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Obituaries

Stephanie Kerr Smither, a champion of the work of self-taught artists and patron of arts organisations, died at her home in Houston, Texas, in June, at the age of seventy-five. In recent years she had suffered from pulmonary fibrosis and undergone a double lung transplant.

Stephanie was born in Huntsville, Texas, where her father owned a department store, and where she met her future husband, John Smither, who became a prominent Houston attorney. Stephanie and John were married while they were students at the University of Texas, in Austin. There, Stephanie taught at the Texas School for the Deaf while John attended law school. Later, they settled in Houston.

Their son John Kerr Smither recalled that his mother “took a creative approach to home-making; at first her art-collecting was an extension of her assembling of fabrics, silverware and other items for the home, then she and my father realised that what they had been doing was creating a real art collection, something substantial and significant. Building it turned out to be my mother’s own form of artistic expression.”

Stephanie dated the start of her serious collecting to 1988, when she took part in a museum-organised trip to Africa. At that time, she met and became friendly with Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr. (1929-1998), the first curator of the Museum of American Folk Art (now the American Folk Art Museum) in New York. She was influenced by Hemphill’s expansive, appreciative view of a wide range of vernacular art forms and self-taught artists’ works, an outlook that revolutionised the folk art field in the United States. Stephanie and John Smither acquired paintings, drawings, ceramic face jugs, and more by artists from Texas and other parts of the American South, many of whom, such as Mose Tolliver and Howard Finster, they got to know personally during their art-collecting road trips. They became major collector-promoters of the Huntsville-based Johnnie Swearingen’s oil paintings and the carved- and painted-wood sculptures of the Navajo artist Charlie Willeto.

In an unreleased short film by Tacey A. Rosolowski and Ben Doyle about the history of Stephanie Smither’s involvement with art, the collector observes, “To me there is an honesty, a realism and a warmth about self-taught artists. There’s something about the handmade, about making something from very little, that really appeals to me.”

Michelle White, a curator at the Menil Collection, a museum in Houston known for its modern-art holdings, including many Surrealist works, also appears in the film. She points out that the Smithers’ collection is unique in that it began with a focus on art of the American South when it was still possible for collectors to acquire works in person from now-legendary artists, but that it also reflects a broader, more international sensibility, a result of its owners’ embrace of European art brut and works by self-taught artists from other parts of the world as they were being discovered in the 1990s and 2000s. After John Smither died in 2002, Stephanie continued adding to the collection, a portion of which she donated to and is now on view, through October 16, at the Menil in the exhibition “As Essential as Dreams: Self-taught Art from the Collection of Stephanie and John Smither.”

In Houston, Stephanie generously supported such organisations as the Houston Ballet, the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, and its neighbouring, mosaic-filled Smither Park, which was designed by the artist-builder Dan Phillips and created in honour of John Smither. The now-retired art dealer Phyllis Kind said of her close friend, “Along with having a sharp eye, Stephanie was always passionate about art and adventurous in the face of something new. She had a mind of her own and never followed the pack.”

In Texas, Stephanie Smither is survived by her children, Paige Johnson, Ashley Langley, and John Kerr Smither, and their families.

Edward M. Gómez

 

Erkki Pirtola, a visual and performance artist, critic and a champion of ITE art, died suddenly on a street near his home in Helsinki on 23 January 2016. He was 65.

Pirtola‘s view of art was expansive. He knew the history of art but had his own, very original interpretation of it. He was greatly influenced by artists whose work dealt with the problem of being human, from van Gogh to Joseph Beuys. Pirtola’s take on art was profound and unique.

In his opinion, creativity that flourishes among children, outsider artists and those in the margins of art was an instrument for seeing the ‘world-in-between’. According to him, this was an area that could reunite the spiritual and physical worlds.

Pirtola’s own anarchic career as an artist started in the 1970s, and he held his first solo exhibition in Helsinki in 1976. He received a wider cult reputation as a cartoonist for alternative magazines. He’d acquired an irreverent underground attitude from his good friend, the Lappish artist Kalervo Palsa, and in 1979 he found a new way to channel his energies as he began to apply this attitude in a larger scale with the Ö Group, which produced provocative performances. The Ö events introduced performance art to Finns, but Pirtola’s biggest impact on the Finnish arts scene came when he wrote his eccentric art reviews for one of the country’s biggest newspapers between 1980 and 1992.

Pirtola found his topics in alternative galleries and from outside the established art world. The main objects of his inventive criticism were the spiritual death of modernism, the then-predominant trend in art and art institutions’ willingness to maintain the status quo as well as the world view, which was characterised by a deep prejudice that profit was everything, which had entered not only the art world but all of society.

When Liisa Heikkilä-Palo of the Union for Rural Culture asked Pirtola to help survey Finnish contemporary folk art (later known as ITE art) in 1999, it was as if this was the thing he’d been looking for all his life. Pirtola said that ITE art ‘saved’ him. It was in ITE art that he found the ideals of his youth: boundless creativity that is characterised by a lightness that can make you laugh yet it also tackles our most profound truths and emotions. His close rapport with and affection for ITE artists was mutual.

Pirtola wrote enthusiastic articles about ITE and outsider art for numerous publications, such as ITE year books and Raw Vision, and he also curated exhibitions and recorded dozens of videos of artists. Audiences could enjoy his hysterically funny videos at ITE exhibitions in Finland and overseas. One of the memorable moments is the lecture on Finnish ITE art that Pirtola gave with Hannu Saha at the publication of Raw Vision’s Outsider Art Sourcebook at Tate Modern in 2002.

Pirtola’s four sons will keep their father’s work alive. They have donated thousands of videos featuring Finnish outsider art to the Finnish National Gallery archives

Veli Granö

Caption: Pirtola (r) with artist Johannes Ivakko, photo: Veli Grano

Aron

Martine Birobent chose to leave us on March 30, 2016. She got medical assistance to end a severe lung and brain cancer. Despite her warm laugh and communicative creative drive, she often said she had already been dead for many years. Birobent had a difficult childhood, and consequently travelled without precise destination all of her young adult years.     

She crossed the Atlantic on a sailing ship in 1980 and settled in Montréal, where she got married, had a daughter and started a new life teaching in elementary schools and making art in her back-alley garage. She produced over 550 pieces from paint, collage, yarn and fibre, doll assemblages, rocks, concrete, fibreglass resin, and lots of wood cuttings and carvings.

In 2011, she left Montreal to open La Galerie des Nanas in Quebec's Eastern Townships. She was artist in residence at the 2013 Biennale Internationale d’Art Hors-Les-Normes in Lyon, and again artist in residence at the 2015 Biennale Out Of The Box in Geneva. She has also shown her “Muzzled Dolls” at la Halle-Saint-Pierre in Paris, at Galerie Coeur au Ventre in Lyon, and at several Outsider Art Fair booths.

La Galerie des Nanas has created a fund in her memory to support untrained women artists through a residency programme and work acquisitions.

Image caption: Anon

Jean-Robert Bisaillon

Jo Farb Hernández

Internationally-renowned art environment builder Josep Pujiula i Vila died suddenly of a heart attack on the morning of June 2, 2016. He was 79 years old.

Beginning in the 1970s, Pujiula built a series of monumental open-work structures out of willow branches and found objects in a wooded area just west of the village of Argelaguer, in the Pyrenean foothills of Catalunya. But because he didn’t build on his own property, again and again he ran into challenges with authorities from the municipality, the electrical company, and the agencies in charge of water, electricity and highways. Responding to their demands, he destroyed and then rebuilt four complete art environments in this area; each one unique, but each also utilising what became his iconic material and motif: arched tunnels created from the flexible branches of the saplings found by the nearby Fluvià River. He lashed these slim limbs together to erect numerous towers reaching 40 meters (130+ feet) high, and labyrinths that curved around the hillsides, snaking up and stretching over a kilometre in length. Shelters, passageways strung 20 meters (65 feet) in the air, stairways, and bridges added to the complexity of the maze.

In the last 15 years, Pujiula also constructed a lyrical fountain area from concrete and iron, increasing the durability of his work and the immortality of his name. Hugging the hillside and ornamented with kinetic steel and stone sculptures, these cascading ponds finished in a natural pool below.

Most recently, he hacked out his own “Pharaonic Tomb” from the rocky hillside with simple hand tools, covering the exterior façade as well as the interior walls with hieroglyphics that represented images from his life.

Finally, after decades of fighting the authorities, in October 2014 Pujiula’s site was officially recognised as a local heritage site – a worthy recipient of county funding and support. In summer 2015 he was a finalist for the International Award for Public Art, representing all of Europe including the Russian Federation. He was flown down to New Zealand for the award ceremony, his first major trip beyond Catalunya.

In recent weeks, Pujiula manifested a creative explosion that astonished his family. “He was thinking only about building”, his son-in-law told me three weeks ago, “as if it would be the last act and legacy of his life.”

Image caption: Jo Farb Hernández

Author: Jo Farb Hernández

 

Thornton Dial, a giant among self-taught, African-American artists of the Deep South of the United States in the twentieth century, died at his home in Alabama on January 25, 2016. He was 87 years old. His survivors include his half brother, Arthur Dial; four adult children; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Born in rural, west-central Alabama to a young, unwed mother from a poor family of sharecroppers, Dial found himself working in the fields by the age of six. “We picked cotton when we got big enough to walk... . I was just a little bitty something but I had to earn my way”, he once recalled. He was brought up by a great-grandmother who lived on the farm of one of his cousins, who used odds and ends in his yard to make sculptural assemblages. Thornton’s schooling ended at the third-grade level; he never learned to read or write. In the early 1940s, as a youth, he moved to Bessemer, Alabama, an industrial town near the larger city of Birmingham, where he worked at odd jobs before becoming employed at a factory that produced Pullman railway carriages. 

There, he learned to weld. He married and, with his wife, Clara Mae, who died in 2005, had five children, one of whom died young. Instinctively tapping into the tradition of African-American “yard art”, which can be seen decorating the properties of black residents throughout the American South, Dial used found materials – metal and wood scraps, old wire, swatches of cast-off garments and more – to make sculptural constructions of his own. Such enigmatic creations were steeped in the African practice of creating talismanic objects or shrine-like assemblages to adorn and protect personal spaces, such as homes or gardens.

In 1987, through the artist Lonnie Holley, another African-American autodidact, Dial met William S. Arnett, a white, Atlanta-based art researcher and collector who was deeply interested in the art of visionary, black, self-taught art-makers. The more he learned about their ideas and accomplishments, the more vocal a champion of their work the Georgia-born Arnett became. However, even as he became Dial’s main patron and worked tirelessly to call attention to these artists’ achievements, some of which had paralleled, anticipated or gone beyond contemporary developments in modern and postmodern art, the mainstream art establishment effectively blocked what could have been faster, fuller exposure for Dial’s art to broad, general audiences. 

Nevertheless, by the time Arnett established the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta in 2010 (to collect the work of black self-taught artists of the American South and promote it through publications and exhibitions), Dial’s work had been shown to critical acclaim in solo museum exhibitions around the US. His works have been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. 

In his art, informed by his experiences as a black man faced with oppressive, institutionalised racism, Dial took on big themes – slavery, prejudice, the struggles of the downtrodden, war and the mysterious forces of nature. A celebration of hope and beauty can be felt in Dial’s work, too. A sense of belief in the dignity of the individual and in human beings’ innate ability to overcome, with determination and faith in themselves, injustice and hardship, seems to pulse through his art and strike a resonant chord with its admirers.

Years ago, Dial said, “I have learned a whole lot about drawing from my work at the Pullman factory. Designs was punched out in the iron and steelworks – big, beautiful pieces of steel start out with a little design. […] Everything in the world got a pattern. The mind got to see it, the hands got to make it.”

In New York, Marianne Boesky Gallery has become the commercial representative of Dial’s oeuvre. In late 2014, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced that it had accepted a donation of nearly 60 works of art from the William S. Arnett Collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, including ten of Dial’s. A selection of works from this gift is scheduled to go on view at the museum in the near future.

Edward M. Gómez
Image Courtesy: Matthew Arnett

The great visionary artist Paul Laffoley died at his home in Boston on November 16, 2015, after a long battle with congestive heart failure.

Laffoley grew up within the confines of a strict Irish Catholic family in Boston, Massachusetts. He was educated in progressive schools throughout his childhood and graduated in Classics from Brown University with honours but was later dismissed from Harvard Graduate Design School because of his unconventional ideas. Laffoley trained as an architect but later worked at the membership office of the Boston Museum of Science.

From the 1960s, Laffoley rented an 18 x 30 ft / 5 x 9 m utility room that he christened the “Boston Visionary Cell.” Here, he created over 800 works, displaying his philosophical and scientific ideas, executed in the form of architectural and scientific drawings. A collector of some 7,000 books, Laffoley absorbed information at an unusual rate. He employed this knowledge in his paintings, combining it with his own ideas and conventions to produce complex diagrammatic pictures. 

Paul Laffoley’s theoretical constructs were uniquely presented in highly detailed mandala-like canvases largely scaled to Fibonacci’s golden ratio. His work sometimes resembled futuristic board games, often with text paying homage to great thinkers who inspired him such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Blake, Goethe and Jung. He used different types of paints, oils, acrylics and simple coloured pens to produce his complex works, relying on an emotional and creative state which he called “Lucid Dreaming”. 

Laffoley explored ideas about time travel, other dimensions, astrology and alien life-forms. Devoting his life to these ideas, he would work for twelve hours a day, for weeks on end. Though Laffoley had major retrospectives recently, he produced his work outside of art centres and outside of their strictures and camps. His work began to attract an increasing following in his late career, with shows at the Palais de Tokyo (2009), the Nationalgalerie/Hamburger Bahnhof Berlin (2011), and the Hayward Gallery, London, the Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, and the Yerba Buena Center in 2013.  He was also featured in the Raw Vision Anniversary exhibition at Halle Saint Pierre in Paris.

The first book on Laffoley’s oeuvre was The Phenomenology of Revelation published by Kent Fine Art in 1989. This was followed by several subsequent publications beginning with his first retrospective organised by the Austin Museum of Art (1999). In March 2016, the University of Chicago Press will be releasing the long awaited book The Essential Paul Laffoley. 

Nick Petty
Photo courtesy: Dilettante Press and Elyse Harary

Nigel Kingsbury, who died on January 7, 2016, was a gentle man of very few words whose art spoke for him and intrigued all those who saw it. Known to only use pencil to execute his drawings, his body of work of women in beautiful ball gowns is instantly recognisable. He was always able to seek out women in his vicinity – whether on television or in person – for his next drawing, a favourite of his being his support worker, Becky. If he wanted to draw you, he would only take occasional cheeky glances at you and smile, before placing his next line.

With Nigel you could see that love went into every line that he drew. He lingered on every stroke of pencil, debating its placement and whether he was happy with it. Months would pass before a drawing was complete and at the end he would sign his work “Loves Nigel” or “Nigel Loves” followed by an abundance of kisses.

Nigel attended ActionSpace for over 10 years – a London-based organisation that supports artists with learning disabilities ­­– and this is where he created most of his art. More recently, Outside In has exhibited Nigel’s work in Pallant House Gallery, CGP London and the Outsider Art Fair in Paris. His work is now in private collections across the world. Roger Cardinal said of Nigel's work, “He was such a fresh and inspired newcomer on a crowded stage.”

Nigel took great pleasure in showing his work at exhibitions, often beaming with pride and pointing to sold stickers to make sure you took note! Although not able to hold long verbal conversations, and often communicating through signing and gestures only, he gave so much back without words and will be sorely missed by many. We know his art will be enjoyed for years to come.

Jennifer Gilbert
Image: Nigel Kingsbury

Photo courtesy Henry Boxer

Ionel Talpazan, a self-taught artist known for his obsession with UFOs and outer space, died in New York on September 21 after a prolonged illness. He was in his thirties when he first attracted attention selling his art on the streets of Manhattan. Through his own pedestrian self-promotion and the efforts of New York art dealer Aarne Anton, Talpazan’s drawings, paintings and sculptures of disc-shaped flying craft were widely collected and exhibited in the U.S. and Europe. 

Talpazan’s adult life unfolded a world away from his origins. Prematurely born in Petrekioaia, Romania, after his twin brother died in the womb, he was only six when surrendered for adoption to a foster mother who was a violent alcoholic. In order to escape her wrath one night he fled their rural home and hid in a ditch. There, by his account, he was suddenly bathed in blue light given off by a mysterious disk-shaped craft hovering overhead. Although he was only eight, the experience imprinted itself so powerfully in his consciousness that he could recall it in vivid detail for the rest of his life. Anyone who spoke with him about his art was likely to get an urgently encapsulated version of the story within minutes of meeting him. 

At 19 Talpazan swam across the Danube River to Yugoslavia and joined a United Nations refugee camp. He was eventually declared a political refugee, accepted for U.S. residency and granted citizenship. In the late 1980s he arrived in New York and, after a period of homelessness, moved into the small Harlem apartment where he would live and create art for his remaining years. By 1990 he had begun to sell his drawings in heavily trafficked public locations, often outside the entrances to art museums and art fairs.

The spaceships in Talpazan’s drawings and paintings are often shown in cross-sectional diagrams that reveal their internal workings, with hand-lettered, explanatory texts in Romanian or phonetically spelled English. In his more elaborate drawings the colors are coded to indicate the power sources for these flying craft, including nuclear, solar and electromagnetic energy. He also made a number of sculptural models of UFOs, including a large painted-plaster model that occupied much of his apartment. Talpazan discussed his UFO encounter and his related theories with an almost evangelistic fervor. He believed NASA had much to learn from his work and his ideas on topics like advanced propulsion and accelerated space travel.

Although he was represented for a time by Anton’s American Primitive Gallery, Talpazan seemed to prefer selling his work on the streets. Nonetheless, his art found its way into exhibitions at the American Visionary Art Museum, the Museum of Everything, the Hayward Gallery and most recently at La Casa Encendida in Madrid.

Tom Patterson
Photo courtesy: Henry Boxer

Born in 1950 in Brightlingsea, Essex, Ian moved to The Rookery residential home for adults with learning difficulties in Walcott, North Norfolk in 1979. He was a kind and gentle man who loved music and enjoyed strong friendships with many including the local church, staff and colleagues.  In 1987 the Barrington Farm Art Barn studio opened opposite his home, and it was here that he discovered a unique natural creative ability in the visual arts. Over the next 28 years he would develop these skills to become an internationally celebrated artist and well loved member of the Art Barn.

Ian excelled in most disciplines including painting, ceramics, drawing and textiles, producing hundreds of representational and abstract works. His unique and colourful work was exhibited widely and selected for many prestigious local exhibitions including Salthouse, Eastern Open (where he was a prizewinner in 2011) and The Assembly House in Norwich. Ian also has work in private collections that have been shown in various galleries including the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, the Museum of Everything at Tate Modern in London and the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Archive at MOMA Dublin.

In 2009 Ian’s painting was the subject of a short film by Amanda Ravetz. Ian Collins, Arts writer for the Eastern Daily Press (who had previously purchased a painting for their offices) commented on the film, saying that “Ian Partridge paints the sheer joy of living”. 

Ian’s work was always full of colour and joy, reflecting his own happy personality and love of life. He will be greatly missed and remembered through his beautiful art.

Ian died peacefully at home on November 20. The funeral took place at Walcott Church on December 7, followed by a screening of Beautiful Colour at Barrington Farm.

Sarah Ballard

Nek Chand Saini, the world’s most celebrated self-taught artist, passed away on June 12 2015 after a short illness. The funeral took place amidst unprecedented scenes in Chandigarh. His body was taken to the Rock Garden where it lay in state in a refrigerated coffin to allow throngs of mourners to pay their last respects. The next day it was taken in a cortege of vehicles, including a decorated float of sculptures, around the city before being carried to the funeral pyre which was lit by his son Anuj Saini to the accompaniment of a volley of rifle shots fired by a Chandigarh police contingent.

Everyone in India was aware of his death which was a major national event and the Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated: "Nek Chand-ji will always be remembered for his artistic genius and fabulous creation that is cherished by many. May his soul rest in peace."

The attention and respect given to Nek Chand is unusual for any artist, let alone someone who was self-taught and used to work as a roads inspector supervising labourers. It was not only the vast scope of his creation that led to such appreciation but also his humble and spiritual character which made even the most powerful and important vistor feel humility in his presence.     

Nek Chand’s Rock Garden of Chandigarh encompasses 25 acres of over 2000 sculptures set in mosaic chambers alongside waterfalls, gorges and wide open spaces. It has become the second most visited site in India after the Taj Mahal with over 5000 visitors a day pouring through the narrow arched entrance. He created in secret for 15 years, working on strictly controlled government land before his creation was discovered. In spite of attempts to order its destruction it was eventually embraced by the city of Chandigarh and inaugurated as the Rock Garden in 1976. Nek Chand was given a salary and fifty labourers by the city authorities to expand his creation which grew to be a modern wonder of the world.

People in Chandigarh are in shock at losing their most famous inhabitant but the responsibility of preserving the soul of the Rock Garden lies with them. The future of the Rock Garden is in the balance as the city authority does not have a good record of looking after their greatest asset. The large array of sculptures need conservation, the waterfalls need engineering maintenance, and visitors need to be supervised. The extraordinary creation of Nek Chand is a shining jewel for the whole world but his extraordinary legacy needs a real commitment from the city and professional care and conservation to survive into the future.

John Maizels