Smither Collection at The Menil Brings Outsider and Visionary Art Indoors

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If you love Smither Park – and what's not to love about East End's whimsical and colorful, ever-evolving public space decorated with found and repurposed objects – you're going to appreciate the new exhibit at The Menil Collection. “As Essential As Dreams: Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Stephanie and John Smither” includes pieces owned by Stephanie and her late husband, John, as well as visionary and outsider works included in a promised gift to The Menil Collection.

On view will be more than 80 drawings, watercolors, sculptures, paintings and works in mixed media by 37 artists. Curator Michelle White organized the collection and edited the accompanying catalogue. She says “what really is cool” about the exhibit is the wide variety represented from the fields of outsider art and self-taught art, including works by Carlo Zinelli (1916-1974) and contemporary Japanese artist Hiroyuki Doi (b. 1946). “We go from Japan to Belgium to the early 20th century to work being done now. Also Thornton Dial from Alabama, who recently passed,” says White. “Having this diversity proves it's an indefinable category.”

The Smithers displayed the works in their own home, as well as in the family house on Sunset Lake in Huntsville, literally covering the walls from floor to ceiling with bright explosions of color. But they weren't always collectors; the endeavor began in 1988 when John gave Stephanie a Christmas gift of a five-week trip to West Africa. On that trip, Stephanie met Herbert “Bert” Hemphill, a New York-based collector, curator and writer with a deep knowledge of American folk art, who was in the process of gifting some of his collection to the Smithsonian Institution. Stephanie observed his technique, that of seeking out the works that attracted him rather than following academic standards, and saw that he often gravitated toward the atypical.

The love of collecting was contagious and, by the early 1990s, John and Stephanie were taking regular road trips with Hemphill in search of artists in the southern United States. Soon their grown children and their spouses joined in the hunt, with daughter Paige and son-in-law Todd Johnson establishing their own significant collection. The couple enjoyed seeking out and meeting these folk artists, often by knocking on doors and building relationships and friendships. But as popularity for this type of art grew, it became increasingly difficult to deal with artists directly, and they had to change tactics to continue building the collection.

After the 1990s, they grew to depend on New York and Chicago dealer Phyllis Kind as the primary source for their major acquisitions, expanding their collection far beyond the American South. Of the exhibit at the Menil, White says that they are focusing on works by about a third of the artists, with groupings for those 12, and a “back wall that brings in and showcases the display strategy, the way that you would find in Stephanie and John's home.” Those artists are Georgia Blizzard, Thornton Dial, Hiroyuki Doi, Oscar Hadwiger, Solange Knopf, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Martín Ramírez, Jon Serl, Johnnie Swearingen, Charlie Willeto, Domenico Zindato and Carlo Zinelli.

After John's death in 2002, and helped along by their friend Marilyn Oshman (founder of the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art), the idea for Smither Park began to form. Stephanie and Oshman visited visionary environments in Europe and eventually hired Hunstsville-based architect Dan Phillips to serve as creative director. The current park, with its amphitheater, memory wall, covered pavilion and interactive sculpture, pays tribute to the couple's aesthetic and the power of imagination.

White says that the exhibit at the Menil should open our eyes in terms of how we think of classic examples of contemporary art. “The artists are self-taught; they're not trained in schools, or in typical ways so many artists develop their art. Because of this, it's extraordinary. It's challenging, and it's not like so much art you're used to seeing in museums,” says White. “It's really deeply humanist, this idea that we're all created to make art, to draw a picture, to create a deeper human, to define who we are. It demonstrates how important this is, innate creativity.” 

In keeping with the spirit of the exhibit, public programming includes both traditional and unconventional opportunities. “We're having a little art car parade. At seven o'clock when [the opening reception] starts, we're working to select ten art cars to circle the museum. We'll have a zydeco band. It defies again what one might expect to see in the museum. We want to have fun with the conversations." That opening reception is scheduled for Thursday, June 9, from 7 to 9 p.m. at The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross.

Other public opportunities include:

Susanne Theis, programming director of Discovery Green (and former director for the Orange Show for Visionary Art), will moderate a panel discussion with Smither Park designer Dan Phillips, author Pete Gershon and curator William Fagaly. “Visionary and Self-Taught Art in the Community” is Wednesday, June 15, at 7 p.m. at The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross.

An outdoor celebration includes a concert by Lonnie Holley and a screening of the film Mr. Dial Has Something to Say. “Self-Taught Artists at Discovery Green: An Outdoor Celebration" is Friday, June 24, from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. at Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney.

Curator Michelle White moderates a panel that explores the museum's role in shaping concepts about self-taught art with curator Lee Kogan and other special guests. “Exhibiting and Curating Self-Taught Art” is Thursday, September 29 at 7 p.m. at The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross.

“Authentic, Raw & True: A Weekend Celebrating Visionary and Self-Taught Artists” features a series of concerts, readings and performances, hosted by Smither Park, the Orange Show, the Beer Can House and The Menil Collection, on Saturday and Sunday, October 1 and 2.

The exhibit opens June 10 and continues through October 16. Regular viewing hours are Wednesdays to Sundays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross. For information, call 713-525-9400 or visit menil.org. Free.

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