'Visionary Environments'

The concept and identification of an art of the untrained visionary was originated in the 1940's by the French artist Jean Dubuffet and labelled Art Brut. Outsider art and visionary art are other terms that have been applied to the unorthodox creative expression of individuals outside of the mainstream art world. These artists are often culturally alienated and asocial. The work is difficult to define as there are no rules but there are some common aspects. The creators of this form of art, often embark on their work in the second half of their life, without any formal art training, and continue passionately and very often obsessively for many years, some until they die.

Examples of visionary environments, such as the Owl House, occur throughout the world. These handmade environments are usually made from easily obtainable and inexpensive materials. They often express an intenesly personal, moral or religious vision. They are usually created in and around the artist's home or space and become very much part of their lives.

These environments vary in form... 'ranging from luminous bottle villages to garishly painted temple compounds, from mock castles to miniature cities, from sculpture gardens populated with biblical and historical figures to artificial caverns encrusted with geodes and stalactites.,'
(Beardsley - Gardens of Revelation)

Other environments:

Casa da Flor
Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village
Fred Smith's Winsconsin Concrete Park
Nek Chand
The Orange Show

Stamp House images: Gallery 1

The Stamp House

It takes a certain frame of mind - and a world that turned a whole lot slower - to take a modest postage stamp and consider transforming your entire house! (Actually it has been estimated at about a half a million stamps). From about the year 1900, Mr Abraham Thomas spent fourteen years papering the walls and ceiling of his entrance hall and livingroom in intricate patterns and designs that emulate Victorian wallpaper - all in postage stamps.I'd read about the 'Stamp House', but somehow had the idea that it has been destroyed. On a recent visit to Cape Town, I was delighted to learn that Mr Thomasā version of um.. philatelic decoration remained intact, and in fairly good order. The Georgian building - Bay View House (ca1805) - is on the 'historical mile' of Simonstown's Main Road. It was owned by Thomasā family since the mid-1800s and Abraham lived on the first floor. Thomas conceived of the decorative idea (apparently inspired by something similar he had seen on the Isle of White) and began his collection of stamps. It seems that he wrote all over the world asking for contributions and, locally, traded them for fish and sweets.

Thomas built the intricate patterns on sheets of paper that were then adhered to the walls. In the entranceway, the patterns include panelled friezes of graceful birds and delicate floral arrangements. The 'wallpaper' is in surprisingly good condition for its age - although it has been scuffed and torn in places. The walls were sealed with a thick coat of varnish, which has undoubtedly darkened and discoloured over the years. Fortune-seekers have attempted to pick off the occasional stamp - especially the triangular ones - despite the fact that they are valueless in this state.

Abraham Thomas also found time to produce other decorative works out of stamps, and another favourite medium; fish-scales! These he meticulously shaped and feathered and grouped, to build up images in relief, and on at least one occasion, to construct a bride's bouquet. When I visited in February, the Bay View House was up for sale. It is protected as a National Monument - but I suspect that this is more for architectural heritage than the oddity of its interior decoration. For a time, the house was open to the public, but not any longer. I was impressed with the estate agent's evident concern for preservation - and hope that this extends to whomever occupies the place in future. Not an easy burden of responsibility though. My images and notes on Thomas, 'Stamp House', will be lodged in the OHF Archive. (see related article). M Wilby 02/04

Zuney images: Gallery 1

visit to ZUNEY

A recent journey between Port Alfred gave me an opportunity to visit the disused Zuney railway siding on the road to Alexandria. The little station complex and adjacent house is the site of a sculpture garden created by the late Dirk van der Mescht up to the early nineteen-nineties. The sculptures are mostly of cement with the addition of found materials and objects. Most had been decoratively painted in bright, primary colours, but are now severely peeling and fading. The structures are cracked and corroded, and some have disappeared entirely.

The most comprehensive survey and interpretation of the site was conducted by Kerstin Cowley for a mini-thesis at Rhodes in 1991. Despite the decay, it is still possible to discern the expressive poses and comical gestures described by Cowley as subordinating concerns for form and execution.

A short and unresolved debate about protection of the site occured in 2001 when the Port Alfred Museum proposed removing the sculptures for safekeeping. I was amongst a group of those opposed to the idea at the time, feeling that the dislocation of the installation at Zuney would rob the work of contextual meaning and subject it to stresses of aesthetic and cultural hierarchy. Well-intentioned notions perhaps, but no effective alternative for conservation could be offered, then or now. And so, thorough and accessible documentation remains the fallback position for preservation of the knowledge of such examples of creative vision. The complete selection of photographs will be posted on our website, and at the OHF archive. M Wilby 09/04

Museums, organisations and publications:

Raw Vision magazine
The Art Brut Museum in Lausanne Switerland
The Outsider Pages
Friends of the Prinzhorn Collection
Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art
American Visionary Art Museum
Musgrave Kinley Outsider art Collection
SA Museums Association
SA Museums Online