Visionary Art or Creative Obsession?
What do visionary artists try to capture when they draw, paint or sculpt? Are their visions a reflection of the world around them or some internal need that demands expression? Perhaps visionary art is both obsession and an expression of the creative voice.
My friend Sam Bleecker inspired me to think about visionary art, although Sam might say obsession is too strong a word for it. Visionary artists may be untrained – but there is something driving them, some internal voice that demands to be heard.
For them art is about capturing an internal vision, or an issue, or responding to the world as it once was or as it should become. Still, why do they do it? With little or no formal training some visionary artists manage to create amazing work, inspiring us to celebrate their creative spirit.
Simon Rodia’s Amazing Structures
We have plenty of examples, like Simon Rodia, who spent 34 years single-handedly constructing the soaring Watts Towers in Los Angeles.
He constructed 17 interconnected steel and mortar towers and decorated them with a mosaic of shells, broken glass, bits of pottery, tile and hand drawn designs. He worked without an overall plan and designed his amazing creation as he went along. Why did he do it?
He said, “I had it in mind to do something big and I did it.”
Grandma Moses’ Celebration of a Bygone Era
There’s the nostalgic imagery of Grandma Moses, who painted scenes of country life remembered from her youth. A farmer’s wife, she expressed her art first through embroidery and took up painting only when arthritis made that detailed hand work too difficult.
She was 76 when she began using a paint brush, was “discovered” a few years later and became a national sensation. She painted over 1000 pictures. There’s an excellent remembrance of her life and work in her NYT obituary.
Ralph Fasanella, Urban Working Life and Post War America
Another visionary artist who caught my eye is Ralph Fasanella.
As a boy he helped his father deliver ice from a horse-drawn wagon. He worked in the textile industry and later as a machinist and then a union organizer. It was as a union organizer, in his late 20s, when he started painting.
Soon art consumed him – he quit the union, bought a service station to pay the bills and painted in his free time. He always saw himself as part of the working class and envisioned his large canvases hanging in union meeting halls.
His son Marc holds a PhD in Art and Design and has written about his father. From a Smithsonian American Art Museum interview:
My father was an exceptional guy. My mother always said that if he got on a crowded elevator by the time he reached the fifth floor he knew everyone in the car and would most likely keep in contact over time with at least one of the people he met. You could put him in any situation and in any environment and he would find a way to talk to people. With workers there was an instant bond.
Ralph Fasanella’s work was spontaneous and improvised, often developing on the canvas as he worked on it. Describing one of his paintings, he said it “just came out of my belly. I never planned it. I don’t know how I did it.”
He didn’t “know” how to paint. He painted because he was compelled to. He couldn’t stop the ideas swimming in his head from exiting through his fingers. My father was a passionate guy and he poured out that passion in many ways, but once he began painting that was his primary form of release.
Like Grandma Moses, Fasanella celebrated the world he knew. He also explored darker subjects like labor struggles, the cold war, the assassination of JFK and Watergate.
Every time I look at one of my father’s complex political paintings I see something new. His most accomplished works reveal to me the promise and perversions of America; the history of prejudice, oppression, and wage slavery; and the power of opposition. They also show hope, the struggle for a more egalitarian society, the beauty, poetry, emotional resonance of icons with unvarnished political imagery, and persuasive metaphor.
Sam Bleecker Finding Order in Chaos
While Grandma Moses and Ralph Fasanella tried to capture the world as they encountered it, Sam Bleecker‘s work is inspired by his background in science, math and biology.
Sam Bleecker describes this work:
Beneath the irregular white grid are two mostly obfuscated paintings, both NYC street scenes abstracted and then purposely hidden. To my mind, this is much the way we perceive reality from first holistic glance to deep analysis. The meaning is always deeper than the surface.
For much of his life Sam Bleecker’s mode of expression was the written word. Trained as a physicist and molecular biophysicist, he worked for Bell Labs writing numerous pieces to explain the company’s science and technology. He’s written about computers, astronomy, architecture, launched his own tech consulting business and spent ten years as a travel and science photographer and writer.
From a recent newspaper article:
Bleecker finds beauty in numbers. He thinks quantum mechanics is poetic. And he’s spent countless hours working on his own theory, which is that science and math can be aesthetically pleasing to anyone.
Sam Bleecker, from the article:
There can be chance and randomness in something and it can still become ordered. You just drip paint on a canvas, but you order it in a certain way and it becomes aesthetic. Some people just start painting and don’t know what they are going to achieve. I have to have a concept. I can’t paint without a concept first.
Sam is on a quest to reveal the deeper meaning hidden in what we observe. His analytical mind is always active, always questioning what lies beneath the surface of what we see and think we know.
When I asked what motivates his art, he said:
There’s an aspect of compulsion. I see things and think about what they mean or could mean. Each canvas is a world unto itself. Why do I do it? It’s a way of connecting, of having a conversation between me and the person who views my work.
In my abstract paintings, much like a musician, I use color and form as my notes, but rarely to write a song, but rather as a jazz ensemble. It’s the interplay of notes, not meaning that is essential.
As these few canvases suggest, a visit to Sam Bleecker’s website is quite an experience. You’ll find his body of work explodes with an infectious exuberance. Not all of the pieces work, you sense he’s continually experimenting with form and substance, but the ones that do are quite striking.
You’ll also notice his body of work pursues themes and styles that seemingly have little connection among them. They’re all intellectually inspired by scientific or mathematical concepts and constructs, true. But they’re so different and his newest work seems to be continually departing from what came before. In that sense, his creativity flows like a meandering stream with new ideas and imagery constantly bubbling to the surface.
Sam told me,
Painting is a way of bringing together my two passions (Science and Art). Science, that analytical approach to the world, is inescapable. You can’t abandon who you are – at some point it just has to burst forth. I can’t live without it. It’s my oxygen.
A Final Thought
I think there’s something here that’s truly remarkable. Sam Bleecker, Ralph Fasanella and Grandma Moses were all driven to create by a deeply profound need to express themselves through their art. It’s as if each time they sat down to begin a new piece, some internal story blossomed forth. It’s there in the work and I think you can find it if you look for it. They’re sharing that story with you, it’s their mission, their hope, their dream. That, I believe, is what makes each of them a visionary artist.
In her autobiography Grandma Moses said,
I look back on my life like a good day’s work, it was done and I feel satisfied with it. I was happy and contented, I knew nothing better and made the best out of what life offered. And life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.
Great advice for all of us.
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