RAM features African-American artists

“Collected Visions: African American Self-Taught Artists from the Southeastern United States” has been developed and created by the Rockford Art Museum from the private collection of Rockford residents Steve and Susan Pitkin and from the Museum’s own permanent collection of self-taught art gifted by John and Diane Baisley of Milwaukee and by James Hager of Rockford.

Sponsored by the Rockford Association for Minority Management, “Collected Visions” is on view in the Museum’s prestigious Funderburg Gallery Feb. 6 through April 25, 2004. The public is invited to attend the opening reception Friday, Feb. 6 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Admission to the reception is free.

The development of the self-taught genre of American art parallels the history of African Americans in the United States: In the early to mid-20th century, many African Americans migrated to the northern United States believing there was more economic opportunity there. In a nation struggling with racism, this was hardly the case. For African Americans seeking formal training in the visual arts, however, New York did hold more opportunities.

But what became of those who remained in the South? According to Howard Dodson, chief of the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York, self-taught art “shows how the creative impulse is inherent in the human experience. No matter how much oppression and exploitation people undergo, the creative impulse will find a way to emerge through song, through dance, through religion, and through art.”

The history of the South’s African-American culture is rich with the music of gospel, jazz, blues, and rock and roll. In music there existed a sense of community as musicians performed in congregations, bands, churches and nightclubs in both cities and rural communities. The visual artists of the South, however, existed in isolation with only a compulsion to create. Without access to a visual arts community that a formal education could provide, these individuals were left with solely their visions and the impulse to create. That there is no formal influence other than the need to create is both the curse and the blessing of the self-taught artists whose artworks are both beautifully spontaneous and energetic, ranging in themes of desire, culture, religion, compulsion, race relations, and socio-economic status. The irony is that the creative purity of these isolated self-taught artists has had a profound influence on the not-so-isolated mainstream art world.

More than 100 works by self-taught artists compose the Rockford Art Museum’s Hager Collection. Gifted to the Museum in 1995 by Rockford businessman James Hager, these important works form a significant focus area of the Museum’s permanent collection.

An artist and commercial photographer by trade, local collector Steve Pitkin became interested in the self-taught genre while photographing works from the Rockford Art Museum’s Hager collection. He traveled to the southeastern United States, where he met with Atlanta collector Bill Arnett, an avid promoter of the self-taught genre. This meeting validated Pitkin’s passion for the untrained artists’ pure vision. Seeing this commonality of passion for the artists and their art, Bill Arnett selected Pitkin to photograph artwork for Souls Grown Deep, a comprehensive two-volume book that serves as an indispensable reference to the understanding of the origins of the self-taught genre.

Designated as a Partner in Excellence by the Illinois Arts Council, the Rockford Art Museum is open Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. The Rockford Art Museum is in Riverfront Museum Park, 711 N. Main St., Rockford. Admission is free to Museum members; for non-member adults, $3; children and students are admitted free. For more information, please call 968-2787.

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