First published: Spring 2016
The world of art brut and outsider art tends to love its enigmas. Given the central role the presentation of artists’ life stories has played both in the reception (in the media, by the art world and by the public) and the promotion of the work of many self-taught artists, what is known about a particular art-maker’s background often helps establish an alluring air of myth and mystery surrounding whatever paintings, drawings, sculptures or other creations he or she may have produced. This has been true even when some of the “facts” about an artist’s biography have been sketchy at best.
Then there are the many anonymous artists whose works have appeared as compelling as anything any known art-maker with a well-documented history might have made. In some cases, like those of the American autodidact Judith Scott (1943 –2005) or the contemporary New Zealander Susan Te Kahurangi King (born 1951), who either could not or did not talk, such artists did not offer insights into the meanings of their creations or their art-making intentions.
It is against such a backdrop of limited, ascertainable biographical data that, in recent years, the work of the American artist Larry John Palsson (1948–2010), who made boldly-coloured, abstract paintings, has come to light. Palsson spent his entire life in the city of Seattle, on the West Coast of the United States. An apparently ordinary boy in the neighbourhood in which he grew up, Palsson was, in fact, most likely autistic to some degree, and was described years later by area residents who had known his family in passing or who had observed him as an adult as a “harmless recluse” or as “mentally retarded” (an outmoded term that is now considered insensitive and is almost never heard).
An only child, Palsson was 15 years old when his father, Jon Arinbjorn Pálsson, an immigrant from Iceland who had worked as a baker, died. Larry, who became a heavy smoker, continued to reside with his mother until his own death from lung cancer; he loved cats, and his own cat also died of cancer, apparently from the second-hand smoke to which it had long been exposed. Palsson’s mother, Iowa-born Marjorie Sawyer Palsson, who was 22 years younger than her husband, outlived her son and died in 2012. (The accent mark in the Icelandic spelling of their surname had long since disappeared.)
A term paper titled “The Elements of Design”, which Palsson wrote when he was in the ninth grade, was found after his death. It was dated May 1965, which means that he was 17 when he produced it – an advanced age for that high school grade level, suggesting that he could have suffered from a learning disability that had held him back and forced him to repeat certain grade years. Also discovered among Palsson’s belongings after he died was a sole, undated notebook filled with doodles and assorted jottings, whose routine misspellings suggest that he was probably dyslexic as well. Reflecting behavioural or personality traits that are commonly associated with autism, in that plain, spiral-bound, grade-school notebook, Palsson wrote, “I don’t talk very much when I don’t have to.” He noted, “The pulls of the world sometimes isn’t very pleasing to the mind.”
The notebook is filled with repeated lines of words, numbers and letters. Some of the letters are annotated with sharp or flat symbols for musical keys, suggesting that some of his lines of upper-case letters might be chord sequences. Palsson also wrote such quizzical statements as “No new music to really care about. Sounds as if the instruments need the presence of pink liquid” and “Your feet belong where you can see them".