For 14 years, in the privacy of a rented garage, a Washington, D.C., janitor secretly constructed a glittering and elaborate religious throne.
Using scavenged aluminum and gold foil, cardboard, light bulbs, and mirror shards, he crafted his stunning assemblage by joining the pieces with pins, tacks, glue, and tape.
The now-famous work came to light in 1964, when the custodian died and the garage owner opened the door to reveal the shining vision of James Hampton. Even Hampton’s family was unaware of the work, which on its own is startling in this era of announcing one’s every action, thought, and whim online.
Outsider (or naïve) art is fresh, often childlike, and, yes, comfortably non-threatening for the many who — for some odd reason — are suspicious of accomplishment, skill, and academic training. That said, outsider appeal is especially welcome today, when so many images around us are managed, polished, enhanced, retouched, and untouched by human hands.
Art is the marriage of raw materials, perception, and ideas. Creating something beautiful doesn’t require a trip to Tuscany with an easel in hand, for example. Inspiration is all around us. Why not paint everyday reality when it’s something too many people fail to truly see?
Consider Marty, the 1955 movie that won an Oscar for its story of two regular, lonely people. The film’s writer, “Paddy” Chayefsky, focuses on one evening’s conversation, showing, among other things, that lifetimes are built around such small talk as the price of groceries and what happened at work that day. Chayefsky was a master of so-called kitchen-sink realism.
As the pages of our September issue illustrate, the makings of art and craft are all around us. Miscellaneous shrapnel, the fallout of daily life, is scattered about, ready to be noticed if we look around and down (but not down at a “smart” phone.) Intriguing conversational snippets hang in the air, waiting to be overheard, if we only would stop blabbing.
On Wayne State University’s campus, a man used to regularly stride along the sidewalks and through the student union waving a sheaf of typewritten papers and calling out “poetry, poetry.” Students busy marking lines of literature with highlighter pens mostly avoided making eye contact with the guy.
Under the best conditions, the arts can be a tough sell. As Milford author Thomas Lynch mentions in this issue, publishing poetry is “like casting rose petals into the Grand Canyon and hoping for an echo.”
Children, who play at ground level where sidewalks are for chalk drawings and lawns are for picking clover, know to listen — that if you leave a window open, there’s a cricket symphony to sing us off to sleep.