They May Be Untrained, But The Artists of Outside in Ohio: A Century of Unexpected Genius Have Something Important to Say

Walk by the entrance of the Vern Riffe Center’s gallery and you’re bound to spot a unique portrait of the Cincinnati Reds’ Barry Larkin. Step inside the Riffe Gallery, and you’ll have the opportunity to appreciate the creative expression of its creator, Ricky Barnes, and 17 other Ohio artists featured in Outside in Ohio: A Century of Unexpected Genius.

Exhibition curator Mark Chepp chose Barnes — a Merion Village restaurateur, chef, country musician and baseball fan — and the other artists included here because they never studied art or expected to become known as an artist, but art helped them express important things to say.

Chronologically, the first artist to be featured in the exhibit is Henry Church (1836-1908). Besides starting the first blacksmith shop in Chagrin Falls during Ohio’s frontier days, Church’s parents were abolitionists, Spiritualists and Transcendentalists. When Church turned 13, he served as his father’s apprentice. He found the charcoals from the forge irresistible, drawing pictures with them on the shop’s whitewashed walls. However, his father thought his artistic talents were frivolous; he whipped him and forbade him from drawing any more.

Church wasn’t able to pursue art until his father died. Well into his fifties, Church began creating a large volume of work, but his family didn’t appreciate his talent. His daughter kept his paintings until thirty years after his death, giving a few to family members, but burning most of them. Only a handful of Church’s paintings survive. Still Life, ca. 1880, from the collection of the Springfield Museum of Art, is one of them.

While the primary reason I visited the Riffe Gallery on Friday was to enjoy the company of its director, Mary Gray, Mary Borkowski was the other contributing factor that brought me to the exhibition.  In May 2003, I processed the Mary Borkowski Collection (MSS 1329 AV) at the Ohio Historical Society’s Archives/Library.

So, next, I tracked down the three works by Mary Borkowski that are included in the exhibition: Seventy Steps (ca. 1971), from the Zanesville Museum of Art; No Place to Hide (1987), owned by Mark Chepp; and Saving Susie’s Life (1989), from the Springfield Museum of Art.

As I wrote in my finding aid for the Mary Borkowski Collection, Borkowski is a nationally renowned folk artist whose quilts and thread paintings tell stories about patriotism and comment on 20th century social issues.  Born in Sulphur Lick Springs, Ohio, Borkowski moved to Dayton in 1926. After learning to sew from her mother and grandmother, Borkowski entered her Poinsettia quilt in the 1952 Ohio State Fair and won the grand prize of $30.00. She repeated her success in 1955. From then on, her quilts were hung in a special exhibition area at the fair and were not entered in the competition.

In 1965, Borkowski started telling her stories with thread paintings, beginning with a heavy thread undercoat, building up images with layers of fiber and finishing them with fine silk.

Borkowski is a highly regarded folk artist whose work has been exhibited at the Zanesville Art Museum, the Akron Art Institute, the Dayton Art Institute, the Museum of American Folk Art in New York and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. Her creations are part of the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of American Folk Art, the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, the Dayton Art Institute, the Akron Art Institute, the Zanesville Art Institute, National City Bank and the law firm of Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur. Individual collectors of Borkowski’s work reside in Ohio, Virginia, and several New England states. 

The Ohio Historical Society’s Mary Borkowski Collection includes photographs of Borkowski and her work, correspondence regarding her exhibits, news clippings with references to her work and autobiographical information outlining the stories behind some of her most noted quilts. It also includes her collection of books and magazines about needlecrafts and folk art.

OHS also has other representations of Borkowski’s work, including a crochet picture of the Last Supper, one of her thread paintings, a crochet doily she entered in the Ohio State Fair, and various tools related to the creation of these items, including the quilting hoop she used on her Pride of Ohio quilt and her crochet hook. To see images of Borkowski’s work in the OHS collections — such as her Pride of Ohio, Ohio Sunshine and Outer Space quilts — click here.

Other artists featured in Outside in Ohio: A Century of Unexpected Genius include Charles Owens (1922-1997), whose Columbus Skyline is an example of one of the memory paintings he produced late in life. Mark Thomas, a current resident of Whitehall who works third shift in a distribution plant, is a self-taught painter who gains inspiration by studying Cubism and American Regionalism. Mary Frances Merrill (1900-1999) suffered from agoraphobia, but found her creative outlet making sculptures from chunks of coal and collages of scenes and events using paper cutouts, product labels and fabric scraps. Carole Estepp, a retired middle school home economics teacher who lives in Portsmouth, creates hooked rugs. You can admire Blackbirds (2007) and Home Sweet Home (1991) in the exhibition.

Outside in Ohio: A Century of Unexpected Genius is on view at the Riffe Gallery through October 14. A free family workshop to create a personalized wooden welcome sign or an apron will take place on Sunday, September 23 from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. On Thursday, September 27 from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m., poet David Baker will read poetry in the gallery. Both events are free. 

Next, the exhibition will travel to the Springfield Museum of Art, where it will be on view from January 2013 through the spring of next year.

On Friday, August 10, WOSU Midday Host Amy Juravich talked with Chepp about the exhibition on All Sides with Ann Fisher. Click here to listen to the discussion, which begins at 36:53.

What does Chepp want people to take away from the exhibition? “To accept that what often times might seem to be naïve or childlike or untutored work can be formally and artistically compelling, especially if you hear the story of the artists,” Chepp said during the interview. “These artists aren’t unsophisticated people; they just happen to be untutored in terms of how to paint or sculpt, but there is an impetus within them — as with all artists — to express something and try to engender in the public the notion that this is of equal importance and value with mainstream fine arts.”

Finally, if you’re a fan of Mary Gray, you might be interested to know that she’ll be appearing in the New Players Theater’s production of Good People in late September.

This entry was posted in Art, Columbus, Museums, Needlework, Ohio History Connection (formerly the Ohio Historical Society). Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to They May Be Untrained, But The Artists of Outside in Ohio: A Century of Unexpected Genius Have Something Important to Say

  1. Funny how non-artists, through beatings, derision and eventually BURNING one’s work, (a la Henry Church), can make one an “outsider artist”. I suspect the category is not so much related to an artist’s level of formal training or even talent, but more related to the sort of family, teachers and “cultural I.Q.” that surrounded them as children. It’s a shame. Very interesting post! I enjoyed it!

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