The Outsider Mirage

Josie Cavallaro Kristina Tito


A recreation of Henry Darger’s (1892 – 1973) living space, his studio, is on permanent display at The Centre for Intuitive and Outsider Art (INTUIT) in Chicago. Darger is seminal to the scholarship of 20th Century Outsider Art. After his death, Darger’s landlords Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, both artists – to whom Darger bequeathed his work days before his death – uncovered his art. Consequently, his evocative compositions and writings amassed over a life time of making were cut from their pages and sold to collectors. This work consisted of around three hundred, double-sided watercolor-drawings, some unfolding up to three and a half metres in length. Without noting their number or sequence, Lerner cut each page from their binding and introduced Darger’s work to the art world through students, then exhibitions, and eventually in the open market through the Carl Hammer Gallery. Analogous to this, Darger’s biography both factual and speculative has been disseminated to sustain his status in the Outsider Art market.


Henry Darger Side B: 41 at Jennie Richee are lost in the wilderness in storms darkness c. 1940-50, watercolour, carbon transfer and pencil on paper, (double-sided) 48.3 x 180.3cm<br />  Image Courtesy of Ricco/Marseca Gallery (c) Kioko Learner Henry Darger, Side B: 41 at Jennie Richee are lost in the wilderness in storms darkness, c. 1940-50, watercolour, carbon transfer and pencil on paper, (double-sided) 48.3 x 180.3cm. Image Courtesy of Ricco/Marseca Gallery (c) Kioko Learner


Many scholars have broached illuminating the romantic lens that has framed Darger, but how might his art practice and life be re-imagined without the filter of outsider art?

The success of Henry Darger after his death is to be considered a human failing from a supported studio perspective.[1] This comment was made while discussing Darger within the Outsider Art canon at the Supported Studio Network (SSN) forum Possibilities and Potential, hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, in late 2013. Supported studios are defined as:

a sustained creative environment that fosters and supports the individual practice of artists with disability. Facilitated by practicing artists, crucial to such studios are the opportunities they offer artists to be involved within wider artistic networks, thereby assisting artists to develop a professional career.[2]

This SSN forum created a safe space to thrash out social perceptions on the work of artists with learning disability, and present on projects and platforms that enable artists to engage in critical and artistic dialogue with their art world peers. Integral to the discussion was the opportunity for artists to share their perspectives, their voice. It is important then to examine the emergence of supported studios and how this has impacted on artists’ own concepts of art world legitimacy and readings of their work. Considering art and social perspectives that represent Darger posthumously, we compare Sydney artists John Demos (1956-) and Kevin Meagher (1978-2014) together with Judith Scott (1943-2005) USA, as these artists connected with supported studios to make art and negotiate their own careers.

At the turn of the 19th Century, as a young boy and teenager, Darger was housed in a number of institutions, including a Catholic boy’s home and the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, USA. As a 16 year old, he began an independent life working as a cleaner in a Catholic hospital in Chicago. Around this time Darger began to create a large body of images and writing titled ‘The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion’. Significantly in Darger’s book The History of My Life[3], Darger refers to himself as an artist.

I’m an artist, been one for years, and cannot hardly stand on my feet because of my knee to paint on the top of the long pictures. Yet off and on I try, and sit down when aches or pains start.[4]

Henry Darger

In Leisa Rundquist’s Pyre: A poetics of fire and childhood in the art of Henry Darger, she states:

Labeling Darger as marginal and insisting on keeping him there, scholarship fails to acknowledge that Darger, too, desires to tap into a distant embodiment of abundant, excessively animate life.  The value of studying Darger’s art does not lie in situating him among the fetishized placeholders of innovation (the outsider artist); the value lies in considering the substantive dynamics that inform his art’s subjective voice poignantly yearning for, “the quiet rapture again… of younger boyhood day”.[5]

Mid-20th Century social policy and the deinstitutionalisation of Western state care facilities evolved out of self-advocacy, and carer and mental health advocacy. This was aided by developments in psychiatric diagnoses and treatment, and creative therapies that enabled greater social integration. The social impact from the release of people from asylums and state institutions into the broader community created the emergence of agencies that encouraged access to creative expression and participation. If Darger had lived in a time where he had access to supportive agencies and expressed a desire to connect with an audience, how would his direct voice affect the readings of his work?

Questions around the slicing up of his work may have been raised if Darger’s intention for the work was articulated and shared with peers when he was alive. People that understood his practice and wish to maintain the integrity of the work would most likely question or even protest such actions. Conversely, the prominence and value of Darger’s work arising from from his Outsider Art status has enabled the development of a broader audience. Had Darger’s career developed within a supported studio, his work may not have been picked up by galleries or exhibited in museums. And in supporting Darger’s practice, agencies may have placed conditions on the readings, sale or reproduction of his work.

With no ethical framework, dealers are given greater (yet ambiguous) flexibility to sell and distribute work; equally, an inadequate supported studio may inhibit opportunity. What if Darger had opportunity to engage in dialogue about his work and life? Would prescribed ‘outsider’ terms like hermit, social isolate or the markings of a serial [6], as proposed by John Macgregor (a psychiatrically trained scholar and art historian, who wrote extensively on Darger), be relevant? Rundquist observes, ‘The determining yardstick for outsider creativity (scholars’ bases for Darger’s status) is isolation, estrangement or alienation – a notion that problematically collapses the social into the aesthetic.’[7]

What could Darger have tapped into with regards to artistic support? If Darger had exhibition opportunities facilitated by the Lerner’s, for example, as he did posthumously, what might his art world framing look like? Would his work be censored to operate within the mission and objects of the studio? Would the studio place emphasis, as others have done, on the use of quality materials to somehow qualify a level of professionalism in studio practice?

During the 1970’s places like Creative Growth in Oakland, USA and Arts Project Australia in Melbourne, developed out of community need comprising of parent, carer and peer advocacy, as recognized by the community arts movement. These places functioned to provide access to creative expression and social contact after release from institutions such as asylums and aligned state care facilities.

Judith Scott is a well-documented American artist that sits within this evolution. As an artist she produced assemblages from found objects and cocooned them by wrapping in wool and fiber. Judith attended Creative Growth after almost a life-time in an institution from which her twin sister, Joyce Scott, had her released in the early 1980’s. According to Joyce, in this environment for nearly two years, Judith was unresponsive; she didn’t enjoy painting, sculpture or sewing. But one workshop with textile artist Sylvia Seventy changed all that.


1. Judith Scott Untitled Fibre and mixed media date and size unknownJudith Scott, Untitled, Fibre and mixed media, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and Creative Growth,


In Judith’s circumstance, it wasn’t the framework or manner in which she created her work that made her an outsider. She was immersed in a creative environment over an extended period of time, before she even started wrapping objects. This was her introduction to art. It wasn’t social isolation that made her an Outsider Artist but, ironically, her access to artistic networks within a community arts setting: the supported studio.

While many supported studios emphasise access to a network of visiting artists, the need to sustain economically and build cultural capital continues to place artists neatly into the Outsider Art paradigm. This container rarely considers the artistic influences from practicing in a shared studio or access to new materials and mediums introduced by trained artists, so not to taint the ‘pure’ reading of the work.

In Australia, there is a current social policy shift that in principal moves towards equality frameworks where people with disability independently direct their own opportunities. This presents a generational change in the way agencies support artists. Creating platforms that enable artists to connect with peers and engage in critical dialogue with the art world. Major funding bodies in Australia now directly fund artists’ career development. This means that the individual artists’ career aspirations are at the centre of the application and supporters build the necessary scaffolding to enable that opportunity. Importantly, the selection criteria aligns with mainstream arts funding, namely the calibre of work and outcomes that build capacity for the artist, including networks and sustainability.

Facilitators and agencies across Australia[8] are now supporting platforms for artists with learning disability to consider their role as artists to enable dialogue and critical engagement with like-minded practitioners. These exchanges have enabled the supported studio to function as a place for artistic and cultural production between artists with and without disability.

Renegades (2013-15), a federally funded touring exhibition, set out to survey Australian Outsider Art. Curated by Camille Masson-Talansier, the exhibition included works by Sydney artists’ Kevin Meagher and John Demos, both of whom were supported by Project Insideout, a supported studio based at Macquarie Hospital in NSW. The curator described the exhibition asa compendium of artworks emanating from the dissident and the free-spirited of Australian art’.[9]

John Demos creates text-based work from a number of sourced materials. He explores and creates theories of equality, science, education, and home. His systems are constantly in motion and articulated via a lexicon of symbols that map out the physical and social environments he inhabits. Demos has studied fine arts at both TAFE and the National Art School, and for over 35 years has considered himself an artist.


John Demos, Creation 2011, Mixed Media 100 x 100 x 40cmJohn Demos, Creation, 2011, Mixed Media 100 x 100 x 40cm. Photo: Josie Cavallaro and Kristina Tito. Image courtesy the artist.


Demos has capitalised on the support provided by Project Insideout and other programs accessed to develop as an artist. Networking opportunities that these agencies foster have enabled Demos to make contact and more importantly, establish independent relationships with curators, gallerists, artist-run initiatives and other artists.

In his own words, ‘I love to look at art. I spend a long time looking at art and I like to make art. It’s the way I function’. Demos goes on to say ‘I like to think that younger people, people with disability, I hope that maybe I have influenced them in their life towards art.’ [10]


John Demos Calling all Robots 2010 Texta on board 50cm diameterJohn Demos, Calling all Robots, 2010, Texta on board, 50cm diameter. Photo: Josie Cavallaro and Kristina Tito. Image courtesy the artist.


In the exhibition catalogue essay Sketch for a Renegade History of Art by Colin Rhodes, Demos is referred to as a kind of invader:

He is, therefore, a kind of invader, a renegade, his art insinuating itself into the public domain. And he is not alone… In the realm of concept art his achievement has been followed in Sydney by Thom Roberts and, in the unlikely medium of ceramic sculpture, Kevin Meagher. [11]

If these artists are to be considered invaders, then it is an invasion mediated by agency. A supported studio is by design, an artist studio. It is a place where people go to make art. They are places where the systems of galleries, exhibitions, collaboration, sales, and the power of networking are often introduced.

In the same catalogue essay, artist Kevin Meagher’s work is described as:

an eruption of the “psychic elsewhere” that Cardinal talks about. It could not have come out of an artworld practice – although so much that is magnificent and important has and does – and its power lies in its very idiosyncrasy. [12]

Does the ‘Psychic elsewhere’ only come magically forth through artists who experience psychosis?

In 2014, Meagher and Western Sydney-based artist David Capra secured funding to collaborate on the creation of a new performative work. Meagher has worked across ceramics, drawing, and experimental film. His work explores the mystical and healing realms of astrology, religion and mythology, alongside examples of pop culture including Star Wars.


1. Kevin Meagher Jabba Yoda 2011 Ceramic 42 x 40cmKevin Meagher, Jabba Yoda, 2011, ceramic, 42 x 40cm. Photo: Alex Wisser. Image courtesy the artist.


Both Capra and Meagher share a relational approach to practice and were drawn to each other around ideas of intercession within their work. Unfortunately this joint venture was never realised due to Meagher’s sudden death later that year. At the time, Meagher had expressed a clear ambition for developing connections with the art world and understood that this engagement worked to extend his professional practice.

By framing Meagher as visionary or outsider presents a problematic reading of the artists’ intentions and desired modes of cultural engagement.


2. Kevin Meagher with ceramic sculpture Undine Princess 2010 56 x 30cmKevin Meagher with sculpture Undine Princess, 2010, ceramic, 56 x 30cm. Photo: Alex Wisser. Image courtesy the artist.


Making art separate to the art world is valuable. However, it is important to consider the ethical and cultural consequences of maintaining the Outsider Art status quo, when artists’ classify themselves as artists and clearly express a need, want and capacity to participate in the art world. Reflecting on the work of Judith Scott in the exhibition Bound and Unbound at the Brooklyn Museum, Cynthia Cruz eloquently states:

The whole enterprise (of Outsider Art) seems to emanate from a position of power, of deciding who does and does not belong. Soon enough, these decisions appear to be the norm, though of course, all hierarchies are constructions.[13]

Acknowledging strategies that diverge from the artists’ position is an established curatorial practice. The current position of Outsider Art constructs and views the artist through a colonised lens that prescribes individuals as marginal, renegade or from ‘psychic elsewhere’: a cultural space devoid of artist perspective. The world is changing and there is an increasing pluralism of experience; the academy is no longer the central custodian of knowledge.

The rise of supported studios and the evolution of access to artistic exchange and networks have provided artists with scaffolding to engage conceptually with the art world and it is time to value that recognition. This is an opportunity to broaden the scope of art world legitimacy and enable artists like Darger to be re-imagined in ways that more closely aligns with the artists’ voice.

[1] Comment by Kristina Tito, Supported Studios: Possibility and Potential, Museum of Contemporary Art, Nov 7, 2013

[2] Supported Studio Network, accessed March 18, 2015,

[3] Darger, Henry. The History of My Life (not published) 1967-70, in Leisa Rundquist’s, Pyre: A poetics of fire and childhood in the art of Henry Darger, (PhD, diss University of North Carolina 2007). Pg. 25

[4] Leisa Rundquist’s, Pyre: A poetics of fire and childhood in the art of Henry Darger, (PhD, diss University of North Carolina 2007) Pg. 25

[5] Rundquist, Pyre, 25

[6] Chevalier, Julie. Darger: his girls, Puncher and Wattmann, 2012. Pg. 13

[7] Rundquist, Pyre, 20

[8] Studio Artes and RED Inc in NSW, DADAA in WA, Tutti in SA for further studios see

[9] Camille Masson-Talansier, Introduction: The Dissident and the Free Spirited, Renegades-Outsider Art, KickArts Contemporary Arts, 2014. Pg 7

[10] Demos, John, Big Fag Press Video, accessed March 1, 2015,

[11] Rhodes, Colin. Sketch for a Renegade History of Art, Renegades-Outsider Art, Kick Arts Contemporary Arts, 2014. Pg. 12

[12] Rhodes, Sketch for a Renegade History of Art, 23

[13] Cruz, Cynthia, Words Fall Away: Judith Scott Bound and Unbound, Hyperallergic, accessed March 14, 2015,


Josie oscillates between making objects and facilitating projects that enable art to be made and experienced through diverse perspectives. Josie’s sculptural practice is informed by...

Kristina is currently the Arts Development Manager at Accessible Arts NSW (AARTS). Kristina previously managed a supported studio, Project Insideout, at Macquarie Hospital, in North...


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