What do a doctor from Vermont, a trained photo lab technician from Oregon and an Arizona-born cartographer have in common? They make fine art, some of which is hanging in a Boise gallery—but they didn't go to school to learn how.
Artists without art degrees are known in the gallery world as "self-taught," a designation that carries both pride and a certain stigma. Stewart Gallery in Boise is celebrating the challenges and triumphs of self-taught artists this summer with an invitational show titled Self Taught, which runs through Thursday, Aug. 31. The exhibition features work by Wesley Anderegg, Larry Calkins, A.W. Gimbi, Laurie Heinz, Benjamin Jones, Pam Keely, Christopher Powell, Terry Turell, Peter Thomashow and Stewart Gallery co-owner Stephanie Wilde.
The work of self-taught artists lives on the spectrum between that of "traditional" and "outsider" artists, like the late Idahoan James Castle, who had only raw creativity to work with. While outsider artists often live and work on the edges of society, self-taught artists—often highly educated in other areas and industries—move at the edges of the art world. Because they aren't classically trained in traditional art techniques, their work tends to be experimental and may feature unusual materials and methods: pieces of old books pasted next to paper dolls (Powell); or foraged scraps of metal, cloth and wood painted with dyed beeswax (Calkins), for example. It can be a deterrent for traditional gallery owners and consumers.
"Self-taught is moving into that outsider world," said Wilde, who has been producing self-taught art since dropping out of Weber State University more than 30 years ago. "I had a lot of resistance from galleries [when I started out]; I didn't have galleries that really had interest in my work...Then I realized that museums were more interested in my work perhaps than the buyer, because they're not looking for a market, they're looking for work that they can show and share with their audience. So, I went through the back door with art centers and museums, and once that happened, then collections started to happen, and that's the way I was able to survive."
Having found the door, Wilde wants to open it for other self-taught artists by familiarizing collectors with the genre. After showing her work at the Outsider Art Fair in New York, Wilde decided to put together an exhibit of self-taught artists—many of whom she encountered there—who have broken into the inner circle with pieces on display in museums, galleries and private collections.
"It's nice for people to understand that there's a whole history for these types of people and this type of work that we're not really aware of," Wilde said.
Although Wilde has found success as a self-taught artist, she still sees art school as a good option, worried only that it may stifle the strong sense of identity that is often the hallmark of self-taught work.
"The only downfall [of attending art school] is if you become the product of your professor; when you're young and longing for acknowledgement, so you start doing what you're told," Wilde said. "Just hold steady, because you'll come out on the other end."
Apart from being works by self-taught artists, a tightly held individuality is one of the few things the pieces on display at Stewart Gallery have in common—they run the gamut from crudely constructed wooden animals to delicately refined etchings. While some pieces are staid and monochromatic, others are suffused with circus-clown shades. The odd dichotomy isn't an issue for Wilde.
"This gallery has never been motivated by the market," she said, gesturing around at the spare, white-walled space dotted with the mismatched sculptures and sketches. "It's our responsibility to bring work here that we'd love to share but is also important for the community to see. It might not be for everyone, but it's important for people to see it."