Preview: Outside in Ohio: A Century of Unexpected Genius

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From the July 26, 2012 edition

There are two sides to the art world: the inside and the outside. On the inside — mainstream and traditional art — artists train in classrooms and hang their framed works in galleries and museums. Those on the outside, known as outsider artists, either can’t get in or don’t have any desire to.

“They’re people who are producing compelling artwork perhaps for reasons other than academic artists do,” explained Mark Chepp, former director of the Springfield Museum of Art. “They’re not looking for that acknowledgement of the mainstream art world. They’re using art as a way to better themselves, release some sort of energy, a psychological balm.”

Chepp served as curator for a rare exhibition at Riffe Gallery that brings together work by 18 of Ohio’s best outsider artists from the 20th century. The only other show of its kind was held in the same gallery in the 1980s, Chepp said.

“Working in that mainstream art world, what I found to be engaging and compelling a long time ago in this genre of art: The outsider art has an honesty about it,” he said. “It can at times seem primitive or even childlike, but there was a power to it that tended to transcend the sort of false facade we see in mainstream art.”

Along with renowned woodcarver Elijah Pierce, mixed-media expert Russell “Smoky” Brown, and painter and collage artist William Hawkins, here are a few of the great outsider artists from the exhibition that Ohioans should be proud to call their own.

· Ernest “Popeye” Reed created limestone sculptures — some of which look like ancient Egyptian artifacts — in Jackson County. “He got his materials from old building sites, and he would lug large blocks of limestone back to his home and make sculptures out of them,” Chepp explained. “He was called Popeye because his forearms got so big in manipulating this heavy material that they bulged like Popeye the cartoon character’s.”

· Mary Borkowski, a Dayton quilter who died in 2008, became nationally known for a technique she called “thread painting,” where she made drawings on cloth using different colors of thread. Her “Saving Susie’s Life” depicts a scene at an animal clinic: a hunky, Ken-like veterinarian helping a happy canine in a dentist’s chair.

· Ira Brukner, who currently lives in Yellow Springs, is an unusual example of a self-taught abstract artist. “He’s an abstract expressionist almost in the way he moves paint around,” Chepp said. “Motion,” one of several Brukner paintings in the show, could almost be mistaken for a Kandinsky with its grouping of multicolored circles.

· The exhibition offers takes on the story of Adam and Eve by Levent Isik, who lives in Columbus and creates painted wooden relief sculptures, and Charles A. Owens, a now-deceased longtime Columbus resident whose large oil paintings depict historical and biblical events. “The subject matter among outsider artists tends to be repetitive in that a lot of artists hone in on the same subjects,” Chepp explained. “Biblical subjects are a popular subject.”