Art and the Disordered Male by Linda Frost

In my previous article, I touched on the subject of geometric art created by women. I had wondered if the repetitive skills of homemaking inspired a love of repetitive mark making by women in cooperative primitive situations as well as in busy modern life.

In contrast, I’d like to now look at the work of three male artists created in solitude by minds that might be considered beyond the norm.

Angus McPhee was born in Scotland in 1916, where he learned the local skill of making rope out of grass to put over haystacks, secure roof thatching or to lead horses from the fields. While serving with the Lovat Scouts Regiment, McPhee became ill. Returned home to his family, he became solitary and self-absorbed, and his behavior was too erratic and difficult for his family to manage. He was admitted to a mental institution and spent the next 50 years of his life, virtually without speaking, on the farm ward. When not at work on the hospital farm, Angus would weave ropes, garments, shoes and containers from grass, beech leaves and pieces of sheep’s wool collected from hedges and fences.

Shirt woven by McPhee

In 1996, as the hospital closed, he was transferred to a nursing home, where he died in 1997. Angus never spoke about the purpose or meaning of his weavings, and it is said that he stood and watched impassively as the hospital gardeners raked them up and burned them with the autumn leaves each year.

mcpheeshoes.jpg

Accounts of his life do not tell of any of these items being put to use, but instead depict them as being abandoned about the farm property as he finished them. Surviving fragments of his output have a beauty and a power that contradicts their fragility and give an eloquent if enigmatic voice to this silent man. Grass weavings by Angus McPhee can be seen in the Scottish Collection of Art Extraordinary, The Old Manse, High Street, Pittenween, Scotland.

Prolific art was produced in the quiet life of Henry Darger, too. Henry Darger was born in Illinois in1892. His mother died when he was four years old after she gave birth to a baby sister, whom he never saw. When Darger was eight years old, his father, unable to continue caring for him, put the young Darger in an orphanage and then died soon afterward. Diagnosed as a disruptive troublemaker, Darger was placed into a series of mental institutions, until he ran away at age 16. For the next sixty-four years, he lived a solitary life, working in Chicago area hospitals and going to Catholic Mass daily.

frostdargergirls.jpg

After his death at age 80, it was found that alone in his room, Darger had created a beautiful and violent fantasy world primarily depicted in a 15,000-page story called “The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.” Several hundred large watercolor paintings, as well as many smaller drawings and collages illustrated this epic tale. The Vivian Girls are seven pre-adolescent sister princesses who fight against and ultimately prevail over oppression by sadistic adults.

dargercamp.jpg

Darger was apparently not satisfied with his ability to draw the human form, so he used tracings of figures from newspapers, comic books and magazines that he scavenged from the neighborhood trash. An obsessive weather buff, Darger set his characters under and in front of dramatic cloud-filled skies. In 2000, The American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd Street, NY, NY, established the Henry Darger Study Center to foster research into the life and work of Darger. This museum has received a large donation of Henry Darger’s personal archives including diaries, correspondence, notebooks and the manuscripts of his vast literary works.

A third male artist’s life and works is examined in the charming book, “The Drawings of an Artistic Savant, Blackstock’s Collections” By Gregory L. Blackstock, published by the Princeton Architectural Press.

blackstockartsupplies.jpg

Challenged by autism, but perhaps given a kinder upbringing than the previous two artists, Blackstock’s work is much more accessible for art study. A 60-year-old retired pot washer and dish room steward; Blackstock still lives in the Seattle area where he continues his creative work today. Blockstock’s drawings are visual lists of everyday items that range from crows to hats to emergency vehicles to whales. These lists have careful details that he draws from memory, using paper, pencil, marker and crayons. The work conveys little emotion, but creates a personal filing system for clustering and storing things of the world, both natural and man-made. He finds no need to use a straightedge, and if asked, can reproduce the same images exactly time and again. When a comment was made on how many tiny differences there were in the teeth from one saw blade to the next in his piece “The Saws”, he replied in a frustrated tone that it had taken him two visits to Home Depot to memorized them all.

blackstockthesaws.jpg

The creation of order in Blackstock’s work is firm, direct and comforting rather than baffling. Possibly his autism gives him focus to methodically draw and detail the overwhelming array of creatures, tools, buildings and vehicles that barrage modern day life. Free of the dark violent undertones of Darger’s work, and less mysterious than the weavings of McPhee, the work contained in “Blackstone’s Collections” is inspiring in its simple beauty.

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5 Responses to “Art and the Disordered Male by Linda Frost”


  1. 1 Folk Art Paintings April 3, 2008 at 10:33 pm

    Hi Linda. Thanks for introducing three great artists to us. Reading about their works was inspiring. I really liked the works by McPhee. It’s amazing how he made art from ropes made of hay. The paintings by Darger are fascinating. I truly enjoyed the blog.

  2. 2 Linda March 30, 2008 at 8:40 am

    I see housework/homemaking as an extremely repetitive activity that has been largely the duty of women, and I know that I personally hate the fact that housework doesn’t stay done and is never finished. I do feel that repetitive geometric mark making might be more satisfying to a soul that has spent her life putting small things in order. I have personally experienced the satisfaction in bringing a surface to a more ordered, possibly beautiful state with the small geometric addition of stitching. I’ll admit, though, that coming to the conclusion that repetitive geometric artwork is women’s work is a big leap! It did seem to be a connecting link between the three artists in my first article, though.
    As for obsession being a male characteristic…. no, that wasn’t my point. The work of the three male artists in my second article is linked (to me) by the mental challenges that they have faced. Their work is very different from each other’s. Gender was the link between my two articles; the first looking at the work of three women, the second about three men.
    The repetitive geometry of the work in my first article’s females is arguably as obsessive as the visual lists and 15,000 page writings of the males in my second article.

  3. 3 Angela Moll March 29, 2008 at 9:43 pm

    Linda, thanks a lot for bringing those fascinating artists to our attention. The mysterious, the disturbing and the comforting, quite a range!

    I have also the same question that June has, where do you see the impact of gender in those works?

  4. 4 June March 28, 2008 at 9:05 am

    Linda,

    I saw some of Blackstock’s work in a tiny Seattle gallery in a not-very-good area of the city and it is wonderful — even more astonishing in person. Your comment that the work is “firm, direct, and comforting” is perfect. It”s also baffling in its clarity of detail. Only two trips to Home Depot to fix these saws in his mind?

    Darger’s work is more unsettling, although I haven’t seen it in real life, only in book and on the web. He draws many of his little girls nude, many many nude children, and that creeps me out, as does his general topic. It’s interesting that I find the aggregate numbers of nudes, particularly of children, more disturbing than I find smaller numbers, such as one finds in various Women Bathing paintings. Perhaps it’s the age and activity. At any rater, he clearly belongs in your grouping.

    I had never encountered Angus McPhee, and his story resonates most strongly with me, possibly because he’s doing what country children have done for millenia — extraordinary versions of braiding daisy chains (or making victor’s wreaths).

    Olga, thanks for the links. These are two other artists I hadn’t encountered. Wiltshire’s delight in cities and phenomenal ability to recount and draw what he flies over is amazing. But I also simply like his drawings, finding them interesting as wholes as well as details. A bit like Blackstock’s drawings — the whole of the imagery on its battered paper stuns one. And Scottie Wilson’s work is very quilterly — the symmetry, for example, and patterning. The subject matter isn’t exactly quilt-like, but it would be interesting if it were taken up by contemporary art quilters; the battle between good and evil makes for some grotesque and wonderful paintings.

    Linda, I have to ask about your pointing out of the gender of these artists. I saw your comment on the SAQA list and wondered why you think gender is important here. I understand you are thinking of repetition as possibly female, but obsessiveness as male????????

  5. 5 Olga March 26, 2008 at 9:25 am

    This is fascinating. I love the look of the woven garments, and wish that I could touch them. I particularly enjoy seeing the beautiful saws in such close proximity to the ugly skull – what a contrast.

    Two other artists whose work I am familiar with and who fall into your category are Stephen Wiltshire http://www.stephenwiltshire.co.uk/ and Scottie Wilson http://www.outsiderart.co.uk/wilson.htm the latter, having been embraced by the establishment and perhaps not ‘fully disordered’-?

    My interest is superficial, however. I must admit to reading about this kind of art as I would any temporarily engaging article, but feel too ignorant about the psychology, and not compelled enough by the art to pursue the matter further. I am pleased to have the topic raised to think about again, nonetheless, and to having seen those lovely woven garments. Thank you.


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