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OUTSIDE YOU: some musings on the term 'Outsider Artist'

I answered a few questions for Frame and Reference some years back; something I've always regretted to a degree. I was battling the term 'Outsider Artist', even though deep down in my heart I knew it was the closest fit in terms of any label slapped upon me. It was also something I'd embraced in the early days of painting but lost for various reasons; read on for a thrilling adventure through the miasma of my paint splattered past...


I have no recollection of learning to play chess; but I can play chess. I had no one to play against growing up, so I used to compete against myself. I was fixated on the destruction of the enemy queen, the most powerful nemesis therefore the one to smash. I’d lay out ultra-aggressive battle strategies, trying to force panic and chaos. Chipping, chipping, chipping away. Pressure, always pressure. Such was the see-saw that I never actually realised I was one person; it felt like a distinct shift took place each turn. One dreary Sunday afternoon, aged eleven, I’m in a gloomy hall playing a youth chess tournament. I recall walking through the town beforehand, sleeves rolled up on my jacket and preparing for war. Also terrified. One particular game springs to mind: my opponent is a girl called Margaret with lustrous wavy hair and her big brother, who looms over us, scowling as I repeatedly say CHECK CHECK CHECK and her confidence falters and I violently throw my pieces against her crumbling defence. I imagine becoming a Grandmaster, with a nice picture of me on the cover of one of those hardback pocket books from the 70’s I’d browse in the local library. What hairstyle would I choose, what face would I make? Would it be in colour maybe? Would my mum knit me a cardigan? A year later I’m at some bullshit Boys Brigade residential, having social time with the entire company. I have taken my magnetic chess travel set and my art pad with a biro and some felt tips. Only one person is willing to play me, a huge bumbling behemoth who drools over everything and has a dangerous aura; hands that could unwittingly crush a small skull. I'm deeply uncomfortable but then he soundlessly wanders off after five minutes and I have a brutal epiphany: I’m not like anyone here. I’d had similar feelings for years, tiny cosmic warnings which I couldn’t quite process, a sense of impending terror if I pulled the curtain back a little. A bucket of cold loneliness was poured over my head, I wanted to run but had nowhere to run too, couldn’t risk crying for all the usual reasons.  I slowly tried to make sense of this feeling, scanning the room carefully and looking for a place to fit in. Nothing made sense, and I started to accept what I’d known for a while now, something was wrong with me. A crippling crushing doom ensued.  An officer saw my distress and came to play chess but I knew it was for sympathy and hated that I was visible so I managed to steer him away. I got my art pad and drew an articulated lorry, spending a long time on the power cables. Someone came over and said “that’s good” but I didn’t bother looking up. Everyone went for tea and I remained in the social area, alone. I feel an immense sadness thinking back to this day, it’s one of many threads I used to map out my descent into hell years later.


I don’t draw much lorries anymore, but here’s one of my first ever paintings:


JAZZ UP YOUR LIZARD HAND PUPPET (2006?)


I started making art in my adult years during a dark decade; I had a list of people to throw into a volcano, I dreamt nightly of being hunted by gangs wielding machetes, I had a powerful belief that I had died in a terrible accident and that 'life' was giving me a gentle exit with lots of hints and clues as to my demise; I always felt I was getting closer and closer to the grand revelation that I was actually a ghost haunting myself. All the insidious chemicals sneaking back in, a hazy midnight existence as I shuffled from bleak scenario to bleaker scenario. I could see it spiral from my soul, a path into nothingness. I sat one day with a three month sick line which was to become a six year sick line and a bag of pills which was to become an even bigger bag of pills. I felt it in my bones that this was a tipping point: go buy a slab of Tennants or what the fuck else can I do? Out of nowhere I was beamed a lifeline, directly into my minds eye: make some art. I googled 'art', made a cuppa and read for a few hours; then art and mental health, then invariably/inevitable I hit upon OUTSIDER ART. Everything changed in a second, I was completely overwhelmed by a positive and powerful emotion I couldn't quite quantify. This made sense, it fucking screamed at me, a cosmic gift. I scavenged what meagre supplies I had in the house: years old poster paint, house paint, felt tips, biros and kicked the back out of an old abandoned wardrobe on the street round the corner to use as a medium to paint on. I had no plan beyond the immediate moment. No goal. No desire or interest to show anyone. Just an outpouring of my all, filtered through hands and heart. I'll talk about my art process over the years sometime. Am I an Outsider Artist? I'm an Outsider. I make Art. Who honestly cares. Some folk dictate what other folk view as Outsider Art. That's nae richt. Any art from the margins, crafted by an urgent soul with painful honesty is surely befitting of a possibly outdated but also possibly fitting label like 'Outsider Art'. No point arguing the term really, it is what it is. It certainly stands apart from most other art forms, and that can never be a bad thing.


I'll likely post many times over about the intricacies of my thoughts and feelings surrounding Outsider Art but I'll end here by simply saying spoonjastic.


Steve, your rugged artist friend x

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