Arts & Entertainment

Northern Virginia Art Beat

 'Wild Imagination: Works by Six Self-Taught Artists from the American South'

Through January 27 at Athenaeum Gallery (201 Prince St., Alexandria). Gallery Hours: Wednesday through Friday 11 a.m. – 3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday Noon – 4 p.m. For complete details call 703-548-0035, or see

Last week we had “Art Enables: Outsider Art Inside the Beltway” at the Arlington Art Center. This week we have Outsider art from outside the Beltway.

Naive Art collector/dealer and curator Ginger Young ( presents the work of six southern artists — Nellie Mae Rowe, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, James Harold Jennings, James Arthur Snipes, Mose Tolliver and, the king of this genre, Howard Finster.

There is a dirty little secret in the art world at large — nobody really cares how well you paint. The exacting representation has been in decline since the advent of photography. Today painting is largely about the message. In certain ways the purity and immediacy of that message are more important than photorealistic accuracy. Nowhere does this aesthetic become more obvious than the naive art movements.

As naive artists by definition are artistically self-taught, often illiterate and poorly educated in general, there is a fairly primitive aspect to these works. Ironically this seems to be inversely proportional to the world weary ways of those who collect and appreciate this genre. Once you've seen a few hundred thousand slick well painted images, the innocence of naive art starts looking refreshingly pure, honest and genuine. Not universally true, but often enough, artists in this genre paint in an obsessive all-consuming fashion.

While it can come off as a bit too close to “refrigerator art” for some. The main difference between this and children's art is the mature mind and thinking behind it. These are adults with the manual dexterity of adults. Also the artists tend to work in a consistent way for years, if not decades. Children do indeed pass through this type of thing, but it doesn't last. The urge to learn and grow is all-consuming in children, something we can't say for 50 or 60 year old adults — for better or worse. It took Picasso decades to learn how to paint like a child.

Judging a show of this sort by traditional standards of realistic representation, will have you dismissing it as trash and it will ultimately block your enjoyment of what is there to be appreciated. We don't get this sort of thing in D.C. very often, so this show is a real treat to see.

Howard Finster and Grandma Moses (not shown) being about the only household names in this genre, the other five artists are guaranteed to be unknowns for the vast majority of viewers.

Finster's story is particularly interesting in that he was a tent revivalist preacher from the age of 16. Around the age of 59, Finster was painting a bicycle and got some paint on his fingers. Looking at it he saw a face in the drippings, and heard a voice telling him to make sacred art. Protesting that he wasn't an artist, the voice asked him “How do you know?” There was no turning back from that point forward.

Finster painted as a man possessed, possessed with the spirit of God. Over the next 25 years, until his death in 2001, Finster managed to paint an astounding 46,000 pieces — all consecutively numbered.

Painting in a stream of consciousness fashion, he might be best described as a sort of modern day combination of Pop art and Hieronymus Bosch. With no shortage of message, Finster covered his works with homilies, at times running out of room and using the back of the painting to write down what he had on his mind.

Finster had a unique vision, and the art world beat a wide path to his doorstep. He made album covers for R.E.M. and the Talking Heads, music videos featuring Finster and his “Paradise Gardens.” And that doesn't even mention the countless museum and gallery shows. Say what you will about Finster's work, but he made it to a level that all but a handful of artist are only able to dream about.

If this show strikes your fancy, be sure to check out the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. Call 410-244-1900, or see


Artist Opportunities


DWR Champagne Chair Contest. Heads up! The details for this year's chair design competition will be released this Thursday. Sponsored by Design Within Reach, the entries must be crafted from Champagne corks, foils and wire retaining baskets. You'll have to see the details of this year's contest to see what the exact parameters are this time around.

First prize typically involves an award of furniture. While not the richest prize pool, this contest is more pure fun than just about any other design competition around. Last year's winning and selected entries toured the country and received substantial P. R. afterwards.

Last year cork kits were available at local DWR stores while supplies lasted. This contest runs quickly, so don't drag your feet. Check for details on their web site, As of this writing, the materials list is once again limited to two corks, baskets and foils, but will have new wrinkles. Always have to do that to throw off those jumping the gun.

You may have to sign up for their design notes email, which is free, and frankly worth doing for the year round content alone.

Recently they dropped the actual bottles off the materials list. People were doing some wild stuff with glass. Glass being glass, it was only a matter of time before that ended badly, so they nixed that one off the roster.

Another toast to the host … uh … mind if I have the corks?