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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.