Beyond the Mainstream


Inquiry, scholarship, and pedagogy concerning art from beyond the academic mainstream has been a facet of teaching and learning at SAIC for many years. The tradition can be traced to the teaching legacies of renowned art historian Helen Gardner (known for her one-volume art history book Art Through The Ages) and her protégé Kathleen Blackshear. Continuing in their footsteps, professors Whitney Halstead and Ray Yoshida are fondly remembered as influential teachers who taught about and encouraged students to explore folk, self-taught, and other currents of art not intentionally created for the mainstream "art world" audience.

The significance of this genre to our art culture continues to be promoted at SAIC and is reflected SAIC courses and collections, and in the ongoing research, writing, and curatorial work of faculty and students. The spheres of art in question are not precisely defined and most terms used to describe the art in question are flawed. Nonetheless, SAIC has several course offerings concerning self-taught, outsider, vernacular, folk art, popular culture, and collecting.

Students at colleges and universities around the country often encounter obstacles when trying to find advisors and/or get permission to write theses on aspects of non-academic art. A number of SAIC students have been supported by SAIC faculty and have completed graduate theses on aspects of art from beyond the mainstream.

Resources at SAIC

The Roger Brown Study Collection has rich holdings of self-taught, folk, and so-called "outsider" art, and objects from popular and material culture. The RBSC contains over 100 works by 36 self-taught artists, as well as works by artists who have not been identified, and folk art from many cultures. The RBSC archive includes many books and archival materials on the subject, numerous slides of vernacular art environments, and other study materials reflecting Roger Brown's strong interest in works by artists from beyond the mainstream.

SAIC's John M. Flaxman Library has an impressive collection of books, periodicals, and DVDs that support teaching and research in this realm, and continues to collect new titles requested by faculty for courses.


SAIC offers two scholarships that support research and travel related to non-mainstream, non-academic art. 

The Roads Scholarship for Research and Travel

Roads Scholarship awards are offered to students who have successfully completed the Better Homes & Gardens: Vernacular Art Environments art history course (offered in spring semester) to encourage scholarly research and documentation of the genre of art environments and to advance the recognition and understanding of art environments as a significant genre of 20th and 21st century art. The Roads Scholarship awards are intended to provide students the opportunity to travel to experience a site or sites, and conduct original research that they would be unable to do without support. As of 2014, 49 Roads Scholarships have been awarded since 2002.

The Clay Morrison Scholarship

The Clay Morrison Scholarship was established in 2011 to encourage and support SAIC graduate students from any department or program in their 2nd year (or dual degree students in their 2nd or 3rd years) who are studying art created independently from the academic mainstream, including self-taught art, "outsider art," popular culture, and international folk art. Each year one scholarship in the amount of $1500 is awarded to a student based on an outstanding statement of interest in the area(s) described.

The Clay Morrison Scholarship was established in memory of SAIC alumnus Thomas Clay Morrison (1948–2007), who studied at SAIC (1975 to 1977) and received his MFA in 1977. At SAIC Morrison was deeply involved in studying art originating from beyond the academic mainstream, which can be can be traced to the teaching legacies of Helen Gardner, Kathleen Blackshear, Whitney Halstead, Ray Yoshida, and is ongoing. Morrison was an avid collector of folk and self-taught art and objects from popular culture. He was especially interested in the Mexican celebration Dia de los Muertos and he curated what's thought to be the first exhibit of Day of the Dead altars and objects in Chicago. He traveled widely to visit environments by self-taught artists, and spectacles such as the Bread and Puppet Theatre; he was instrumental in arranging a performance of the Bread and Puppet Theatre at the Art Institute of Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 1983. He was a founding member of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art (1991). Morrison's slides and archival materials are housed at the RBSC.

Course offerings

The frequency and semesters that each course is offered varies. You may check the SAIC course listings and the departments in which course are offered for specific information.

Better Homes & Gardens: Vernacular Art Environments
Art History 4152, Lisa Stone

This course explores the rich genre of art environments—combinations of art, architecture and/or landscape architecture, including religious grottos, spiritual, devotional and mystical sites, gardens of earthly delight, expressions of loneliness and survival, ephemeral yard shows, homes fully transformed, artist's museums, and other created spaces that are site and life specific.

The course examines historical and contemporary art environments and the range of issues impacting art from beyond the mainstream and its evolving definition, environments in their social, political and cultural contexts, home and landscape as studio, and the issues surrounding site preservation. Developing an awareness and appreciation for vernacular expressions in architecture, architectural cladding and ornament, garden ornament and yard shows, and other ordinary or beyond-ordinary visual arrangements in our shared, adorned environment is a subtext.

This class evolved from the course The Artist in the Landscape, a study trip taught by Jim Zanzi and Lisa Stone annually from 1985 to1997, exploring environments by self-taught artists. The book about the course, Sacred Spaces and Other Places A Guide to the Grottos and Sculptural Environments in the Upper Midwest, was published by SAIC Press in 1993.

European "Outsider" Art: Past & Present

Art Therapy and Art History study trip, Randy Vick and Jerry Stefl

Since the beginning of the 20th century there has been a fascination with art produced by people with mental illness and disabilities as well as other artists working outside the cultural mainstream.Terms such as art brut, outsider, naïve, self-taught, and visionary are all imperfect attempts at categorizing this vigorous and elusive genre. From the Prinzhorn Collection to Dubuffet's Collection de l'Art Brut to contemporary studio programs such as the Haus der Künstler at Gugging (key sites on our itinerary), there has been a continuous European tradition around the production, admiration, and collection of this work. This course will examine the historical and current practices within this genre with a particular focus on its relevance to art therapy, art history, psychology, and studio fine art. Visits to important sites in Heidelberg Germany, Bern and Lausanne Switzerland, Vienna Austria, and other locations will form the core of this trip in addition to reading, lecture, and discussion.

Studio Stuff: The Paradigm of Collecting
Fiber and Material Studies 3025, Jerry Bleem

Cultural production in general and artmaking in particular do not take place in a void. A variety of influences shapes our development as artists and colors the choices we make. Objects of all kinds (common and exceptional), materials and their accumulated presence can play a decisive role in artistic practice. This course will explore strategies for collecting things (not necessarily of any particular monetary value) to be used as conceptual impetus, subject matter, and/or physical materials in the studio. The class will include discussions of the nature of classification and organization, the nature of attraction based on memory, physicality, and visual language; the relationship of time and distance to collection; and how quantity and mass change our perspectives and attractions. Field trips will be an integral part of this class. The class will also examine how artists have employed the act of collecting as a significant aspect of their work. Students will be expected to write responses to assigned readings, present research, and to produce studio work that synthesizes both the experience and the material. (Bleem discusses environments and other work by self-taught and folk artists in his lectures.)

Curatorial Projects: Special Collections Practicum
Arts Administration 4031, faculty varies.

Note: although this course does not directly address works by non-mainstream artists, the course often uses the resources of the Roger Brown Study Collection, entailing research and inquiry into issues of self-taught artists and works in the collection.

This course will provide students with hands on experience of working with SAIC's special collections, the Video Data Bank, the Joan Flasch Artists' Book Collection, the Roger Brown Study Collection, the Fashion Resource Center and others. Dialogues with professional staff will reveal the artistic, conceptual and philosophical issues, the physical constraints and practical opportunities contained in each unique collection. Students will design projects that respond specifically to the missions, challenges and ongoing needs of one or more collection.