Interviewsand Articles


w&c #19 - Editor's Introduction: Outsiders and Insiders

by richard whittaker, Jan 2, 2017



pencil portrait by Rick Hawes

The term “outsider art” is used to classify the work of artists without formal training and the term has always struck me as a bit ironic. Naïve art, art brut, folk art, vernacular art are more or less synonymous terms. And today street artists have to be added to this list. Generally these artists create from a sense of calling and display their work wherever they can find the space. With street artists, of course, public spaces are simply hijacked. But for others, the work is frequently displayed on their own property, and often spectacularly so. No MFA is required to connect with this art that’s almost always wonderfully guileless and direct.
     And there’s another way of thinking about the insider/outsider dichotomy. On the one hand, there are the artists getting grants, being exhibited in museums and important galleries, being written about and making money—and then there are the artists who are not getting these benefits. That’s an insider/outsider situation. And come to think about it, perhaps there’s a third category made up of artists who have teaching positions in colleges and universities.
     No matter how blurry, the outsider artist/insider artist conundrum is the theme for this issue. As an overarching thought, we like to add this quote from A. K. Coomaraswamy: “The most awkward means are adequate to the communication of authentic experience, and the finest words no compensation for lack of it.” Enrique Martínez Celaya, whose meditation on art and value, Guide, we are serializing, puts it this way, “A meaningful life consists of a person struggling to make real, in the world he or she encounters at birth, the imaginary personage who constitutes his or her true self. The reason art matters is because it’s a testimony of this struggle.”
     In our lead interview, environmental artist Betsy Damon tells the story of what happened when none of her grant applications bore fruit. Thanks to an anonymous donation, she headed for China to pursue her own ideas for a collaborative art project centering around water. Unaffiliated with any foundation, institution or government group, Damon was dramatically an outsider. Astonishingly, Damon’s efforts led her to designing a major municipal project on the Yangtze River in Chengdu, a city of ten million people. Damon is an artist with a powerful sense of mission: the wish to educate as many people as possible about what she calls “living water.” Listening to Damon one may be tempted to get involved and learn more. As with so many environmental issues, the time is now.
     Bay Area documentary filmmaker, Tom Weidlinger, contributed his remarkable (true) story, “The Tree of the Art of the Mind” that takes us to the edge of a metaphysical territory where we might ask: can art be so far Outside that it’s actually Inside?
     Artists Ted Fullwood and Rick Hawes help show how this outsider/insider dichotomy is confusing. I think of them, fondly, as outsider artists. But both have art degrees from San Jose State University. When I spoke with Fullwood, he cheerfully assured me that gallerists and curators were allergic to him. I got that. And the subject didn’t even come up with Hawes. His decision to lovingly tile a concrete bridge on a busy San Jose street without permits or permission—not as a prank, but from a sincere wish to make a civic improvement—doesn’t fit into any category I can think of and I’m tickled they’re both featured in this issue.
     We’ve got work from Joe Slusky, too, an old hand and long-time faculty member at UC Berkeley. Lots of people around the Bay Area know Joe’s colorful painted steel sculptures. Recently though, while visiting him at his home studio, the combination of my curiosity and his willingness to let me peek into corners and open drawers, led to a cache of casual drawings that caught my eye. Joe let us publish a few of them, but it wasn’t until later that I realized how they resonate with the work of Rick Hawes and Ted Fullwood, further underlining the ambiguity of our theme.
     Also in this issue, we introduce a new feature "Art/Environment" inspired by Sam Bower of (interviewed in #17). He shares a favorite story of how artist Deborah Small’s ceramic art helped to save California’s Mono Lake.
     Rounding things out, contributing editor Paul Van Slambrouck interviews filmmaker Jonathan Parker about his new film, Untitled, that adds a certain comic flair to our theme. Paul got an early look at the film and loved it. He assures me that it’s hilarious and judging from the photos alone, I have to agree.
     And Rue Harrison’s long graphic narrative, Indigo Animal, which we’ve followed from its beginning, continues in its unique way.
     Welcome. —RW

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.  


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