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‘Eccentric Visions’ come to VALISE | Art Review

A small but world-class exhibit of outsider art is currently on display at VALISE, a gallery run by a local artists’ collective.

It’s the perfect spot for the show, expanding on the gallery’s curatorial embrace of the idea that the best art can sometimes be a populist enterprise. This is, after all, the venue that has given us three non-juried “all-Island” art shows — exhibits that were open to anyone who simply showed up at the gallery with a piece of work.

“Come one, come all,” the organizers of the shows seemed to say. “There’s an artist inside each one of you.”

VALISE’s current show — “Eccentric Visions: Outsider Art from the Collection of Mia Gallery” — goes even further with that notion, making a powerful case that the creation of art is a deep and universal human impulse.

It is curated by VALISE’s newest member, Mia McEldowney, who moved to Vashon in 2004 after a high-flying career as one of Seattle’s most respected art dealers. She has selected a gorgeous array of art for the show.

All the works are by self-taught artists, many of whom lived and created large bodies of work in obscurity before being discovered late in life by the art world establishment. None of the artists in the show is still alive.

The best known artist on display is Howard Finster, a Baptist minister who preached the fiery word of God through thousands of works he displayed in a rambling art park of his own creation in backwoods Georgia. Finster’s paintings are as full of words as they are images, and many viewers might recognize the work — the  Talking Heads and R.E.M. used his paintings as album covers.

R.E.M. also helped bring fame to another artist in the show, Georgia artist R.A. Miller, whose garden of home-made whirligigs was shown in several of the band’s music videos.

Also on display are works by a lesser-known artist, Professor Eddie Williams, who created text collages filled with urgent religious messages. Executed in the style of an a kidnapper’s ransom demand — with words and letters cut from magazines in a mad swirl of fonts and flourishes — the works demand a viewer’s immediate attention.

McEldowney has also included several paintings by Jon Serl, a prolific and reclusive genius who decided, at the age of 55, to start painting. His vibrant, colorful paintings depict larger-than-life creatures — sometimes human, sometimes not — in tableaus that seem ripped from the fabric of dreams.

Work by visionary sculptor Bessie Harvey is also represented. Harvey, who grew up in extreme poverty in rural Tennessee, captured and liberated spirits she felt lurked inside natural objects. Spirits also haunt the work of Simon Sparrow, a Chicago-area artist whose assemblages project power and meaning through a chaotic confusion of found objects.

Rounding out the show are strong pieces by three other outsiders — the farmer James H. Jennings, the poet and astrologer Fatisha, and Jahan Maka, a Lithuanian immigrant to Canada.

McEldowney will give a talk about the artists on Saturday, with an emphasis on describing the environments in which they and other outsiders created their work. She’ll also share her journey as a collector and art dealer with the audience.

“It was because of the stories the work told, and their authenticity,” she said, when asked what sparked her passion for outsider art. “It was such authentic work.”


VALISE Gallery, at 17633 Vashon Hwy. S.W., is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and at other times by appointment; call 567-4595. Curator Mia McEldowney will give a talk about “Eccentric Visions: Outsider Art from the collection of Mia Gallery,” at 4 p.m. Saturday, at VALISE. The show is on view through Sept. 29.


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