Mikey Welsh (deceased) 60x40 paint on canvas Beast
Processing the things of life and molding them differently comes not from the ordinary of us; the artist is extra-ordinary, an alien amongst the natives.™ The International Outsider Exhibition of Modern Art (Ioema) Collection holds over 300 original artist paintings, drawings, sculptures and odd combinations. All of the works were submitted by the artist at outsiderart.info (originally innercityartist.com) . If I liked their work or thought my visitors would, I emailed them back and agreed to show their work online in exchange for an original. From 1999 through early 2019, art from all over the world arrived at my front porch. Almost all of the artists had a personal story to tell through their work. A few, like Mikey Welsh, William Thomas Thompson, Michael Hoffee, Norbert Kox, Khara Oxier and others became good friends while some I spoke with on the phone, learning more than color and line. I met Thompson (who sat on my back porch for hours after returning from the American Visionary Art Museum), Norbert Kox (when he stopped by the house to pick up four of his paintings I retrieved from an exhibition in Pittsburgh) and George Heslet jr. I stood in Welsh's studio and awed at Heslet's basement lair. Mostly though, artists and I just traded emails. Our artists use art to express unburst joy, deep unending sorrow, years of abuse and the ecstasy of survival. Some survived because of art. Most are self taught, outsiders. Some have died (Welsh, Hoffee, Kox, Garieri,Teague, Cholla, Heslet). Others quit making art. Most are still at it, creating new works.
I remember thinking of the idea of starting a website to exhibit art. I couldn't imagine anyone paying me to show their work and didn't know how to get the money back then anyway. Besides, artists don't have cash to waste but they do have art and that's what I really wanted. I used Microsoft Frontpage to start everything rolling in late 1998/early 1999 and focused on outsider art. Shortly after I made the site and added what were called keywords, Google started serving the site number 1 or 2 result for outsider art search! How the hell that happened I still don't know decades later. Not only that but the first couple artists I put on the site that I met in the streets of Pittsburgh, their page on my site came up #1 in Google search for their name, even when very common. I made a submission form and said that if an artist was interested, they could show me their work through email or internet and I would exhibit it on my site if I liked it or thought visitors to the site would like the art. I also asked for an original from every artist accepted to the site but no money. The first couple months nothing happened. And then, to my shock, I got a submission and then quickly another. Over the next 22 years, the site averaged 2 to 3 hundred submissions per year and I exhibited about 5% of those, some years more or less. I only emailed back on ones that I wanted to show so it wasn't all that much work and it was a simple process for me cause I either liked the work or not. Sometimes, I would let the submission sit for a few days to make sure I knew what I thought. Every single exhibited artist sent me at least one original work of art.
Back then, the site was innercityartist.com and soon changed to outsiderart.info and now steady on ioemacollection.com. The latest name is a recognition that the art is now a collection and doesn't really accept submissions any longer. In 1999, artists couldn't get their images seen easily online and getting in to what few online galleries there were, especially for outsiders, was impossible. My site offered a way to be seen because of google and offered them the opportunity to get their work and art to a wider, hopefully buying, audience. Starting in the last five years or so, even a hermit in a cave scratching wood on rocks becomes an internet start so the appeal of my original idea diminished and I'm glad for that. Artists have dozens of ways to show their work and are better for it. And I have no room for more art.
I kept much of the emails from artists I accepted and after a while started to keep some of the packaging they used, like labels or cardboard fronts to the boxes or tubes used and I'm glad I did. Some of the artists submitted, answered an acceptance email, sent the work and I never heard another peep. Some sent 2 works in one package or maybe another work a year or two later out of the blue with a note "Merry Christmas" or "Just for you, Happy Spring." Quite few artists sent multiple artworks here and established a mini collection within the collection of their work. Welsh, Hoffe, Oxier, Judges, Murison, Sales, Plastorm, Keck, Thompson, Kox, Heslet, Brady, Fujino, Garance, Bennett, Attali, Pyper, Vuittonet, Smithline, Waugh, Dushan, Shaffer, Steiner and Swinton (and I missed some) sent multiple works here over the years.
The smallest work came from Mitsi Brown barely 1.5 inch square and the largest painting a 9 foot wide Hoffee/Welsh collaboration. The longest work is an Attali drawing bound in to a book that when put together flows 36 feet. Many of the works arrived unstretched canvas rolled in a tube. Some paintings on standard store bought stretched canvas, some on raw canvas stretched by the artist, paint on wood panels or scrap wood or even cabinet fronts and shelving arrived through all the standard delivery services. During different stretches of time, the overseas works outnumbered USA works with art getting here from Australia, England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Israel, Spain, Poland, Japan, Netherlands, China, Canada, Czech Republic, Maldives, Russia, Denmark, Germany, Serbia, Puerto Rico and Peru. A painting from Poland took the longest in transit, 45 days! Works on paper, sculpture, eggwashed linen, heavy oil/acrylic/spray, pencil, pen, woodblock print, collage, papercut...almost every visual medium except video made its way in to the collection.
John Yimin interview for Riot Magazine (RM) May 2005 (updated 2019)
www.ioemacollection.com Organization: The Ioema Collection
RM Can you tell me a little about yourself, and how you got involved/interested in outsider art?
Yimin: I’m a simple man interested in exposing the greatest array of art to the greatest array of people.
RM Can you tell me a little bit about the history of outsider art? What is it, and what constitutes an outsider artist?
Yimin: I am not a critic. Nor do I know what is good or bad or outsider. I guess outsider art can go back thousands of years but probably the artist most would recognize and could be said to be an outsider artist would be Henri Rousseau. Famously, van Gogh made himself an outsider. Many others came after and before. A lot of people, some of them torturedly expressive, state that a movement began with the art brut kingdom of Jean Debuffett and outsider art followed when Roger Cardinal published his book. Many think that outsider art rests in the mnds of the insane and manically driven. And it does. But it also flows on the surface of other rivers. I think most definitions that prevent dealers from laying out a convenient and controlling path suits me. Clearly, though, an outsider artist (as opposed to outsider art) has something unusual to say and does so in a visual way.
RM How has outsder art changed over the years, how is ‘modern’ outsider art
different than ‘traditional’ outsider art?
Yimin: The change to outsider art has happened more in the exposure and in recognition than in the expression. Some art collectors have come to recognize outsider art when they see it and others point to that fact as proof that outsider art is now tainted, that the recognition of style and grace has spoiled the water. But clear thinking and scholarship reveals that even at the beginning, pick any point along the birth path of outsider art, the artists referred to something to create their vision. Henry Darger’s imagination surely fueled his epic creations but his sources were coloring books and magazine advertisements. Those sources do not spoil his art, they enhance it and show his single minded pursuit of a vision just outside his reach. Others today are practicing the same internal meditation in a more exposed way that doesn’t lessen the purity of the act or the validity of the outcome. However, the illegitimate use of labels has forever plagued all of art and modern outsider art too falls short occasionally.
RM Can you describe a couple of eccentric/strange characters that you have
come across in the outsider art field?
Yimin: That’s probably not a very good question for me to answer because I can’t see past my addiction to this art and these artists!
RM Who are some of the stand out artists over the last few years? What’s
different about them?
Yimin: A very hard thing for me to do is to pick a few favorites among the artists I’ve been lucky enough to exhibit. But I am lucky to have a close relationship with William Thomas Thompson, a visionary artist consumed and enhanced by the fire of his interpretation of the Holy Book. Mr. Thompson has painted the Book of Revelation in a 300 foot painting that hung at theAmerican Visionary Art Museum and is now at work on a permanent 100 foot addition to AVAM’s collection. I think of Mikey Welsh as a brother. Mikey courageously fights a life that hits hard and fast, creating masterpieces of visual assault (Mikey died 2011). Michael Hoffee and Stephen Judges have stunned me with their paintings and their unusual and colorful vision. Khara Oxier and Connie Sales create art that touches each of us. Harry Teague swam against the strong current of a massive stroke the last ten years of his life to create a universe he lived and we shared (Harry died in 2006). Glenn Brady’s art has attched itself to me faster than any I can remember. There are so many others. Ian Pyper, Billy Bob beamer with his post-it note worlds fighting back black shadows of pain. Plastorm making things with what he has. And so many on outsiderart.info and ioemacollection.com who are mentally, physically and psychologically challenged but I don’t put much text or biography in the galleries. That’s something my visitors need to discover for themselves.
RM How is outsider art different than ‘regular art’? Is it better?
Yimin: In many ways, regular art is the expression of an artists world in their terms and outsider art is the same. But outsider art swerves away when the lives of the artists develop in a way that creates an overwhelming need in them to make visual that which excites their senses. If I can use my signature….Processing the things of life and molding them differently comes not from the ordinary of us; the artist is extraordinary, an alien amongst the natives. It’s one of my favorite ways to think of the artists I am lucky enough to exhibit. As for better….well, I like all art.
RM Are there a lot of venues in the US for outsider artists to show/sell their work?
Yimin: Christie’s 2003 sale of outsider art really blew open the doors and made a lot of noise both in the art community and in the auction world. The New York Outsider Art Fair every year is a big deal but is tightly regulated by certain galleries acting as gatekeepers. And then, of course, there are many regional and national events focused on sales of outsider artwork, the best of which have the artists in attendance. A very exciting new venue for some artists will be the New York Art Expo’s new in 2004 Solo area which might generate sales for the artists who have organizational help.
RM Can you tell me a bit about the origination of your site? What are you trying to accomplish? How’s it working out for you?
Yimin: I realized as a kid that color and line had a unique hold on me. I’m addicted to art, easily experiencing the physical and psychological smash-ups that come with every addiction. We (my life long partner and I) got online in 1996 and I started to teach myself a little code then found software that helped make pages for a site. I started outsiderart.info to show artwork that had taken hold of me. But I didn’t want to charge the artists and I wanted to decide who to exhibit and who not to. Because it became a problem to explain why I wasn’t charging, I began to ask for an original if I exhibited an artists work. I never expected it to work. But it has. Every exhibited artist sends at least one original, many send more and some haven’t stopped (I no longer accept submissions 2019). I have a very simple set of accomplishments I’m working toward…to expose the greatest array of art to the greatest array of people, to build and maintain a site that consistently comes out on top of Google search for outsider art and to build a collection of art that I can one day share. I think the secret to outsiderart.info has been and will remain the artwork. The site itself is simple with very little text but tons of images and easy navigation with a simple structure. The art stars. And thats what matters to me.
RM Are you an artist yourself? What kind of art? (if so, do you think you could provide me with some images)
Yimin: I am not an artist. I’m an outsider. And my real job is a secret, so far.
RM There seems to be an undercurrent of dark/disturbed feelings associated
with outsider art, why is this?
Yimin: I think its natural as a collector or viewer to notice the dark/disturbed nature of some outsider art. Most of that expression of vision comes from the fractured nature of some everyday lives. At times, there is a struggle to the living that becomes intertwined with the creating and, more than a simpe representation of an object, becomes the subject of the art. Frequently, the subject reflects the struggle more than the triumph. And I’m not sure why. But there is also the different vision of Garance, Harry Teague, Lory Smith, Mary Zeman and her celebration of life and many others who can focus on both sides of life. On balance, though, because the art assaults the senses at times, it can be thought of as dark or disturbed, and sometimes it is.
RM How do you see outsider art as a movement/genre progressing over the next decade?
Yimin: I’m pretty sure the mainstream art world will battle over definitions, rights, provenance and most of the rest that matters in that world while the artists making art from outside the art world will continue creating that which most of us can only see through them.
Thank you so much for the opportunity to reflect on what my artists and their work mean to me.