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Obituaries

Valton Tyler, a prodigious, visionary, self-taught maker of prints, drawings, and otherworldly paintings, died in Dallas, Texas, on September 25. He was 73 years old and had suffered from respiratory and other ailments. Born in Texas City, on the Gulf of Mexico coast, Tyler was a child when a chemical explosion in the town’s port set off massive fires there and at nearby oil refineries in what became known as the largest industrial disaster in US history. Later, Tyler spoke about that terrifying event and his family’s escape from the burning town, sometimes hinting that his strange landscapes’ fiery skies reflected his memories of the Texas City Disaster. Paradoxically, at times he also denied any such allusion in his art’s unusual imagery.

As a teenager, with his mother and sister, Tyler moved to Dallas, where his older brother, Robert, worked as a draughtsman in an architectural firm. A prolific maker of drawings whose semi-abstract forms suggested plant-like, organic forms, Valton often gave them away. Advising him that he would never be taken seriously if he did so, Robert showed his brother's India ink drawings to Donald Vogel, a painter who, in the 1950s, had founded Valley House Gallery & Sculpture Garden, Dallas’s first high-quality, modern-art venue. Vogel became Valton’s dealer and champion, acquiring much of the young artist’s output and arranging for him to use the printmaking workshop at Southern Methodist University. There, in the 1970s, in just two years, Tyler produced a series of 50 sophisticated etchings featuring complex compositions.

He also created oil paintings whose futuristic, partly architectonic, partly mechanical-looking, techno-baroque structures loom against richly coloured backgrounds. Tyler called them “my shapes” and suggested that they had “feelings”. He said, “I try to make them communicate with each other.” After ending his relationship with Valley House Gallery in the 1990s, he made many large-scale paintings for private collectors, while refining his drawing technique in images of his bizarre “shapes” rendered in plain pencil or red coloured pencil on paper. A friendly eccentric who once spent nine years eating only baby food to avoid choking, Tyler was admired by other artists who knew his work.

Tyler lived to see a superb exhibition of his etchings of the 1970s presented at the Amon Carter Museum in Forth Worth, Texas, earlier this year, and the new film Valton Tyler: Flesh is Fiction, by myself and cinematographer Chris Shields, before its recent première at the Lone Star Film Festival in Fort Worth. Recalling his art-making as a child, Tyler once recalled, “I became aware that what I was doing was something special, something I would never want to stop doing.”
Edward M. Gómez

Caption: photo: Edward M. Gómez

On August 17, 2017, Kansas artist M.T. Liggett died at the age of 86.

Widely known for creating politically charged metal totems, M.T. Liggett was an outspoken curmudgeon who didn’t shy away from confrontation. Whirling and spinning along miles of pasture fence line along US Highways 400 and 54 in southwest Kansas, his work was a bright spot of belligerence in an increasingly bucolic world.

Born Myron Thomas Liggett on December 28, 1933, he joined the Navy in 1948, and then served in the United States Air Force from 1957 through 1971. In 1987, he settled in Mullinville, his hometown, where he would create his ever-expanding art installation. His formal education focused on political science, an influence reverberating throughout his work.

His 20-acre roadside property became home to over 300 metal totems lampooning politicians, officials and anyone else who caught his critical eye. The subjects of his work ranged from local councilmen to international figures, changing with election cycles and societal tides. Often mistaken for a conservative, M.T. was an equal opportunity offender, pointing out hypocrisy and indiscretion regardless of party affiliation. His figures reflected his personality – smart, witty, sometimes biting, but always with a genuine heart at the core.

Continually questioning and provoking, Liggett’s work expands beyond politics. The pieces reference Greek mythology, personal biographies (including numerous portraits of his romantic interests) and bold statements designed to make visitors question their place in the world. He had a deep desire to provoke not just thought but action. In a 2013 interview, he explained the power of the creative: “See, where you’re an artist, you can just do any damn thing you wanna do. And you’re a damned fool if you don’t.”

Liggett was happy to guide people through his roadside commentary, revealing an approachable engaging man. His health had been on the decline in recent years, slowing his creative output but not the desire to share his work. Before his death, M.T. set up a board of trustees to make sure his work would be preserved in situ, continuing their whirling, clanking, glorious cultural critique on the sweeping Kansas prairie.
Erika Nelson

Caption: photo: Ted Degener

 

Ossie Lee Samuels grew up in south Georgia and north Florida, with all the disadvantages of being black in a time and place where money was scarce and racism deeply entrenched. His heritage was Geechee, aka Gullah, the creole culture developed by slave descendants on the southern Atlantic coast. Kept out of school as a child, he was put to work performing menial jobs. As a young man who had tried washing cars, driving a truck, and working in gas stations and pulpwood mills, he moved to New York in search of better opportunities. There he became a prizefighter, until he sacrificed his career by refusing a mobster’s demand that he intentionally lose a match. Returning to Georgia, he settled in Moultrie, a small town where he established himself as a tree surgeon. The job sustained him until 1982, when a tree-topping accident left him seriously injured, temporarily disabled, wheelchair-bound, and deeply depressed. During this period of inactivity he recalled his grandmother’s recommendation of woodcarving as an effective means to calm a troubled mind, inspiring him to start what soon developed into a prolific output of distinctive wood sculptures.

Samuels carved natural subjects, especially animals, as well as human subjects extraterrestrial characters, cars, and aircraft. His work’s distinguishing characteristics include its imaginative hybridity - its frequent conjoining of physical features from two or more different animals in a single sculpture - and its idiosyncratic surface details. The sculptures are painted and/or finished with glossy layers of varnish or clear lacquer, sometimes in combination with lurid shades of glitter paint. (Samuels was colorblind, according to his longtime dealer Jeanne Kronsnoble, owner of Main Street Gallery.) They’re often embellished with faux jewels, marbles, metal foil, animal teeth, bones, and other ephemera chosen to add flash and personality. Coinciding with his late-life art pursuits Samuels built a lectern and moved several pews into his house to set up a church where he preached sermons on Sundays and whenever the spirit moved him. The small sanctuary doubled as an exhibition space for new works and special pieces that weren’t for sale. Years after regaining his strength and mobility, he continued to make art and preach. When he moved to Tallahassee, Florida, in the 1990s, he brought his sculpture practice with him, along with his church and its trappings

Samuels’ health took a turn for the worse in recent years, primarily due to heart and blood-pressure problems. Visitors to his home in 2016 found him physically diminished and seemingly not long for this world. Kronsnoble visited him in May and found him “in very bad shape” and under hospice care. He died on July 6, 2017.                   

Tom Patterson
photo credit: Ted Degener

 

David Boxer, a well-known art historian and former, long-serving director and chief curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, died there in late May after a long bout with cancer. He was 71 years old. Although he had retired from the museum in 2013, as recently as late last year, Boxer enthusiastically composed a detailed essay for the catalogue of the exhibition of the work of the Jamaican self-taught artist John Dunkley (1891–1947) that opened at the Perez Art Museum in Miami on May 26.

It was the last text that would flow from the pen and the mind of this pioneering researcher, thinker, teacher and working artist (Boxer made paintings, collages and mixed-media installations, often on history-related themes, including slavery), who was widely held as one of the most original and influential recent cultural figures in the Caribbean.

Born in southeastern Jamaica, Boxer earned degrees in art history in the United States, at Cornell University in New York and Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. His doctoral dissertation at Johns Hopkins examined the early work of the British modernist painter Francis Bacon. In his own art, Boxer was deeply influenced by Bacon’s psychologically intense, semi-abstract figurative imagery.

A wunderkind whose talents were recognised by Edna Manley, a sculptor and wife of the Jamaican, pre-independence political leader Norman Manley, Boxer went on to write extensively about his mentor’s art. Boxer became the director and chief curator of the still-young National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) in the mid 1970s.

In his work at the NGJ, Boxer made the case that the history of Jamaican artistic expression and, in effect, of his homeland’s national cultural identity, could be traced back to the Taino, an ancient, indigenous people. He championed the works of unschooled, self-taught artists who mostly lived and made their paintings, sculptures and carvings in Jamaica’s rural towns and villages. He proposed that the works of such “Intuitives”, as he called them, could and should be appreciated as contributing to the shaping of a sense of Jamaica’s national cultural identity. Of the Jamaican Intuitives, Boxer observed: “Theirs is not ‘art for art’s sake’, but rather, as someone once described African art, ‘art for life’s sake’.” Boxer’s more expansive approach to local art history did not always sit well with certain art-school-trained, Jamaican modern artists.

“Five Centuries of Art in Jamaica” (1975), “The Formative Years: Art in Jamaica 1922–1940” (1978), “The Intuitive Eye” (1979), and “Barrington Watson: A Retrospective” (2012) were among the many exhibitions Boxer organised for the NGJ. His numerous books include the 1990 monograph Edna Manley: Sculptor; Modern Jamaican Art (1998) and Jamaica in Black and White (2013), a survey of early Jamaican photography co-authored with Edward Lucie-Smith. Last year, Boxer was made a member of the Order of Jamaica, an award that is considered the equivalent of a knighthood in the British honours system.

Edward M. Gómez
photo credit: Edward M. Gómez

 

Francisco González Gragera, creator of the spectacular Capricho de Cotrina in western Spain, died suddenly on September 19, 2016. He was 90 years old.

González’s development into one of Spain’s most inventive and driven art environment builders could never have been predicted. Born on Christmas Day, 1925 to a poor family of subsistence farmers, Francisco left school at age thirteen to work full-time in the fields, and then, by age seventeen, to work in construction. After 11 years in the Basque city of Bilbao, he moved back to Extremadura, near the village of his birth, where he and his brother opened a stonework business, cutting marbles and limestone for walls, floors, counters, and tombstones.

While actively involved in this business, González dreamt about constructing a country home on adjacent land to explore his increasing interest in sculpting natural forms. Beginning in 1988, basing his work only on a few simple pencil or pen outlines drawn in single perspective, he framed and assembled a two-story structure characterized by sinuous lines and organic contours. Despite some obvious congruencies, González staunchly resisted any comparison between his work and the trencadís-ornamented fluid forms of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí: “I didn’t ever visit Barcelona [before I started building],” he noted, “and I couldn’t copy any plans from television,” where he first saw images of Gaudí’s works. Besides, he said, “that man made Pharaonic works and this is just a simple house that I thought up in order to leave to my children” (Poves, Hoy July 18, 2010).

González’s Capricho is linked to aesthetic fantasy and personal dreams but also to the natural and man-made worlds. His architectural whimsy is also tinged with painful memories, marked by images representing the postwar years of starvation across Spain and the deprivations of the wars. His personal campaign to prove to others that he was worthy, that he was special, also underlay his impetus for construction.

Yet over the course of his years of construction he was obstructed again and again: on a personal level, as he periodically ran out of discretionary funds to spend on building materials, but also due to municipal mandates to stop work, given his lack of certification as an engineer or architect, and to his disregard of the inflexible urban codes that allowed no variant for this kind of unusual construction. He lost some 8 – 10 years as he waited, chafing; finally, in 2011 the administration changed, and he joyously returned to work, completing a master bedroom area connected by an undulating hallway to the main house, and undertaking separate projects to enhance other areas of the site, such as an elaborate outdoor cooking area. Although he did not realize his dream, his son Roberto has pledged to bring the Capricho to completion.

Powerful and compelling with its sinuous forms, otherworldly plants, and imaginary animals, Francisco González Gragera did, indeed, evolve from poor unknown farmer into renowned artist, as he created one of the most spectacular art environments in all of Spain.

Jo Farb Hernández

 

Laurent Danchin – freelance writer and exhibition curator, polemical critic and French correspondent to Raw Vision has died in Paris after a long illness. He had been a loyal supporter of this magazine since its inception, contributing enthusiastic and well-informed articles and reports that embraced a range across the lively overlapping territories of Art Brut, Outsider Art, art singulier and Naïve Art.

He was a tireless researcher and curator who loved to befriend individual creators, and the hundred-odd feature articles he issued over three decades established a distinctive circle of French creators active working in our busy and multiform field: Pierre Avezard, Raymond Isidore, Miguel Amate, Raphaël Lonné, Anselme Boix-Vives.

A prolific writer, Danchin bore witness to the successes and the excesses that have marked the marginal art world over the past half-century, praising fulsomely where praise was due, while waging a war against laziness and inaccuracy in the claims and appraisals manifested at international museum blockbuster exhibitions, as well as at ambitious solo shows in makeshift galleries. His publishing record is formidable and includes prefaces and introductions composed for art catalogues, along with theoretical musings regarding the themes, techniques and strategies of self-projection that characterise the Outsider world. His illustrated handbook Art brut, L’instinct créateur (1989) represents a mine of information and a shrewd deployment of impressions garnered over time, while his short essays reveal a tireless concern to assess new developments or to document the quarrels and agitations of a long list of philosophers, aesthetes and pioneering collectors. His
discerning gaze saw through any sham or shameful manipulation, and installed a constant standard of fairness and imaginative response that shed an even light upon the dozens of marginal artists he loved and defended. His personal favourites were many and
ranged from bona fide Outsiders like the painters Marcel Storr and Germain Tessier or his hero, the environmentalist Chomo (Roger Chomeaux), to awkward borderline cases such as the disturbed surrealist Antonin Artaud or the founding father of Art Brut himself, Jean Dubuffet himself, to whom he devoted an erudite monograph: Jean Dubuffet, peintre-philosophe (1988).

Ever alert to artistic invention, Danchin organized a section on contemporary Fabric Art (The Inspired Needle) at the international trienniale ‘INSITA’ in Bratislava in 2000, with pieces by Rosa Zarkhikh and Marie-Rose Lortet; he once coaxed a secretive mediumistic artist called Marie-Jeanne Gil into showing her work. He was a leading activist in the campaign to rescue Pierre Avezzevard’s playful merrygo- round when it was threatened with destruction in the late 1990s, rolling up his sleeves and helping reconstruct the work at the Fabuloserie museum.

Danchin played a part in the wider effort to preserve those unwitting masterworks that hover at the frontier of ‘high culture’ and challenge the very foundations of creativity by dispensing with authorised themes and imposed standards. In recent years, he and an artist friend, Jean-Luc Giraud, have worked in tandem on a website literary project called Mycélium, a flexible networksource of ideas and images, now sadly curtailed after an experimental exhibition, Génie savant, génie brut (2014), that juxtaposed artists of genius in both academic and selftaught spheres.

Laurent Danchin was a social animal and loved busy meetings and encounters with newcomers lost in the dark corners of the Lausanne museum. For many years a teacher in a lycée at Nanterre, he was a great humourist and loved to bring anecdotes to a group conversation, often standing his ground before retreating a few shuffling steps, prior to moving quickly forward again to deliver a punchline that released a burst of general laughter. He cultivated many friendships, and while devoted to home life with his wife Francine and his talented violinist daughter, Clara, actually managed to travel widely as a kind of Outsider Art ambassador. He will be remembered for his loyalty to his friends, his sharp intellect and his ceaseless curiosity.

The last time I met Laurent was at the Outsider Art Fair held in Paris in 2015, after his first operation. He was cock-a-hoop about his discovery of a new path of expression – he had just started his autobiography and the project seemed to fill him with utter joy. He will be sorely missed.

—Roger Cardinal, 2017

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