American Visionary Art Museum Houses Fascinating Creations by Self-Taught Artists

BALTIMORE—The security guard recommended a visit to the gift shop to see the “Jesus toaster,” a novelty that turns a plain slice of bread into toast with an imprint of Jesus Christ. It was the guard’s third day working at the American Visionary Art Museum and he was still getting used to all of the quirky art on display and whacky souvenirs for sale and wanted to make sure visitors didn’t miss the highlights.

The museum is a unique institution that distinguishes “visionary” art from folk art. While both genres are defined by artists who are self-taught, without formal training, the museum describes visionary work as “innate and spontaneous” as opposed to folk art which generally comes from a “specifically identifiable tradition,” and is “passed from generation to generation, or through established cultural community traditions.”

There is a big bra ball that measures more than five feet in diameter. It is the first object you see when you proceed into the museum to the gallery spaces. Like a rubber band ball it is composed of countless bras. “All Things Round: Galaxies, Eyeballs and Karma”, the museum’s current exhibit, includes 30 styrofoam cups hand-carved with a pocket knife by Mark Swindler; “Rolling Through the Bay,” an enormous replica of the San Francisco Bay Area built by Scott Weaver with more than 100,000 toothpicks; mixed-media flash bulb sculptures by Candy Cummings; Robert Seven’s throne made of yardsticks; and mixed-media sculptures created from oil barrel lids by Memphis-born “outsider artist” Hawkins Bolden (1914-2005).

Throughout the museum there are also more traditional interpretations of art in terms of aesthetics, form and materials. Everywhere you look—from the handrails on the stairs to the grounds between the museum buildings and the “Open” sign on the door of the warehouses where large-scale works are shown—there is something inspiring and visionary to see.

All photos by Arts Observer

Fountainheads by Ted Ludwiczak. In background, “Bird’s Nest” observation balcony by David Hess.

“Cosmic Galaxy Egg” by Andrew Logan

At left, Giant Whirligig by Vollis Simpson.

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