First published: Winter 2009
Today's self-taught artists belong to an extended family that includes the physically disabled, the abused, the impoverished, the unconventional and those, like Candyce Brokaw, living outwardly conventional lives that belie their post traumatic stress disorder. Brokaw, 55, spans the spectrum of this contemporary genre: a survivor of incest and rape, she is a visionary artist and founder of Survivors Art Foundation (SAF). Her recent collaborations with Pure Vision Arts and Fountain Gallery, in New York, champion the works of talented visual artists.
Organisations such as Hospital Audiences, Inc. (HAI) in New York City, began an art therapy programme in 1969 and now provide community facilities for people with mental disabilities, including schools, homeless shelters and substance abuse centers, offering them interactive workshops in music, performance, media and visual arts. Many of their artists have become well known, including Ray Hamilton and Melvin 'Milky' Way.
These artists comprise a diverse population and are now referred to as visionary, marginal, naïve or folk artists, to name a few current identities. Blurred as these lines may seem, this expansive genre is essentially composed of self-taught artists whose remarkable instinct for what colour can do for a line involves little pre-planning. What they put down stays down. Their art is driven by inner necessity, something people like Candyce Brokaw are compelled to do.
At 38, Brokaw, a chronically depressed mother of three, broke down, retreated to her bedroom and began to obsessively draw; a menagerie of pigs, birds and snakes scratched in pencil, bodies spewing other bodies bled straight from tubes. 'My art came from within,' she says, 'I couldn't stop.'
She never expected to be a fine artist. 'My monsters still lurk, but my art helps keep them at bay,' says Brokaw. Art heals, but for Brokaw healing is an ongoing process and she founded Survivors Art Foundation in 1997 'to connect others in similar, silent worlds and give them a voice'. The umbrella organisation was open to all artists suffering from physical or mental trauma. Word of this international lifeline flashed through cyberspace, with thousands of people - from Iraq to Indiana – accessing the site. By 2000, SAF's web gallery was part the Computerworld Smithsonian Collection on Information Technology.
Brokaw met many self-taught artists through SAF, like Ross Brodar and Alison Silva. Brodar, 38, began painting as a teen in a correctional program. Uninvited to the Annual Outsider Art Fair in SoHo, New York, he hung his paintings inside a rented mover's van and parked it curbside at the auspicious Puck Building fair site. Passers-by, invited into this make-shift gallery, purchased his art – outside the indoor outsider event.