Primitivism in Outsider Art: Pottery and Sculpture.

Article presented at the International academic research conference

“From Crafts to Art. Ceramics: Technology, Decor, Style”. 22–25 May, 2018

International academic research conference provided by St. Petersburg Stieglitz State Academy of Art And Design, State Hermitage Museum and Institute of History of Material Culture RAS in May 22–25, 2018.

Primitivism in Outsider Art: Pottery and Sculpture.

By Ana Karen González Barajas


Pottery; Outsider Art; Primitivism; Figurative; Disabilities; Mental Illness

        This paper explores the figurative forms and primitivism in outsider art. As well as the motivations of why an oeuvre was made, as well as the similitudes and differences between the contexts of creation. While current bibliographies primarily observe some technics, including pottery, as one of the technics used by outsider artists[1] around the world, reveals a recurring connection between some artists and pottery. Secondary literature reflects the constant primitivism observed in this type of art, and relates creative process and motivation of creation. Some creators add a singular meaning to the oeuvre, for example Shinichi Sawada, diagnosed with autism, creates figures of his own personal mythology, it remains the roots of the meaning of the magical relation between man and clay. Exemplifies the aesthetic aspects of the necessity of making figurative forms by the nature of the creator’s contexts, this aspect not only claims about that there is still the necessity of self-representation, but also the significant of the use of pottery as a therapy. This paper argues for consider pottery in outsider art, one of the most primitive manifestations of nowadays creations and claims for its applications in therapy and human development.

At first sight, creative configuration is extremely crucial to contemplate sculpture and ceramics in Outsider Art. The connections between the artist and oeuvre are important to analyze in order to better understand the creative process. In these expressions the figurative way of portrayal is crucial, because of the constant necessity of people to create self-representations.

This necessity can be observed in the first representations of man as it was in prehistoric art and other ancient cultures. The use of ceramics is known since the Neolithic period, it was used for storage purposes. However, the source of every artistic activity is the necessity to decorate, and is not an exception with the tools used to survive as species. As Gustav Theodor Fechner explains in the theory of Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure, people tend to prefer things where they are familiar. It also seems to happen in representational aspects, for example the first doodles created by children are themselves, their close family, and other figurative aspects that they see in their daily life.

It is necessary to understand Outsider Art and observe figurative representations of this topic. It is frequent to find the nature of this context with how is this art is realized. Outsider Art is a term first used by Roger Cardinal around 1960. The phrase comes from the term art brut, artistic movement initialized by Jean Dubuffet in 1939 “we understand as such the works made by people not affected by the artistic culture in which the mimicry, contrary to what happens with the intellectuals, almost do not participate or do not have it at all, so that their authors get everything from their own resources and not the clichés and the frivolities of classic art or the one in fashion … the artistic operation totally pure, in the rough, reinvented … by the author when feeling his impulses … the art where it manifests the sole function of inventiveness, and not those others, constants in cultural art, of the chameleon, and of the monkey.” [Carpintero 2004:15].

Theoreticians like Michel Thevoz described art brut as “consists of works produced by people who were not indoctrinated or socially integrated, who work outside the art system. Affirms that they produce from the depths of their own personalities and for themselves and nobody else, they are not based on traditions or fashions”. Most of the creators related with Outsider Art are self-taught artist, present mental illness, functional diversity or they live in precarious situations. Most of their creative manifestations tend to be intrinsic for the artists, the artist tend to have a vital relationship with the oeuvre and shows a diaphanous way of expression.

There are many manifestations of Outsider Art utilizing different technics, from painting, textiles, sculptures, architecture, and those are just some of the forms we often see. There are some examples that focus on three-dimensional representations like sculpture, pottery, and architecture; sometimes they can be seen like a combination of both sculpture and architecture. Juan Antonio Ramírez use the term “Escultecturas Margivagantes”, referring to the creations that are marginal and extravagant architecture-sculptures.

In some of these representations it is common to find concrete as a principal material, a well, recycled materials and other mediums that come from natural sources like mud that also connects with deep roots. It is observed that the material doesn’t change the intention of the creation, this factor depends more in the accessibility of it.

For that reason and others that are going to be exposed, pottery claims to be the nowadays-closest representation of authentic primitive aesthetics and also preserves the magical-religious significance with art. In addition, humans have been exploring through materials related with mud, its well know that humans have a tendency to copy, this is why is inferred that these materials are preferred to use to achieve more realistic representations.

On top of that, the function of art has been evolving; it was used for survival as well as to represent ideological elements, later becoming a way to make decorations and art. On one hand this evolution has not been perceived only in traditional art but also in vernacular types or art, as is Outsider Art. On the other hand, some of the artist related with Outsider Art possesses particular forms of expression; some of them are associated with the mental diversity and illness. It have been observed that some of theses conditions can be an example of how art can form another kind of language and expression, but also, it can been used as therapy.

Secondly, the mud has been a significant material for centuries. Different cultures have shown archetypal forms of use of the mud for insufflate life around the world. It is a constant material mentioned in the histories of different ancient cultures like Egypt and Mesopotamia. In America it was also used by the K’iche’ people, as is described in Popol Vuh, a narrative that recounts the mythology and history of the mayan K’iche’ culture. This narrative says, “Let us try again before the first sowing, before the dawn approaches. Let us make a provider, a sustainer for us” [Anonym N.Y: 66]. Although Muhammad states that Adam, that means “red earth” in Hebrew, was created by God from clay. Othe myths like that of the Golem, talks about this representation becomeing the matter in life.

The mud have been not only the protagonist of the creation of life in ancient cultures, but also a part of the imagery of one of the materials before the world was created as Aztecs describe “…there was only mud and slime on the surface of the earth” [Portilla 1980:145]. This means that also mud was considered the first material in the world for Aztecs. This achetypal coincidences are shown in the language, as Matter comes from the Greek hyle, that comes from the latin of illus that means mud.

As it was in ancient cultures, some outisider artists have chose techniques that implies volume, as its ceramics. As other techniques used in Outsider Art, ceramics are used as a therapy and a way to endure dissabilities of different kinds. In order to explore new capabilities and inner worlds that are not always understood. People with funtional diversity as in authism are still not well accepted in many societies.

sinichi sawada

Shinichi Sawada.

Such as Shinichi Sawada (1982), he is an artist diagnosed with autism that was born in Shiga Prefecture in Japan. He studied in a specialized school, and later he was received in an institution for the mentally disabled, and employed in the bakery of this institution. He and other patients started to attend a workshop out of the institution, where they were taught to work with clay. Later, the professor, in order to encourage them to keep learning, built a potter cabin, where he started to develop his creations.

It is common to observe in people diagnosed with autism that they find refuge in their favorite stories and topics of interest, making their own mythologies. Some of them can be inspired in stories that already exist or make their own interpretation of it, developing new parallel stories and theories. The art made by people with autism tend to be figurative or with anthropomorphous characteristics. It also can be found cases that work with abstract representations and are common to be associated with severe cases of autism.

In the case of Shinichi Sawada, his creations are based on his personal mythology. There are clay sculptures related with monsters and his interpretation of animals. The form of his figures tend to be cylindrical and circular, they have many legs and arms and are replete of spikes. This action of making a large amount of spikes shows an incline to repeat an action. The repetition is constantly observed in Outsider Art in different ways, it can be a repetition of symbols, actions, patterns, materials, topics and motives. All of which can have direct relation with compulsive behaviors.

In the instance of Shinichi Sawada, Sawada normally makes every detail of his creations with his hands in a process that can take him several days; he goes two days per week to the pottery studio in order to make his creations. For the more complicated processes, like using the kiln he is helped by the employees of the workshop.


337ec4e4d42bf8350e53548e750b511d--shiga-art-brut SAWADA-2-1  fc934b0e-2fda-4c89-959e-706b5c741d77_1_0

Shinichi Sawada.

Despite his congenital handicap and his hardship speaking, his work is full with a charge of energy and can communicate all he has in his inner world. His own mythology is now not only part of his thoughts but he had metaphorically insufflated life to them through clay. This is exactly like how ancient cultures used to put form to their beliefs.

In addition, its necessary to recall that not all outsider artists present a mental illness or disability, as having one doesn’t make an artist. This fact can be confused and misunderstood. The necessity of the classification of Outsider Art outside of traditional art, it is primordial to be interpreted in a different way. For contemplation of Outsider Art it is necessary to know the context of how the oeuvre was made. This implies knowing the biography of the artist and about aspects that can help to understand the creative process.

There are other artists that present other different functional diversities like Down syndrome. In addition to the physical characteristics this genetic condition presents, they present other psychological characteristics, as with autism, they tend to show these patterns in their creative works.

Many people with Down syndrome have the facility of imitative humor and mime. This factor is crucial when figurative representations are made, in addition, they tend to process visual information better, this can also affirm why its more common to see this type of representation on their creative work.

The use of narrative is constant in their work; sometimes they are the voice of their devotions, magic relation with objects, loved ones and religious ceremonies or beliefs.

Untitled (S0404) Sylvia Fragoso Sylvia+Fragoso silvia fragosoSylvia Fragoso.

As with the work of Sylvia Fragoso (1962), she started attending a progressive art studio named NIAD in Richmond, California, making thousands of clay sculptures and drawings over the last 30 years. Her principal motive is her devotion to Catholicism, she testifies by making intuitive sculptures related with the religion, that also shows the magical relation that she haves with the objects she makes. There is a power that the repetition forms produce, it can be seen as a way to reaffirm her believes, but also gives to the process a ritualistic factor, that can make, in her inner philosophy, to give power to the object. She is also is inspired by spiritual monuments related with her religion.

Untitled (D0747) Slvia FragosoSylvia Fragoso drawing.

This magical relation that she has with her creations, reminds the work of Judith Scott, she had Down syndrome and she was deaf and mute. There are similar connections with both creators as well as their functional diversity, one is that she started to develop her expressions in a creative workshop, in this case was the Creative Growth Art Center in California and that she used to choose objects to wrap them with wooden fibers, leaving a special object in the middle. Her sculptures remind of a cocoon, and the process could be compared with a metamorphosis, when she started to create these sculptures she changed the way she dressed and began to use hats, likely to reinforce her self-confidence, and by discovering art after two years of attending the creative center after spending 35 years in a mental health institution.

Silvia Fragoso started producing when she was roughly twenty years old. Attending an art program was necessary to make her discover these types of activities. It encourage her to star creating and make these production embedded with her own originality. It is daunting to think about all the talents that are not discovered and many people with mentally disabilities don’t have the opportunity to show these sublime abilities.

There are other cases like is the Lanier Meaders (1917-1998), that are far from the topic of disabilities. Outsider Art can have a relation with self-taught art and folk art. This is an example of an artisanal work; he made his pottery an art. The tradition of pottery was learned in Meaders family from three generations in the community of Mossy Creek, Georgia, in 1893, employing his family. His family used materials indigenous to the region, creating pieces in earth-brown, olive-green and rust-gray and worked with a foot-powered treadle wheel and a wood-fired kiln.

Furthermore, his work is distinct mostly by his face jugs sometimes double faced, with different type of faces, made by combining different colors of clay. His face jugs remind the aesthetics of similar face jugs that were produced by African-American slaves. They were made for spiritual reasons and used as grave markers. Some of them where made to mimic slave owners. Some of his face jars and candelabra´s he also made represent not just people with hard facial expressions but also devils. His work reminds the work of Son Ford Thomas (1926-1993), from Eden, Mississippi, who was a blues musician and folk artist, who stated that, “we all end up in the clay”. His sculptures were made by unfired clay, as were the ones of Lanier Meaders, he tended to use clay from the Yazoo River.

SAAM-2015.58.14_1 download download-1

Lanier Meaders.

The work of Meaders has a lot of energetic charge that also contain a certain spiritual power that remits the connection between man and the earth. The aesthetics of his works bring to mind primitive cultures that had the tendency to represent similar feeling. It shows that artisanal and traditional technics can be explored in our impulse to create, making a more personalized work.

In addition, there are some cases in Outsider Art that are not only pleased by make singular place, but they made their own architectonical environment. Most of these places use mosaic art as a tool, like the outsider constructions of Howard Finnister (1916-2001) and Anado MacLauchlin (1947), both of whom have a spiritual purpose to their creations. Howard Finister was inspired by God to build a Paradise Garden in Summerville Georgia, that he filled with 46,000 pieces of art. Anado MacLauclin is an American expatriate living in Mexico that decided to devote himself to his art and built The Chapel of Jimmy Ray dedicated to his father.

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Lanier Meaders.                                                                                 

All of the artists mentioned in this paper, have found their place in the word through art, there are plenty of other cases that share in common creativity plastered by clay and its variants.

Finally, the art through ceramics creates an intimate space between the artist and the oeuvre. These creations can have therapeutic purposes but also deeper connections in routs of ancient practices that are often shown by the relation between the created works and the constant figurative representations. Outsider art is far from academic institutions, which creates a dynamic archetypal model of creation, making a connection with the inner impulses of creative manifestations. Moreover, it generates a relation with the ancient motivations and inner instincts of creating objects and gives them more than a practical meaning.


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