outsider Art is anything but outside. It can be viewed, if we choose, as effortlessly as looking at human-kind heterogeneously, as “Insider Art,” and as a need for human expression beyond confines and definitions, even those of the art market which seeks to establish a value between “good” art and “bad.” Art is for most, a means to self-actualize and is, as humans are, priceless. Art can de-stigmatize and demystify the labels that otherwise encumber so many members of our society.

Over time, we have come to learn that unlike Freud’s view of absence instead of presence of mind, Outsider Art has indicated intelligence and an internal universe that need not be feared. Art, or other modes of individual expression (it has been said that the computer is for the autistic what sign language is to the deaf) is an equalizer of humans, showing desire, a need for acceptance, awareness, and a means to self-advocate.

Donna Williams

Some people use art to understand themselves, others to communicate when no other source of communication is as effective -- (Donna Williams, Larry Bissonnette, Jonathan Lerman). These artists, as an example, are able to communicate that they are self-aware, intelligent and share their ideas on their autism and society at large. One might say that they help to bridge an understanding “between worlds” – “normal” versus “autistic.” For others still, we will never quite know if they had any idea that there was an audience for their prolific work. (Adolf Wölfi, Henry Darger).

Henry Darger

The fact may be true that for some artists, the audience isn’t of high importance and does not influence production. For other differently-abled artists, outside acceptance is an affirmation that can transition an individual from hopeless to hopeful – an assertion that we can be valued for the work we do. Oliver Sacks calls it enablement of identity. All we need to cultivate is a society that will support that enablement. Art Against Stigma
is the first world-wide program that puts forth the artwork by people with difference so that marginalization of this population can desist, and fear can dissolve.

Jonathan Lerman

In terms of enabling self-awareness and identity, expressive means to communicate can also be a form of self-healing, regulation and an engagement in the process of esteem building. “I paint, therefore I am,” is an assertion that as humans, all of our lives have significance and mark-making is part of being human, an urge as primitive as man’s first mark in the cave.

The beauty of Outsider Art, or art therapy for the differently-abled, is this “free-flow” approach, allowing spontaneous thoughts and action to collide. Jonathan Lerman began drawing suddenly at the age of ten. Allowed to draw freely, Jonathan’s fluid communication method is through charcoal and paper. Once instructed, Lerman’s work begins to look more contrived. This ability to self-teach, to be self-motivated, is in part, the awesome nature of his work. Unobstructed, Jonathan’s vision is not only articulate, it is profound.

Today, Michael Fitzgerald, author of The Genesis of Artistic Creativity: Aspergers Syndrome and the Arts, and others are beginning to acknowledge the fine line between genius, creativity and other mental “conditions.” Many gifts are associated with autism, however, to the point of being stereotyped. Yet, Seneca stated that “no great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.” Shakespeare noted in a Midsummer Night’s Dream that “the lunatic and the lover, and the poet/Are of imagination all compact.” Temple Grandin once said that “it is likely that genius is an abnormality.” (Fitzgerald, p.14). Fitzgerald attempts to define genius into something discovered or executed in a way that fundamentally changes society. He notes that “genius” can occur in a neurotypical or in a disabled person, but within the confines of that paradigm. He believes that a person of “lower IQ” is incapable of genius, thereby providing a very narrow definition and understanding of test performance in people with differing abilities.

In contrast, Paul Collins, author of Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism says:

“A genius must assiduously ignore others in order to be guided by his own curiousity, by a desire to make sense of the world. And can’t the same be said of the light bulb painter? There is no way to know what an immense concentration and radically altered perspective will alight upon. To someone with great focus, the fascination is the point.” (p.214)

Recently, we hear more often of an acknowledgement of ability within so-called “disability.” We discuss genius burrowed within the most disturbed behavior. More importantly, we are learning to value people of all abilities, or differing ones, perhaps highly unusual ones. In so doing, we must not to contradict ourselves by sensationalizing artists and then institutionalizing them as unintelligent, ignorant individuals – “idiot savants” -- requiring mere daily care as an acceptable means to one’s quality of life. We cannot put people on pedestals and then seek to cure them for their abnormality. We must instead alert ourselves to what so-called “outsiders” seek to teach us about the beauty of humanity, and necessity of preserving human difference.

"The only man who behaved sensibly was my tailor; he took my measurement anew every time he saw me, while all the rest went on with their old measurements and expected them to fit me." --George Bernard Shaw

This essay was written for INspire, summer issue.


Blogger r.b. said...

I think that is my favorite of Donna Williams work. Thanks for this wonderful entry.

2:17 PM  
Anonymous outsider said...


2:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your article brings up the point of seeking a commentary of discourse on arts works that should be open to everyone.

Enjoyed your article.



3:44 PM  
Anonymous Camille said...

One thing I find interesting is that there is "real outsider art" and there is faux outsider art where trained artists try to imititate the real stuff.

Autistics can have a unique relationship to color and shape, those things can be perseverations and themes running through their lives, I think maybe more than for other (or most other) disability/abilities. I am stunned by some works of art, but I don't know many others who feel that kind of relationship to art... there's something else going on with our sensory systems that allows a particular kind of appreciation (in music, too)... though others' appreciation is just as valid.

I love art. Thanks, Estee.

I have been thinking about doing a blog entry on esthetics.

4:48 PM  
Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond said...


Good, you (we) should. Reaching the public through the humanities sometimes tells a greater story and illuminates the bigger picture.

4:52 PM  
Anonymous Camille said...


I'd love to see what you would write about esthetics. Is your son attracted to certain shapes/colors?

There's a scene in "32 short films about Glenn Gould" (which YOU MUST SEE if you haven't already) where an actor playing a young teen Gould sits by a radio listening to classical music and sort of relaxing looking off into space, then he wipes some tear from his eyes.

It might sound really corny, but if you see it, it isn't. I think some (if not all) autistics have a real kind of pipleine to the emotional content of music. Even if we aren't all Glenn Goulds.

(everyone must see "32 short films about Glenn Gould", I insist!).

Estee, if you could sell copies at your gala thing, that would be cool.

7:58 PM  
Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond said...

I admit I haven't seen it...but I will now.

Adam is attracted to colours and shapes, I'm not sure about particular ones. And he loves music. Thanks for this and I will take a look this week!

6:41 AM  
Blogger Kristina Chew said...

Perhaps we ought not even to need a term like "outsider" art.

Just art.

4:06 PM  
Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond said...


Yes, I agree. However, in the art world that classifies every kind of art, this is what it is for now. Just like African, European...human beings have a need to construct and classify.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Kristina Chew said...

True, but perhaps that is a "normative" or "normalizing" tendency of humans? Perhaps it would be a good project to break those classifications and boundaries, too?

The outsiders can just as easily be the insiders, I suppose.

5:27 PM  
Blogger Eli's mom said...

Hi Estee-
My son has been drawing and painting since he was about 2 and a half--way before he had any speech. Some drawings are amazingly detailed and very recognizable as people, houses, flowers and animals. Trouble is, many happen on the MagnaDoodle, one swipe and they're gone! Or with sidewalk chalk--gone with the rain.
I am fascinated by his abilities. Any suggested books of art (outsider or otherwise)that HE would find interesting to look at? He's four and a half. I don't think he is a savant, but I love to foster his helpful outlet obsessions. Art is definitely one of the more helpful ones...

camille--I realize you didn't ask me specifically, but my son loves the color green "like the leaves, mom" and his favorite shapes are currently octagon and trapezoid. I don't think he so much cares for the SHAPE of trapezoid as much as enjoys saying it. He will practice drawing the same shape over and over until it's perfect to him. Today he drew a house with four-paned windows--about fifteen of them.

9:46 PM  
Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond said...

Eli's mom,

Wow -- he sounds incredible. Do you take him to the art gallery? I would do that. I would also buy art cards, there are many art books out there to buy too -- buy some used ones so he can wreck them, with big glossy pages of paintings, drawings. You will know which books will grab him. For Adam, he loves Van Gogh. I've found a few good kid books in the US (Museum of Modern Art Store has some good ones -- maybe you can look them up online).

Try giving him different mediums to play with too and see if he takes to paint, crayon, charcoal. Keep him exposed, I would say.

9:19 AM  
Blogger Eli's mom said...

No Art Gallery in our town, sadly. However, he does enjoy going to Hobby Lobby to look at the prints. That will have to do for now!
He loves to paint, but I'm having trouble with figuring out which paints are best for him. Tempera paints have a bad smell that I can't stand, but I put up with it anyway--they are the best for his mixing colors. He likes watercolors and will spend long periods filling the huge sheets of paper we give him. Crayola makes a big size, nice quality paper in a tablet with a handle--called "Get Down and Color!' cracks me up every time I buy it.

9:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your article is fascinating. My son, Kevin who has autism is only 12 years old but is very good at oil painting. He loves texture and mixes the oil with wax or liquen impasto. His pieces are very vivid. Last year he started selling his work. It can be seen at I love to read these stories about other artists with autism.


3:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful article. I am also an outside artist and I work in all mediums using all materials.I have been offered lots of money for my works,but have never capitalized on it,nor do i ever plan to.I believe art should come from the heart,for all to enjoy.I also believe an artist who is taught to be an artist,paints mostly from his or her teachings. Where as,an outside artist paints from the soul.So,call me crazy,but,which would you consider the true art?

8:07 AM  

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