Dawne Franklin has participated in Short Center North’s art program for 17 years. “I love how the paint feels, especially acrylic,” says Franklin, one of the center’s top-selling artists.

Outside’s In

Outsider art continues to captivate collectors in Sacramento and beyond

Back Longreads May 20, 2019 By Jessica Laskey

The four members of boy band One Direction are depicted standing shoulder to shoulder against a bright yellow background. They each wear a distinctive outfit, and their names are below them in black handwriting punctuated with magenta dots.

This is the work of Dawne Franklin, a client of Short Center North’s art program for adults with disabilities. Though Franklin is not a classicly-trained artist, her brightly colored work depicting celebrities has sold well in fundraiser shows put on by Sacramento’s SCN to introduce clients’ artwork to the wider world under the auspices of “outsider art,” a term coined over time to encompass everything from work by self-taught artists to the artwork of the developmentally disabled.

“Dawne has grown as an artist since she came to the program 17 years ago,” says John Berger, SCN’s program director for 18 years. “She doesn’t rush the artistic process and makes better choices about composition and color. I think there is a certain raw energy within her work. It’s funny, hard-edged, enthusiastic, cute in some ways, but all in the right proportions. She also paints subject matter that really appeals to her — and it shows.”

“I love how the paint feels, especially acrylic,” Franklin, 38, says.

This enthusiasm has made Franklin one of SCN’s top-selling artists, with pieces that range from $10 to $120. Forty of her paintings were displayed at a fundraiser last summer and Berger says that the roughly $400 Franklin’s work brought in was one of the center’s largest sales for a single artist at an event.

“Anyone who can make the Backstreet Boys, One Direction, Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears and Justin Bieber appeal to a fine art market and make people want to proudly display this work in their home is doing something right,” Berger says. “Everyone that purchased her work walked away from the event happy.”

But should happiness be the only measure by which we evaluate art? The question of whether the provenance of a piece of artwork should affect its popularity has long been a battleground for academics, artists, gallerists and collectors. For one of those gallerists, art expert D. Neath, there’s really only one way to judge.

“It either speaks to you or it doesn’t,” says Neath, who has been involved in the Sacramento art scene for decades, first as a protégée of the late Michael Himovitz — a celebrated gallery owner and one of the founders of Second Saturday — and now as the proprietor of Archival Gallery and the curator of the annual televised KVIE Art Auction.

This clear-cut definition is especially useful in a time when the art world seems to be more and more keen on defining art in categories — keywords and titles like “pop art,” “folk art,” “found art” and “installation art” — that encapsulate a movement or genre, making it easy to understand and optimize for online searches.

But when we’re talking about outsider art, that encapsulation can be quite tricky.

What is Outsider Art?

The definition of “outsider art” began to crystallize in the early 1970s when art critic Roger Cardinal coined the term as a way to translate the French art term art brut — meaning “raw art” or “rough art” — that was used by artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the establishment. Neath sees the definition of the genre as something even more basic.

“I think the difference between outsider artists and professional artists is that they’re making art for different reasons,” Neath says. “They’re not making it to be aesthetically pleasing so you’ll buy it — they don’t care if you like it. They make art because they derive physical joy from doing so. They have a physical need to create.”

Outsider art enjoyed quite a bit of local attention in the 1980s when the Himovitz Gallery was in operation — Neath says her mentor was a champion of outsider art — and Neath held her first exhibition of outsider artwork at Archival Gallery in 1987. It featured work by the clients of SCN, which uses art classes and other hands-on activities to help participants develop life skills.

Over the years, Neath has made it a priority to include SCN artists in the KVIE Art Auction — the center has been one of the contributing galleries for 15 years — and to show their work at her gallery as well as to purchase pieces that speak to her as a private collector.

Exhibitions of outsider art continue to be held locally at Archival, on KVIE and at the Verge Center for the Arts, which hosted a survey show of 35 years of SCN artwork in 2014, as well as nationally at venues such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the annual Outsider Art Fairs in New York and Paris. Yet questions about the genre’s definition, popularity and marketability remain.

Some outsider artworks have fetched prices in the tens of thousands of dollars on the national art scene, but most sell for less than $100 when they’re hung on the wall of a local gallery. Which figure is a more accurate reflection of the value of outsider art? Is there any way to tell when the genre itself is so hard to define?

When French artist Dubuffet started using the term art brut, he was referring particularly to art done by those on the outside of the established art scene, then primarily patients at psychiatric hospitals and children. Art critic Cardinal broadened the definition when he attached the word “outsider” to mean art done by someone who is naïve — a child or patient — or self-taught.

Neath sees the term as perhaps too broad to do its various subgenres justice. She sees five subgenres: religious-fervor artwork (she cites famed outsider artist Howard Finster, who claimed to be inspired by God to spread the gospel through his art); prison art; children’s art; artwork by the developmentally disabled; and art by the legally insane.

For Liv Moe, founding director of Verge Center for the Arts, the definition isn’t just overly broad, it’s downright problematic.

“The cliché of outsider art being considered more ‘pure’ because it’s outside the mainstream fetishizes the artists, which takes away their individuality,” says Moe. When the term was first used in the 1970s and ’80s, she explains, it was to specify a previously nebulous genre full of people operating on the fringe of the art establishment — whether because they were self-taught, disabled or living in rural areas and therefore not part of the conversation. But over the years, a romanticism has taken hold that sees these artists not as outsiders but as something akin to artistic unicorns.

“Anyone who can make the Backstreet Boys, One Direction, Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears and Justin Bieber appeal to a fine art market and make people want to proudly display this work in their home is doing something right.” John Berger, program director, Short Center North

“The concept [of art] that comes down to us through academia is that we’re all contributing to a running stream of thought — if someone is operating outside of that dialogue, there’s a fascination with how that’s happening,” Moe says. “It’s interesting when somebody challenges the mainstream paradigm and makes you consider where aesthetic decision-making comes from, how the brain works, where inspiration comes from. It gets back to the core philosophical issues of art theory — why are we doing this in the first place? What makes art?”

For others like John Soldano, an avid outsider art collector and co-owner of the Toyroom Gallery — which exhibited work by SCN clients for years starting in 2001 before the Sacramento gallery went entirely online — the best way to define the genre is by the makers of the work.

“The only way for me to honestly define outsider art is by artists,” says Soldano, who estimates he’s collected roughly 30 outsider artworks over the years, including the work of Chris Mars, a self-taught artist from Minnesota. “Chris’s paintings are mostly done in oil or pastels and they’re usually nightmarish portraits of distorted figures. Chris … was inspired by his brother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized. I think of his paintings as a reflection of what his brother might be going through. Chris has said, ‘In each piece, I am freeing my brother. I am creating a monument to him and those like him. I rescue Joe from the oppressive institutions of the 1960s, the stereotypes of society here today. Through my work, I challenge the cultural system that finds it easier to turn their heads — their hearts — away. I urge the viewer to consider the beauty, on a grand level, of that which may appear ugly at first.’”

Soldano believes our fascination with this type of artwork not only comes from a recognition of what marginalized minds might be going through, but also of a “primal, uninfluenced mindset” that reminds us of our youth, a time “when you didn’t have to please a teacher for fear of passing a course. For me, this art brings me back to a time of no rules, freedom and color without color theory.”

Ultimately, experts agree the foundational component of outsider art is a lack of outside influence — making art without an eye toward salability, without considering if it will get the creator into a gallery or sold for high prices. Making art for the sake of making art.

“Outsider artists aren’t making the work to be pretty or to make sure you’ll buy it,” Neath says. “They’re making it because they have to — because it brings them joy.”

Who Makes Outsider Art?

The joy of creating is the crux of the program at SCN, which was created in 1978 under the aegis of the locally based Developmental Disabilities Service Organization to give clients access to programs taught by professional working artists. Short Center South, which offers similar programs, was created in 1993 when the fast-growing Short Center Sacramento was divided into two programs to provide more services to more clients.

During  its 41 years, SCN’s clients have had their artwork exhibited all over the Central Valley, including at the Crocker Art Museum, the California State Fair, the State Capitol and as part of public mural installations. Beyond Sacramento, client artwork has been shown at the Ames Gallery in Berkeley, the Outsider Art Fair in New York and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.

“I look at art as the great equalizer,” says SCN director Berger. “It’s all-encompassing — all socioeconomic groups, all abilities. If you spend any time at our center with these artists, you get the sense that it’s a real, true, pure form of art they’re doing. These people aren’t getting caught up in the scene, it’s just what comes out — it’s a creativity you don’t see anywhere else.”

SCN clients participate in weekday art classes, and images of their work are posted to the center’s Instagram page with the artist’s name and a description of the subject as a way to share their talent with SCN’s broader network. Berger says while outsider artwork was considered fairly niche at first, it’s enjoyed a steady growth in popularity over the years thanks to highly visible exhibitions like the Outsider Art Fair, an annual four-day event founded in 1993 that hosts more than 60 international exhibitors displaying works from “artists pushing the boundaries of creativity.”

Former SCN clients Bob Sulin, Jon Espegren, Jeff Working, Wendy Chu and Jerry Williams have  been shown at the Outsiders Art Fair, and SCN’s inclusion at national gatherings as well as at local galleries and events like Sac Open Studios, Verge’s annual tour of more than 250 artist studios around the region — SCN was a featured stop last year — has helped artists find recognition outside the walls of the classroom.

“Art shows make me totally excited,” Franklin, the  SCN client, says.

This feeling of excitement is one that permeates programs like SCN, where the focus is on the process of making rather than the promise of selling. (When artists like Franklin do sell a piece, Berger says the artist keeps the amount of the sale minus the cost of materials.) But as with any art form on public display, buyers often come calling — and when that happens, it’s important for program directors and gallery owners to know how to handle an often complex situation.

Who Sells Outsider Art?

In March 2013, an untitled mixed-media work of colored pencil, wax and other materials on paper depicting a man on horseback by outsider artist Martín Ramírez fetched more than $270,000 at Paris auction house Cornette de Saint-Cyr, setting a sales record for the artist. His other works had reached prices as high as $95,000 (at Christie’s in 2003) and $134,500 (at Sotheby’s in 2011).

Ramírez immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in the early 1900s and worked for the railroads in California between 1925 and 1930. After suffering a head injury or stroke and becoming homeless, he was institutionalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Ramírez spent more than 30 years in institutions, first at Stockton State Hospital and later at DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn. At DeWitt, Tarmo Pasto, a visiting art professor, came across the arresting artwork Ramírez had been making with the materials around him — brown paper bags, examination-table paper, oatmeal, fruit juice, saliva and crayons.

Ramírez’s art was eventually introduced to the wider world by Pasto, artist Jim Nutt and Chicago-based art dealer Phyllis Kind. Since Kind’s first solo exhibition of Ramírez’s work in 1973, the artist’s drawings and collages have become some of the most highly valued examples of outsider art on the market.

But not everyone has such a story.

“It’s a crappy roll of the dice,” says Moe, who believes some of Ramírez’s market value is due to the finite availability of his work since his death in 1963.  His work didn’t find widespread attention — and the buyers willing to pay high prices for it — until long after his death. “Some artists work their tails off and go their whole careers without getting ‘discovered’ and others are successful right out of the gate because they meet the right person.”

Art that’s created with nontraditional materials by artists outside the mainstream is often difficult to appraise. Brian Witherell, COO and consignment director of Witherell’s Auction House in Sacramento and an expert on PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow,” explains that most of the items he handles are accompanied by letters of authenticity and grades applied by independent, third-party companies to assign a value that will be recognized and supported by the market.

“Art is harder to value, whether the piece is by an academically trained artist or outsider artist,” Witherell says. “Because the works vary, valuation is challenging and we often have to call in art experts to weigh in on specific genres. … Art is definitely the most interesting way to collect, but not the safest in terms of investment.”

For Neath, pricing outsider art has more to do with the materials used than what the market will bear. She says when artists don’t use archival materials — though she points out SCN uses high-quality materials and is provided frames by her shop — it  can negatively affect the price because the materials won’t stand the test of time. But, ultimately, Neath says from a gallerist’s point of view the valuation of outsider art has very little to do even with materials and much more to do with how people feel standing face to face with the artwork, whether at the Short Center or in the pages of a Sotheby’s catalogue.

“Outsider art is about the experience the artist put into it as they created it,” Neath says. “It’s not about what you see on the wall. It has intrinsic value — it’s the artist’s expression of themselves, of their need to make art. And you either like it or you don’t.”

Where to See Outsider Art

These three programs, all part of the Developmental Disabilities Service Organization, feature outsider art from clients. The program directors suggest calling to schedule a tour.

Short Center North
2331 St. Marks Way #E1
Sacramento (Map)
(916) 973-1951

Short Center South
5051 47th Ave.
Sacramento (Map)
(916) 737-2397

Alan Short Gallery
928 E. Rose St.
Stockton (Map)
(209) 462-8208