Are you interested in seeing a colossal model of the famous steamship the Lusitania created by hand out of thousands of matchsticks? How about a giant outdoor egg covered in patterns of mirrored glass reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh’s painting ‘Starry Night?’ Or maybe some miniature sculptures carved out of the lead on tips of pencils (which, by the way, can only be seen clearly with the aid of some magnifying glasses helpfully hanging on the wall nearby)?
If this quirkiness sounds appealing, you should head over to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Md., where these and many other odd and whimsical pieces are laid out in room after room, overwhelming the senses.
What is visionary art? The museum defines it as “art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself.”
This museum’s appeal is in the unexpected. Around every corner is a display unlike anything seen at a more traditional museum. It has the feel of a traveling curiosity roadside show, with so many artful oddities filling each room that it’s sometimes difficult to force your eye to examine them individually.
The museum does a great job displaying this art, but the real magic lies in the stories about the people who created the pieces.
It’s one thing to see a wood carving of a haunting, elongated human figure with a sunken chest. It’s quite another to read its display card and find out that it is a self portrait created by a mental patient with a chest deformed by tuberculosis. He had never shown an interest in art until he found a tree trunk while walking on the institution grounds and persuaded the staff to help him move it so he could work on it. He took his own life a few years later. It was the only piece he ever created.
Stories like this add another dimension to these works and make them all the more meaningful.
The art in this museum is special and different because it’s produced by ordinary people who are driven to create extraordinary things. These artists and their stories show us that the capability of creating art is within all of us, regardless of our background or training. It’s part of our humanity, and it’s just waiting for us to reach into ourselves to find and express it.
If you haven’t seen it yet, the American Visionary Art Museum is well worth a visit. Or if you’ve already been, leave a comment about what you thought of it.