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Culprits, Innocents and Outsiders: Heartland Visions

April 30 - August 29, 2009


(above: cover image of in-gallery checklist for Culprits, Innocents and Outsiders: Heartland Visions)


Seven extraordinary self-taught artists will be featured in the exhibition, Culprits, Innocents and Outsiders: Heartland Visions, on view April 30 - August 29, 2009 at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. The exhibition will include art by venerable artists William Hawkins and Elijah Pierce, whose works are well represented in several prominent private collections and area institutions, plus works by lesser known artists Mary Borkowski, Mary Merrill, David Pond, Morris Ben Newman, and stone carver, Ernest "Popeye" Reed.

During its nearly 20 years, Intuit has demonstrated an ability to cull through the myriad of self-taught art to find and elevate artists worthy of greater attention. In that spirit, the exhibition Culprits, Innocents and Outsiders: Heartland Visions presents seven extraordinary artists whose undeniable individuality is highly evident in the art they produced.

The exhibition is historically inspired from accounts of a 1986 exhibition 1 + 3 from Ohio. That exhibition, organized by Ohio University art historian Gary J. Schwindler, featured works by William Hawkins, Mary Merrill, and Morris Newman, as well as a small selection of works by Elijah Pierce. According to curator Kevin Cole, Culprits, Innocents and Outsiders: Heartland Visions includes representative works from each artist drawn from several stellar Midwest public and private collections. Lenders include the Milwaukee Art Museum (WI), the Dayton Art Institute (OH), and the Columbus Museum of Art (OH), which is home to the most extensive collection of works by Pierce.

Elijah Pierce (1892-1984) was the son of a former slave, born on a cotton plantation in Baldwyn, Mississippi. Although an uncle taught him to whittle, Pierce chose to cut hair as his trade. He earned his license as an itinerant Baptist preacher in 1920, and soon after joined the Great Migration north, eventually settling in Columbus, Ohio. Pierce is recognized as one of an elite group of American folk art masters. During the 1930s, Pierce created his most elaborate work, The Book of Wood, which depicted New Testament scenes that he used as illustrated sermons. By the 1970s, Pierce had garnered broad art world attention. And, in 1982, he was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, in recognition of his cultural achievements.

William Hawkins (1895-1990) grew up on a farm in rural eastern Kentucky. Educated in a one-room schoolhouse through the third grade, Hawkins worked as a laborer and truck driver settling in Columbus, Ohio. Known fondly as "Grandpa" to those who frequented his near eastside neighborhood, Hawkins is heralded by critics for his bold, graphic and imaginative paintings that often began with house paint, and at times incorporated pictures clipped from magazines. Art historian, Gary J. Schwindler, considered an expert on Hawkins, described him as an "artistic free agent," enjoying a freedom from external standards, and possessing the unbridled ability to do what was "naturally consistent with his own spirit and instincts." (left: Artists William Hawkins (l) and Mary Frances Merrill (r), Columbus, Ohio; circa 1988. photo courtesy of Lee Garrett)

Mary Frances Merrill (1920-1999) reflected that she "always made things." The artist produced works that were warm, romantic, subtle and spiritual, sophisticated, creative, and often highly personal. Merrill's art making in Columbus spanned three decades, with the most prolific period occurring during a ten-year bout with agoraphobia. To keep her company, Merrill made dolls from fabric scraps. Using paint, chewing gum, jewelry, etc., she also turned rocks and coal nuggets into heads -- even adding make-up. The exhibition also includes an impressive range of paintings done by Merrill on linoleum removed from her kitchen floor.

Mary K. Borkowski (1916-2008) produced a body of work that consists of more than 200 quilts, 113 thread paintings, and 73 acrylic paintings -- all done in one year (1978) -- just to get her stories out, plus 5 mixed media collages. Borkowski once stated, "The world is on fire, and I have something to say about it." Borkowski's art frequently depicts crises and events that are highly personal. About her art, Borkowski once wrote, "I never made a painting before in my life, thread or otherwise until 1965. They are the pieces of my life that shouldn't have been -- the world of Mary Borkowski."

Chuck Rosenak, noted folk art author, has described Borkowski as truly on the "cutting edge" that helped define what became known as contemporary American folk art of the 20th century. Some of the pioneer collectors of self-taught art, including Herbert Hemphill, Jr. and Robert Bishop, visited Borkowski's home in Dayton and bought her often-surreal stories in thread. Her work can be found in such prestigious collections as the Smithsonian Institute, the American Folk Art Museum, Nixon Presidential Library, and other museum collections.

Morris Ben Newman (1883-1980) worked in house paint, artist's oils, temperas, and nearly any material he could find, including window shades. The eccentric Newman claimed to have lived 33,906 reincarnations of one hundred years each, and had the number tattooed on his arm. The term visionary aptly describes Newman who frequently painted landscapes showing a world much like our own, but somehow different and exotic. A resident of Cleveland, Newman listed Ethiopia as his place of birth, claiming royal ancestry linked to the falashal Jews (black descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel). Newman often told stories of his travels in Europe and the U.S., and described numerous trips to Haiti. Newman believed he possessed psychic powers, and claimed to have engaged in astral travel. (right: Artists Morris Ben Newman (l) and Elijah Pierce (r), Columbus, Ohio; circa 1976. photo courtesy of Lee Garrett)

Photos of Morris Ben Newman that survive often show him dressed formally with suit and tie, wearing a fez cap. Newman was a large stately man of imposing proportions, whose extraordinary and exaggerated claims defined his persona. The array of materials he used to make art, the paintings that found their way into private collections, and the memory jugs, handcrafted pipes and other art that Newman created reflect an incredible imagination and artistic vision that form his legacy. Though little has been written about Newman, he was assuredly a complex individual who arguably is among the most enigmatic and curious figures of any self-taught American artist.

Ernest "Popeye" Reed (1919-1985) and David Pond, unlike the other artists in the exhibition, shunned the city in favor of secluded country living. A young Reed found work in sawmills, and later as a cabinetmaker. He resided in a log cabin in southern Ohio until he replaced it with a hand-made house trailer. Popeye marveled at the realism achieved in ancient Greek sculpture, believing they must have turned humans into stone using liquefied marble.

David Pond (1940-2001) also called a trailer home, settling near Somerset in southeastern Ohio. Pond worked as a carnival roadie, and later ran an antique store before turning his attention to making art. He often distributed business cards listing his trade as "salvage analyst." Pond was an avid reader and a lover of poetry. Known for his keen sense of humor, Pond's wit and social commentary often appeared in his art, which reflects his vivid imagination and life experiences. (left: David Pond, African Princess, 1990, 14 _" h x 2 _" w x 1 _" d, carved and painted wood. Private Collection)

Culprits, Innocents and Outsider: Heartland Visions presents art from a magnificent group of seven self-taught artists that is full of personal expression and intuition. These artists seem to have no problems whatsoever moving from one means of expression or medium to another. The exhibition includes works that extend from traditional painting on canvas to painting on just about any available surface the artists could find or put their hands on. The work reflects precisely chiseled stone sculptures depicting mythical figures, to low-relief embroidery with fine silk thread painstakingly sewn onto cloth, to works using discarded chewing gum and wrappers.

"It is intriguing to imagine the time and circumstances during which these individuals lived and later flourished as artists ­ some in the same neighborhood just blocks from one another. This is extraordinary art produced by extraordinary people, living next door to us," stated Cleo Wilson, Intuit director.

Curator Kevin Cole added, "The seven individuals in this exhibition chose to make art without the so-called advantages of academic training. These artists realized their own means of expression, some blazing new trails in the process. Culprits, Innocents and Outsiders: Heartland Visions presents art that is idiosyncratic and original-art that spans 60-some years-that lives on inspiring others."


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