Artists, Environments, and Vernacular Landscapes

Artists Environments Vernacular

An uncanny number of outstanding self-taught artists lived and worked in Chicago. Roger Brown worked in Chicago during the time when Henry Darger, Joseph Yoakum, Aldo Piacenza, Lee Godie, Pauline Simon, Drossos Skyllas, and William Dawson were discovered living and working (or had lived and worked) in Chicago. These were not amateur, "Sunday Painters;" they created extensive, cohesive bodies of highly original works over long periods of time. They had little or no connection with the so-called mainstream or academic art world. Brown was determined that his Artists Museum of Chicago would represent artists from an artist's point of view, rather than through a curatorial or art historical lens. Preserved as he installed it, visitors to the Roger Brown Study Collection (RBSC) can see works by renowned, post-mainstream artists including Henry Darger, Joseph Yoakum, Bill Traylor, Lee Godie, Drossos Skyllas, William Dawson, Aldo Piacenza, Jesse "Outlaw" Howard, S.L. Jones, Alexander Maldonado, Elijah Pierce, Pauline Simon, Mose Tolliver, Edgar Tolson, Snap Wyatt and others.

Whitney Halstead and Ray Yoshida took Brown and other artists to visit the self-taught artist Joseph Yoakum on many occasions. Yoakum had a strong influence on Brown's consciousness, which is especially evident in Brown's landscape paintings of the 1970s. He wrote:

My experience for Joseph Yoakum was for me a very important part of a larger experience in the late 1960s and early 1970s. When I first saw an exhibition of Yoakum's work in June 1968 I had just graduated with a BFA from the School of the Art Institute... Having just read the Banquet Years by Roger Shattuck and his beautiful description and analysis of Henri Rousseau and his work I could not believe the appearance in our midst of Joseph Yoakum, Chicago's own Henri Rousseau... It was history repeating itself. I lacked no confidence in our own importance in the world of art and here we had been handed this wonderful artist and his beautiful, lyrical drawings and paintings... I believe this man's work had the same effect on all of us as Rousseau must have had on Picasso and the others of his generation. How could someone with no training just start making art that was so superior to most of the art of the day done by trained artists? I'm sure Joseph Yoakum influenced all the artists in some way, but in no way caused anyone to want to imitate his style, or to try and become a "naïve" artist. Jim Nutt has said something to the effect that Yoakum gave him the liberty to express his own deepest and most secret inner voice. I think that is the best description of what Yoakum did for all of us as artists.
—Roger Brown, La Conchita, CA 1995

Finding, collecting, and surrounding oneself with objects of interest was encouraged by SAIC professor Ray Yoshida, and the artist and art historian Whitney Halstead, who directed students to Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, where they could see great examples of objects from many cultures. Yoshida organized his legendary "trash treasure" hunting expeditions, taking artists to the city's historic Maxwell Street market, to second-hand shops, flea markets, auctions, and other places where things of interest could be discovered and acquired for next to nothing. Collecting became a kind of shared, and to some extent, a competitive activity. Brown was renowned for his acute radar, for repeatedly finding the one-of-a-kind treasure that others overlooked.

Brown took extensive documentation of the vernacular landscape on road trips around the country. He had an intense appreciation for environments created by self-taught artists, and all manner of signage and objects in the vernacular landscape. Brown's travel slides can be seen in albums on the RBSC flicker archive. We are continually adding information and images to this collection, so please check back often.

In addition to Whitney Halstead and Ray Yoshida, significant mentors in the realm of self-taught art included Phyllis Kind—who represented Brown's work for 27 years, and legendary collector Herbert W. Hemphill Jr. Herbert W. Hemphill, Jr., curator at the Museum of American Folk Art (now the American Folk Art Museum), who co-authored the book Twentieth Century American Folk Art and Artists. Published in 1974, this seminal text demonstrated that folk art and art from beyond the academic mainstream was alive and kicking in the 20th century. Brown provided numerous images of art and environments for the book and its cover. 

Brown had a strong interest in art environments created in the context of artist's home landscapes, generally by self-taught artists. He and other artists were enthusiastic fans of the work of Aldo Piacenza, an Italian immigrant to Highwood, a small community north of Chicago. Piacenza created a series of birdhouse sculptures loosely modeled after the sacred architecture of his Italian homeland, which were installed around his yard and garage. In 1970 Brown began documenting art environments further afield, visiting Jesse "Outlaw" Howard's sign-filled environment in Fulton, Missouri; S.P. Dinsmoor's Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas, and many other sites. He was especially moved by Fred Smith's Wisconsin Concrete Park, in Phillips, Wisconsin, and he photographed it extensively. Brown was deeply impressed by artists whose work erased the line between home and studio, and took over home settings entirely. Brown's slides of gardens and environments can be seen in albums on the RBSC flicker archive.

Brown wrote,

"In the same presumptuous manner as the arts and crafts teacher who tried to change William Dawson's intuitive vision, the mainstream art world hierarchy—a system of dealers, writers, artists, curators, and pundits presumes to define what art is for the rest of us. This same hierarchy that had told us that Thomas Hart Benton is a Hayseed Modernist has told us that folk art ceased to exist after the 19th century. Fortunately, Bert Hemphill wrote his book and proved otherwise. Whatever category one chooses—folk, naïve, outsider, or so-called regionalist, it is very evident that real artists exist and continue to be nurtured outside the mainstream hierarchy. In fact I would venture to say that the only real artists are nurtured there...on the outside."

—From "Setting the Stage" by Roger Brown, in The Artworks of WILLIAM DAWSON, The Chicago Public Library Cultural Center, 1990.