Art From the Edges: Folk, Outsider & Self-Taught Art + Americana With Toomey & Co.’s Aron Packer

Liz Catalano
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Toomey & Co. will present its inaugural Folk, Outsider & Self-Taught Art + Americana auction on August 12th, 2021 at 1:00 PM EDT. The sale signals a growing industry awareness of Outsider Art and its place in the broader artistic canon. Auction Daily recently sat down with Aron Packer, Toomey & Co.’s Senior Specialist for Contemporary & Outsider Art, to learn more about this event.

Anna Pottery/Wallace & Cornwall Kirkpatrick, Centennial snake jug, 1876. Image from Toomey & Co.
Anna Pottery/Wallace & Cornwall Kirkpatrick, Centennial snake jug, 1876. Image from Toomey & Co.

Auction Daily: Please give us a brief overview of Toomey & Co.’s upcoming Folk, Outsider & Self-Taught Art + Americana auction.

Toomey & Co.: The auction on August 12th starts with Folk Art, which includes a range of offerings, such as: important, late 19th-century stoneware from Anna Pottery / Wallace & Cornwall Kirkpatrick in Southern Illinois; woodcarvings by Carl Hallsthammar, Emil Janel, and others; patriotic/military items from different eras; 19th and early 20th-century Folk paintings; needlework by Samuel Folwell/Anna Greer and others; American quilts from various traditions; Tramp Art woodworking and decorative items; fish decoys; circus-themed material and a Snap Wyatt sideshow banner; gaming-related objects; tattoo flash drawings; and O.P. Lodmell stamp collages from the 1920s.

Mostly post-war, artist-driven Folk/Outsider works follow. Within Outsider Art, there are many lots by Chicago artists like Lee Godie, Wesley Willis, Mr. Imagination, Wilbur Rouson, and William Dawson. African-American Folk/Outsider artists from the South and elsewhere in the Midwest in the sale include: Clementine Hunter, James “Son Ford” Thomas, Elijah Pierce, David Butler, Sulton Rogers, Prophet Royal Robertson, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Willie White, Purvis Young, and Mose Tolliver. White Southern Folk/Outsider artists consist of Howard Finster, Jesse Howard, S.L. Jones, Carl McKenzie, and R.A. Miller.

To close the sale, we will offer assorted works by artists who were largely or entirely self-taught: Chicago’s Tony Fitzpatrick, Charles Steffen, Lee Groban, and Bruno Sowa; Illinois artists Stephen Warde Anderson, Eileen Doman, and George Colin; Milwaukee’s Bernard Gilardi; Georgia’s St. EOM; and Swedish artist Mana Lagerholm.

Wilbur Rouson, Memory Assemblage, 1999. Image from Toomey & Co.
Wilbur Rouson, Memory Assemblage, 1999. Image from Toomey & Co.

Auction Daily: Some readers may be unfamiliar with Outsider and Folk Art. What differentiates these styles, and how should collectors approach the categories?

Toomey & Co.: Folk Art is an umbrella term within which Outsider Art is often grouped. Although Folk Art as a concept is flexible, it specifically includes artwork that comes from a tradition that can be taught and handed down. In American Folk Art, this would include quilts, woodcarving, basket weaving, samplers, memory painting, tattoo art, banner painting, metalwork, and pottery.

A lot of these genres or categories might be considered utilitarian, or intended for everyday usefulness, hopefully combined with an aesthetic from years of nuancing a tradition of craft. One subset of Folk Art is memory ware, wherein small everyday objects such as keys, screws, nails, glass vials, shells, nuts, and jewelry are placed onto the surface of various objects with wood putty or another adhesive to represent the life of a person.

Jesse Howard, The Sign That Said They Get Down the Road…, c. 1966. Image from Toomey & Co.
Jesse Howard, The Sign That Said They Get Down the Road…, c. 1966. Image from Toomey & Co.

Toomey & Co.: Generally speaking, Outsider Art does not fit into what would be considered mainstream art. This often encompasses work made by people who do not have any formal training, including art of the mentally ill, art done in prison, or any number of other situations that produce unusually distinctive art.

Because some people are innately driven to create, art serves as a cathartic outlet. However, in cases where individuals do not train within academic institutions and/or they lack the means to engage with common artistic mediums, they must be resourceful. This might mean using leftover house paint to adorn a piece of plywood or tin (e.g., Mary Smith), taking socks apart and using the thread to make beautiful miniature embroideries (e.g., Raymond Materson), or heavily wrapping a found bicycle wheel with colorful yarn, twine, and fabric (e.g., Judith Scott). Repurposing common household materials or found objects tends to be classified as Folk Art.

Needlework family picture designed and patterned by Samuel Folwell, worked by Anna Greer, c. 1802. Image from Toomey & Co.
Needlework family picture designed and patterned by Samuel Folwell, worked by Anna Greer, c. 1802. Image from Toomey & Co.

Auction Daily: The event this August will be Toomey & Co.’s first dedicated Outsider Art sale. How did you put the auction together?

Toomey & Co.: Since this will be the inaugural auction of its kind here at Toomey & Co., we had some work to do to get our clientele’s heads wrapped around these overlapping artistic fields. For quite a few years now, we have been featuring a modest amount of solid work by Folk/Outsider artists in our auctions. Through clients’ online search alerts and our own marketing efforts, we have recently connected with an increasing number of buyers interested in these collecting areas and have been expanding our offerings.

In advance, we sensed that curating a dedicated auction would be a gradual process, so we started inviting consignments early. Thanks to our strong client base in the Midwest and on both coasts, we were able to assemble a catalog with both breadth and depth for our Folk, Outsider & Self-Taught Art + Americana auction on August 12th. Head of Sale Aron Packer, Senior Specialist for Contemporary & Outsider Art, has decades of experience exhibiting and selling Folk/Outsider artwork in Chicago. He leveraged his long tenure as a gallerist to bring in many consignments, from single objects to 10 or 20 at once. Vice President & Senior Specialist John P. Walcher also brought in a great deal of material, including a significant grouping of property from the Collection of Governor Jim Thompson (Chicago, Illinois).

Auction Daily: Which items in the upcoming auction are especially noteworthy?

Toomey & Co.: Here are selected works of note that bidders should consider:  

* Lot #3: Anna Pottery/Wallace & Cornwall Kirkpatrick, Centennial snake jug. Estimate: USD 30,000 – $50,000

* Lot #104: Lee Godie, Female Portrait with Artist Self-Portrait photo attached holding this painting. Estimate: $3,000 – $5,000

* Lot #149: Prophet Royal Robertson, Crazy-Mr. Roland Mark-Jones of Ohio, circa 1990 (double-sided). Estimate: $1,000 – $2,000

* Lot #155: Jimmy Lee Sudduth, The White House, 1980. Estimate: $1,000 – $2,000

* Lot #186: Howard Finster, Holy Bible, Howard Finster, 1983, #3, 102. Estimate: $800 – $1,200

American Folk Art, WWII era figural group — Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Image from Toomey & Co.
American Folk Art, WWII era figural group — Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Image from Toomey & Co.

Auction Daily: Tell us about the provenance of these lots.

Toomey & Co.: With over 250 lots in the auction, we have a wide range of consignors from the Midwest and beyond, including dealers and collectors, who have provided us with material for our first-ever Folk, Outsider & Self-Taught Art + Americana auction on August 12th. However, the single largest source is the Collection of Governor Jim Thompson (Chicago, Illinois).

Prior to his passing in 2020, Governor Thompson was not only the 37th and longest-serving governor of Illinois (1977-1991), but he was also a passionate collector of art, memorabilia, and antiques. The sale on August 12th has over 30 lots from Governor Thompson, including stoneware from Anna Pottery, impressive Folk woodcarvings and paintings, and various patriotic/military pieces of Americana.

On a related note, Toomey & Co.’s Aron Packer sold Governor Thompson a Folk Art wooden battleship model of the U.S.S. Illinois at the Sandwich Antiques Market over 30 years ago. Coming full circle, this work is now being offered in a group lot of Naval ephemera with other U.S.S. Illinois items: a sailor’s cap; a photo of an African-American sailor from the ship; two postcards; and four sterling silver souvenir spoons.

Wesley Willis, Jackson, Adams, Franklin, 1989; 109th and S. Cottage Grove Av., 1989. Image from Toomey & Co.
Wesley Willis, Jackson, Adams, Franklin, 1989; 109th and S. Cottage Grove Av., 1989. Image from Toomey & Co.

Auction Daily: Outsider Art is quickly moving from the art world’s edges to the mainstream. How has the category changed over the years?

Toomey & Co.: Growing up in Chicago, Aron Packer’s mother owned an antique quilt and Folk Art gallery, and his father was an obsessive collector and dealer. Later, Aron would operate his own art gallery, Aron Packer Projects, and show work by contemporary artists and various Outsider artists for over 30 years.

These days, the semantics of the label ‘Outsider’ generate heated debate, and there does not seem to be a final answer where everyone is satisfied with the definition of what Outsider Art is. Ultimately, what is important and worth paying attention to is the art. This genre has generated and continues to generate compelling art based on its own merit and its creators’ inspired visions.

What has changed is the nuance of how people approach referring to the work. There are so many labels beyond Outsider: self-taught art, vernacular art, naïve art, primitive art, visionary art, intuitive art, etc. There is also a movement toward political correctness with terminology to avoid being offensive. For instance, calling someone’s work ‘primitive’ or ‘naïve’ is now generally considered derogatory.

Stephen Warde Anderson, Mary Queen of Scots & Company, 1994. Image from Toomey & Co.
Stephen Warde Anderson, Mary Queen of Scots & Company, 1994. Image from Toomey & Co.

Toomey & Co.: There have always been artists who operate in the mainstream as a day-to-day reality. They have jobs, watch television, read newspapers, circulate now online, and are aware of art and artists from, say, Grandma Moses to Picasso. Therefore, they are not quite isolated, but sometimes their art is visually unusual, or perhaps they might act or present themselves in a slightly (or very) eccentric manner. Similarly, their artwork is often aggressively raw in terms of style or obsessed with certain subjects or themes.

Stephen Warde Anderson is a good example of a self-taught artist in this vein. He grew up in Rockford, Illinois, dropped out of the University of Chicago after one year, spent four years in the U.S. Navy, and then moved back home, where he took to melding his passions, mainly painting but also writing, making his own clothes, and playing music. Anderson is an aficionado of early television, B-movies, and aliens; these all make regular appearances in his work. Although his compositions stem from an obsession with various subjects, his art usually has a light and refreshing quality. Sometimes human anatomy is imperfect considering how much attention Anderson pays elsewhere. When creating portraits, Anderson starts with the eyes and works outward, which would be unusual for an academically-trained artist.

In closing, just like the “regular” art world, there are always new artists rising and fresh discoveries made within Folk, Outsider & Self-Taught Art + Americana. Likewise, changing tastes and trends drive the value of and market for different types of work from these genres. Yet the best art usually speaks for itself, rises to the top, and stands the test of time.

Toomey & Co.’s Folk, Outsider & Self-Taught Art + Americana auction will begin at 1:00 PM EDT on August 12th, 2021. Visit Toomey & Co.’s website for more information and to register to bid. Want to know more about unusual art styles? Find answers to common questions about Outsider Art on Auction Daily.

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James Ardis
James Ardis
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James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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