Outsider Artist

Outsider art is often shrugged off as the creative work of people with a mental illness. And yes, some art brut (the French word for outsider art) is done by a human being who happens to have a mental illness. But not all. And the idea that we need to separate art into a definition of the creator bothers me.

"Alchemy" © by Quinn McDonald. Ink on watercolor paper.

“Alchemy” © by Quinn McDonald. Ink on watercolor paper.

Would we say “the artist who dyes her hair”? or “the left-handed collage artist? Nope. But we sure would add the elements that create a frisson of fear–and that includes mental illness, a checkered past, and other facts that divide “us” from “them.”  I am an outsider artist. I don’t consider myself weird or worthy of being cast out. I just consider  myself dedicated to creativity.

Jean Dubuffet, the French artist who came up with the name art brut (rough or raw art) defined it as art created outside the mainstream of the established art scene. This includes artists who have not gone to art school, who do not have gallery representation, and whose art illustrates fantasy scenes, unconventional ideas and approaches.

The magazine Raw Vision, which focuses on outsider art, includes several other definitions, including Intuitive Art. My favorite is Visionary Art, which is what the museum of outsider art in Baltimore, Maryland, calls it.

Outsider art is the creative work of people who work on the edges of the existing, acceptable art scene, and often do not make a living from their art.

Nine years ago, I made a conscious decision not to have my art be my main income. For about 15 years before that, selling my artwork paid the mortgage and bought groceries. One afternoon, I had a great idea for a piece, followed by the idea that I couldn’t create it because it was not going to be popular. And at that second I also knew I didn’t want to make creative decisions through a profit/loss spreadsheet.

Now I make a living being a creativity coach. I also design and teach business writing and business creativity workshops. And I teach art and writing workshops and retreats. And I write books. All of those things contribute to an income. When one of them threatens to drain my creativity, I shift to working on another. It keeps me fresh and takes away the onus of income producer from any one of my niches.

Most of all, it frees me to do the art I love. Several times in the past year, I’ve sighed and wished I were one of the cool artists–the ones you see all the time on Facebook, with Etsy shops and classes and lots and lots of connections. Then I realize that, since childhood, I have always wanted to be on the inside, but rarely am.

And finally, I realized the power of being an outsider. You can see what’s happening inside, but not be ruled by it. (A space at the cool kids’ table wasn’t free in seventh grade, and it’s not free now.) You can frequently be more daring, create right-on-the-edge art, and speak your truth more freely as an outsider. You can, in fact, live your creativity. Your real expression. Out loud.

Yes, sometimes it’s lonely. But other times the wonder and glory of following your vision and creating directly from your soul is worth the loneliness which feeds you.

-Quinn McDonald is an outsider artist. She will be at CHA (Craft and Hobby Association) in Anaheim this weekend, signing her book at North Light books and demo-ing at the Niji booth.


15 thoughts on “Outsider Artist

  1. Well! Yes, my hands would be on hips if I wasn’t typing. There is a whole lot I could be saying about different attitudes to mental and physical illnesses however I think I’d be preaching to the choir if I started in on the inequities and prejudices, the blind stupidity and ignorance. Oops, almost got going there.

    I have also given a lot of thought throughout the day to what mainstream means and to what exactly must be outside of that. It seems that anything that is even marginally different, whatever has been gained through raw talent and hasn’t been slavishly learned in some conventional way is outside and thought by some to be somehow second rate . . . not fine art. It seems that people can’t even agree on what art is let alone who is an artist.

    Quite frankly, I don’t care. My favourite piece of original art was purchased from the artist, Adam Hines at Project Onward in Chicago (http://projectonward.org/) and my 9 year-old grandheart is an artist and always has been . . . she is driven to create, she cannot not create. All of that is good enough for me.

    To me, art is about having a deep desire to express what is inside. If someone likes it enough to pay for it that’s great, but it’s not the most important thing.

    There is a price to pay in terms of losing individuality for belonging to a crowd: it is too great an expense. Like you Quinn, I’d rather have those lonely moments and follow my own path.

    It’s the ant and the grasshopper fable all over again, we need both to have a balanced society, it’s not either/or. I ‘got’ this when I was five!

  2. My dad used to work at the main hospital for mental illnesses in Buenos Aires and he kept samples of paintings. There was a man who painted very naif paintings when he was “fine” for lack of a better word and absolutely fabulous in design and colour paintings when he had an episode. We even had one of those paintings at home.
    Being part of the in crowd is all a matter of perspective. From where I´m standing you have the followers and connections.
    Enjoy CHA!

    • I’m loving the idea of CHA. As an introvert, it will be hard work for me. Which is fine. Can’t be an artist if you don’t want to work! I love the story about the painting. It says a lot.

  3. Quinn, you are an ‘insider’ to me. I aspire to live my life in a way that is true to me and what I value and your shining example has been a light on that path for me. It has taken me my whole life to get to this place where I can believe in me enough that I can market my services to pay my way. This is another leap of faith for me, but this one I make with complete security in that I am enough. Thanks for your role in getting me to this point.

  4. Dear Quinn,
    Don’t kid yourself – many times the “ïnsiders” or “cool” ones really wish, deep down inside, they had the courage to step outside their comfort zone and be like us. It took me until I was over fifty to say, “this is who I am and why I do it”. Now I watch the others sit back and say, “Wow, I wish I could do that” (Not necessarily always in the art venue). I tell them they can – they just have to want it bad enough. Please continue to be our “Living on the Edge” leader and encourager.

    Terry Lee

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