How can an art be defined or discussed that has been called “the art with no name” or, perhaps more accurately, the art with too many names? Without attempting any kind of comprehensive inventory of the ever-shifting and often warring nomenclature, it is worth mentioning some of these unwieldy designations: folk, naïve, brut, primitive, self-taught, vernacular, intuitive, traditional, anti-cultural, marginal, contemporary folk, popular, grassroots, mentally ill, psychotic, visionary, and so on. These are all terms that have to do with anything non-mainstream—that is, outside the parameters of elite, urban, or official cultural institutions. Low as opposed to high. Raw in distinction to cooked. Intuitive, not abstract. Straight from the hand, heart, and gut; not just from the head. Strange, not normal. Sometimes crude; sometimes amazing. And so it goes.

These dichotomies are found in any cultural tradition that passed from a prehistoric tribal situation to the civilizational history of agriculturally based, socially stratified, city-states. Such opposing categories are, in this way, ubiquitous structures of cultural tradition even if they can never fully capture the seamless interaction and ambiguity of human life and thought. From the early imperialistic, social evolutionary, and racist perspective of Western anthropology in the nineteenth century, what was noncivilized was deemed collectively “primitive” in the sense of a state of prehistoric simplicity or, when continued into the present, as a condition of cultural, social, and mental retardation. Thus, folk art, like tribal art, was a “fossil,” so to speak, of the “childhood” of the human species. With the rise and professionalization of Western academic institutions in the nineteenth century, and despite a romantic counterpoint, there was an increasing tendency to establish rigid taxonomic and qualitative hierarchical dualities.

These ranked categories were applied to what were increasingly in the nineteenth century named as specific “religions” and “arts” (words that had no exact equivalent in most non-Western and tribal traditions) defined in terms of various evolutionary standards of primitivity as opposed to enlightened civility and science. Especially prominent and influential was the designation of a limited number of “world religions” that had authoritative written scriptures and moral codes like the Hebrew and Christian Bible. These biblical or scriptural religions were contrasted with other religions seen to be predominantly primitive, animistic, uncivilized, oral, amoral, or rural/pagan traditions. With regard to art, there was an equally deceptive and elitist classification of academic “fine” or “high” art as distinguished from earlier traditional, religious, and craft practices concerned with making the material things of everyday life useful, meaningful, and special.

The principle of difference for fine art was an “art-for-art’s-sake” aesthetic produced by individual artistic geniuses (most often male) and validated by the new middle-class museum culture and academic discipline of art history. The practice and appreciation of the civilized arts and what became the avant-garde tradition of schooled and stylistic “originality” tended to replace involvement with traditional religions among many of the cultured elite. Art museums and other temples of high art and commerce became the new cathedrals of secular culture during much of the twentieth century. But the irony of what can be called “modernism” in Western art circles at the beginning of the twentieth century was that these so-called modern arts were frequently associated with the “primitive” traditions of the prehistoric past along with rural traditions and what was associated with later unschooled and marginalized cultural elements that reappeared in Europe and the United States in the guise of folk and naïve art, contemporary tribal arts, Art Brut, and outsider art.

During the opening decades of the twenty-first century in both mainstream and outsider art circles, as well as within some domains of the academic study of religion and other disciplines, there is a growing recognition of the intrinsic interrelationship of artistic and religious behavior rooted in their intertwined Paleolithic origins, their sign- and symbol-making, their evolutionarily adaptive reliance on the creative powers of the narrativizing and ritualizing imagination, their contribution to the sustenance of their immediate communities, their ability to engage human passion by creating alternative worlds of transformative experience, and their reliance on the basic sensuality of the human condition. These are the “primitive” interconnected practices that would develop in city-state traditions into particular institutionalized religions and arts. And then in the post-Enlightenment world, religion and art, as the most elusive and seemingly nonutilitarian phenomena, would eventually be defined and studied in the Western academy as reified objects with certain distinctive and “essential” traits.

Both art and religion are, then, twin cultural practices that are fundamentally concerned with imaginatively seeing bodily and material existence as signs of other most often hidden, invisible, strangely beautiful, at times frightening, and often salvific and sublime worlds. What comes to the fore most generally in religion and art is not primarily the Protestant hermeneutic legacy of avoiding graven images in favor of deciphering written texts or scriptures; rather, art and religion equally and together depend on a sensual “visual piety” that can only be evoked when they engage the total sensorium of human experience with images, actions, sounds, and words that engender some strong emotions of curiosity, amazement, and transformation. And it is here that the maverick traditions of contemporary folk, outsider, self-taught, and visionary art have a special role to play in the renewed discovery of the raw human power and significance of these interrelated artistic and religious forms. Older Protestant theological perspectives—often in the professional academic guise of “religious studies”—which were inclined to focus on how religion uses artistic expression to sensually communicate scripturally established beliefs, symbols, and attitudes, have given way to the more comprehensive and cross-cultural approaches of cultural, visual, performance, and material studies. These new phenomenologically oriented perspectives affirm the deeply entangled evolutionary, historical, and existential affinity of religious and artistic practices.

The People’s Art.

When applied to artists and artistic forms, the terms “primitive,” “folk,” and “outsider” need to be defined in relation to their differences and their sometimes overlapping and contradictory cultural history. “Primitive,” after all, carried equally misleading negative (simple and retarded) and positive connotations (pure and authentic). An additional difficulty has to do with popular preconceptions about the terminology of “folk” and “outsider.” Folk art in the United States tends to have a wistfully conservative weathervane and Grandma Moses aura of honoring a dead rural past. Alternatively, outsider art in the lineage of the earlier European Art Brut and psychotic art sometimes seems to connote only radically marginalized individuals in both urban and rural situations who challenge and subvert conventional cultural standards—for example, the schizophrenic and hospitalized Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli (1864–1930) or the reclusive Chicago janitor Henry Darger (1892–1973), both of whom produced wild epic sagas consisting of frequently disturbing words and images.

The word “folk” (as in folklore, folkloristics, and folk art) goes back to the work of English amateur antiquarians in the eighteenth century and is related to German ideas about das Volk, meaning in the simplest sense “the people.” In the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century, when comparative philology in conjunction with evolutionary theory was articulating a racial/cultural hierarchy, “the people” referred to the concept of the “common people.” Volk in this sense referred to a particular foundational ethnic and racial tradition, which was, in the case of Nazi Germany, the originator and transmitter of distinctive Aryan customs, traditions, and art. Interestingly, it was in the Nazi era that, as a matter of state policy, socially and politically relevant art expressive of “traditional” Aryan values was pointedly set apart from other “modern,” “abstract,” and “degenerate” art. And this degenerate art had strong affinities with early European outsider art or Art Brut identified with what was seen as the Jewish invention of psychiatry.

Tradition in the nineteenth century as linked with folklore and folk art in the sense of “traditional” usually referred to the valorization (the remembering, honoring, and imitative preservation and retention) of earlier social, religious, aesthetic, and material customs. But even in preindustrial cultures, traditional folk practices were not always slavishly conservative, and in the best sense when passionate craft became art there were all sorts of innovative riffs on older prototypes. When traditional folk art merged into contemporary folk, outsider, or visionary art, these idiosyncratic tendencies became even more pronounced and intense. However, no matter how individualistic early folk, contemporary folk, outsider, and visionary art may be, there is usually a burning drive toward a renewed sense of self-identity (often the theme of being “born again” in Christian evangelical circles), a certain yearning remembrance of one’s beginnings within a community, and an imaginative and material return to some original paradisiacal homeground. It is the deeply rooted nostalgia witnessed in many of these art forms that in Western tradition often draws upon the Bible as a repository of images and stories about visionary prophecy and the origins and travails of a people, especially as expressed in the book of Genesis’s graphically told tale of paradise lost.

This article primarily makes use of the most common terms of “folk,” “contemporary folk,” and “outsider” art, with a nod to the names “self-taught,” “vernacular,” and “non-mainstream” as recent attempts to find a generally applicable label. The terminology of “visionary” art will also be used as an important category correlatively related to contemporary folk, outsider, self-taught, vernacular, or non-mainstream artistic traditions while at the same time retaining distinctive characteristics associated with extraordinary states of religious experience and visionary consciousness having some association with shamanistic forms of trance behavior. Keeping in mind the history recounted above, it can generally be said that contemporary folk or outsider art is the art of people unschooled as artists who are creatively compelled to visually express something astonishing, elating, or troubling about their experience of the world. Traditional folk art practices within a worldwide preindustrial context were ordinarily handed down within particular ethnic communities of peasants and tradespeople (in that sense not fully self-taught), drew upon time-honored forms and everyday materials, were mostly utilitarian in nature, were usually focused on preserving and celebrating local cultural mores, and regularly made use of a shared religious iconology.

From Traditional Folk to Outsider Art.

As the outsider art scholar Roger Cardinal indicates (2000, p. 57), the story of modernism within the official art worlds of Europe and North America at the turn of the twentieth century was “essentially that of artistic primitivism” as seen in movements like cubism and abstraction. Thus, the tumultuous first half of that century led to a heightened awareness of traditional folk art right at the time of its demise and to the designation of a popular, intuitive, or naïve art called in America the work of a hypothetical “common man” who came from both rural and urban situations. Equally important for these modernist developments was the early European emergence of the countercultural surrealist movement, early naïve artists like Henri Rousseau (1844–1910), primitivists like Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), the German Der Blaue Reiter artists, and in the 1940s the cultural critic and maverick artist Jean Dubuffet’s (1901–1985) Art Brut (meaning raw, fresh, or unrefined by middle-class culture).

These movements reveled in the involuntary visionary irrationality of the unconscious mind, spontaneous approaches to image making, and the unfettered creativity of artistically prolific psychiatric patients first described in the 1920s by Hans Prinzhorn in Germany and Walter Morgenthaler in Switzerland. It was this “mad art” on the fringe of conventional culture that Roger Cardinal first introduced to the English-speaking world when in 1972 he translated Dubuffet’s Art Brut as “outsider art.” By the late 1970s, this movement had been institutionalized in Lausanne, Switzerland, as the “Collection de l’Art Brut.”

In American tradition during the first half of the twentieth century, the ideal of “the common people” referred less to race and more to regional rural communities distinguished from the cultured elite of the industrialized cities. Moreover, the first wave of interest in traditional preindustrial folk art was largely identified with New England handcrafted everyday artifacts imbued with a Puritan “plain and simple” theological aesthetic. In later years, mainly through the efforts of the Smithsonian Institution, there was an increasing recognition of other regional folk communities with their own cultural, religious, and aesthetic characteristics.

In the 1930s and 1940s pioneering figures like the journalist and administrator Holger Cahill, the art patron Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, the collector and dealer Sidney Janis, and the director of New York’s newly founded Museum of Modern Art/MoMA Alfred H. Barr Jr. all helped to introduce “American folk art” to the art establishment on the East Coast. What was American and folk about this art was its emphasis on both nineteenth-century and contemporary “common people” artists from both rural towns and cities (such as Horace Pippin, William Edmondson, John Kane, Justin McCarthy, and Morris Hirshfield). This art embodied much of the austere aesthetic of the romanticized New England folk tradition while at the same time tending toward stylized flat nonperspectival forms similar to the mainstream interest in modernist European art and American movements like abstract expressionism. This conflation of the New England plain style with the formalist abstract values of modernism continued to influence what by the late 1980s and into the 1990s had become a field that loosely meshed European Art Brut, surrealism, and naïve art with a so-called American contemporary folk art and outsider art incorporating various forms of visionary art.

Aided and abetted by the artist and collector Michael Hall and the collector-administrators Robert Bishop and Herbert Hemphill, these post–World War II developments went through several phases leading up to the establishment of New York’s Museum of Early American Folk Arts in 1961 (renamed the American Folk Art Museum in 2001 to embrace outsider art) and the support of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, which created a permanent collection of traditional and contemporary outsider works called simply “folk art.” Another development that ratified the conflation of different folk, Art Brut, and outsider genres was the visually striking appearance of the England-based journal Raw Vision, founded in 1989. This was a publication that was truly international in scope, although with an emphasis on North America and Europe (particularly France). Other important developments were the founding of the Folk Art Society of America in 1987, the establishment in 1991 of the Chicago-based group known as Intuit, and the creation in 1995 in Baltimore of the American Visionary Art Museum, which celebrated the creative spirit of visionary artists in the broadest possible way.

During the decades of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s in North and South America, Europe, and to some degree in Japan and Australia, the term “outsider art” became the favored way to categorize all kinds of rough-and-ready practices found outside the stark white walls and formalist standards of the mainstream art world. At the same time, however, the dominant New York movement of abstract expressionism was waning, and new more unruly aesthetic forces, exemplified by the pop art of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat—as well as art povera, performance art, earth art, graffiti art, and funk art—were collapsing many prevailing distinctions between high and low culture. In Chicago in the 1970s imagist artists like Roger Brown, Ed Paschke, Jim Nutt, and Gladys Nilsson, in association with the Phyllis Kind Gallery, were early discoverers and patrons of a number of significant outsider and contemporary folk artists (such as the Native and African American Joseph Yoakum [1889–1972] and the extraordinary Mexican hospitalized in California, Martin Ramírez [1895–1963]).

These chaotic but inclusive expansions of the art world were receptive to an appreciation of the activities of newfound contemporary folk and outsider artists like African Americans, mostly from the South (especially artists associated with the groundbreaking show at the Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery in 1982 titled “Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980,” which highlighted certain artists such as Bill Traylor, Elijah Pierce, and Mose Tolliver). Other important artists included southerners like Thornton Dial, Purvis Young, Charlie Lucas, and Lonnie Holley, featured in the collector and patron Bill Arnett’s massive appreciation of southern folk artists, Souls Grown Deep [2000]), but also African Americans from the North like Mr. Imagination/Gregory Warmack (1948–2012), a master of recycled bottle caps and used paintbrushes. Notable other discoveries included artists of European ancestry such as the Kentucky carver Edgar Tolson (1904–1984), whose darkly suggestive wooden tableaus of the sinful fall from paradise have a plain power (see the probing sociological discussion in Julia Ardery’s sociological study The Temptation [1998]). Perhaps the most celebrated of all was Howard Finster (ca. 1915/16–2001), the fabulously garrulous and prolific Baptist preacher, Bible sign maker, and outer space visionary artist from northern Georgia.

Given these historical developments and allowing for numerous exceptions, contemporary folk or outsider artists in the twentieth century were generally people who were inspired by traits from their own ethnic and regional communities along with aspects from popular culture and various media, used nontraditional materials, and were compulsively motivated by their own raw creativity and inner passion in response to the sadness and joy of everyday existence. Visionary art, while often associated with traditional folk, contemporary folk, and outsider art, tends more radically to go beyond the confines of this world and makes multiple invisible and utterly strange worlds visible to those less gifted in ecstatic flight. Traits loosely common to all these traditions since the postindustrial diminishment of traditional folk culture involve the self-taught element; the obsessive drive to create; some ethnic, social, cultural, psychological, and economic marginality; and the appeal to both conventional and wildly eccentric religious/biblical imagery and themes. Those who are compelled to practice these forms of expression do not typically see themselves as artists as understood by art historians and elite art institutions. To some degree, as enunciated by Jean Dubuffet, these outliers all practice an art that is “best when it forgets its very name” (1973, p. 91).

Making Special.

The contemporary conflation of traditional folk, contemporary folk, outsider, and visionary art in the spirit of the modernist fascination with various “primitive” traditions of felt experience and abstract expression suggests that it is best to accept the rough continuity of artistic practices often put into different antagonistic categories by latter-day guardians of Western art history. The quality that makes all of these practices artistic is the degree to which they creatively or sometimes ecstatically “take off from” (in reference to any technique or medium) the ordinary, mundane, superficial, or quotidian and achieve a heightened experience of reality, which may variously be called some surprising specialness, sublimity, sacredness, or strangeness. Artistic behavior, like religious behavior, in this sense is the impassioned skill to make the ordinary special, set apart, or estranged—that is, the transformation of the utilitarian and everyday into something significant and special in relation to what it visibly becomes or how it communicates. It has to do with the transformation of any material thing (or its context) that elicits a significant response from the observer. An image, action, or object—really anything—becomes meaningful in the crucible of artistic passion, prophetic provocation, and skillful practice.

Additional qualifications can be added to this artistic and religious continuum of things-made-special through the skill of the artist and the response of the observer. Thus the folklore scholar Henry Glassie (1989, pp. 128–129) notes that the ideal of “fine art,” as seen in modern Western art history since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, tends to be “materialistic, [and] the product of secular societies.” Folk art—or contemporary folk, outsider, vernacular, visionary or self-taught art—tends on the other hand to be more “spiritual, typological, [and] encoding a shared inner world of symbols.” In traditional folk or contemporary folk and outsider art, the typological structure of things, the infinitely variable and replicable toolmaker’s template, tends to rule as opposed to fine art’s attachment to illusory representation or some avant-garde chimera of “newness” and “originality” in relation to the prevailing conventions of the mainstream art world.

What defines traditional folk and outsider self-taught art in various ways, as Glassie suggests, is a concern for the importance of personal identity, family, home, and local community in relation to one’s specific cultural time and locality. These qualities are often coupled compulsively with a self-conscious or intuitive search for conventional and unconventional, explicit and implicit, aspects of some deeper meaning (often spiritual or sacred) in the midst of the profane temporality of life. Most important among all these considerations is the element of passion—even obsessive trance-like visionary ecstasy—which is found throughout the cultural and temporal continuum of artistic and religious practices. It is this that drives the artist toward an extraordinary creative excellence in handling his or her materials. And it is this that moves “the mind behind the senses” for both the artist and the observer into the wonder of a “totalizing experience.”

The coalescence of ecstatic passion and the art of making the world special and sacred is dramatically seen in Paleolithic, Neolithic, and later tribal and civilizational art throughout all world cultures. It is also characteristic of much outsider art that is concerned with cartoon or icon-like word-image compositions along with the need to fill every available empty space with images or marks (horror vacui). The crux of the matter in terms of a response is that the image stands out and calls attention to itself as a visually intriguing sign, symbol, or message. The ability to see mundane, lowly, or cast-off things in terms of their inner structure or template is to recognize (whether there or not) the invisible in the visible, the eternal in the temporary. This is the ability of the first artistic/religious specialist in human culture, the shaman, to travel to other worlds and to see the x-ray or skeletal spirit of people and things—what the visionary “Stranger from Another World” Howard Finster would call his intuitive facility for seeing hidden “faces in the clouds.” This visionary, artistic, and religious ability to make the spiritual, structural, symbolic, and storied nature of ordinary material things visible and palpable is what the anthropological scholar Ellen Dissanayake (1995) identifies as the crucial evolutionarily adaptive and creative skill for making objects, images, sounds, and actions special—that is, imaginatively symbolic, ritually storied, visually communicative, sensually resonant, and communally therapeutic.

The Bible and Western Tradition.

While the English word “bible” derives from Greek and Semitic roots, meaning simply books or scrolls, the Bible refers to what Christians call the Old and New Testaments, or what is more properly distinguished and canonically defined as the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh and the Christian Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypse. In both cases these works were originally multiple oral, folkloric, and visionary myth-ritual or story traditions that were only gradually assembled, edited, canonically sanctioned, written down, and disseminated. Because it undergirds the foundational beliefs, values, and behavioral mores of most Western communities, the Bible may in fact be taken as constitutive of the basic worldview of what came to be called the West or the Western tradition. It is the cultural template for what is “common” for Western people. Another consideration is that Islam, as well as other relatively new movements like the Mormon religion, have distinctive scriptural traditions in their own right while at the same time directly remembering and indirectly continuing aspects of the common Abrahamic heritage of the Jewish and Christian scriptures.

By virtue of the often coercive imperial, Christian missionary, and colonial extension of Western tradition throughout the world from the fifteenth century onward to today, this collection of not very coherent Hebrew and Christian scriptures called the Bible has had, and continues to have, an extraordinary global sway. The fact is that a constant appeal to, and multifarious and transformative appropriation of, the Hebrew and Christian scriptural stories, words, and images is certainly the most common way of making life meaningful—religiously and morally special—for most people in Western tradition from roughly the fourth century of the Common Era down to the present. While mindful of this historical sweep, cultural depth, and geographic breadth, this article will specifically focus on biblical manifestations within traditional folk, contemporary folk, visionary, and outsider art within European and American cultural history.

There is a special cultural affinity between these art forms and the Bible by virtue of their basic generative connection with the myth and ritual core of human creativity and expression—that is, the imaginative, visionary, shamanistic, or prophetic ability to see and communicate some storied sacred, sublimity, sprit, and specialness in the material world and human life. In this sense it is well to recall what the famous English visionary artist William Blake said about the attraction and power of the Bible for poets and artists of every ilk.

Blake was by no means a traditional peasant folk artist, but he certainly anticipates those who will be called visionary outsiders in the twentieth century. As he rhetorically observed in a letter in 1799, “Why is the Bible more Entertaining and Instructive than any other book? Is it not because [it is] addressed to the Imagination which is Spiritual Sensation … ?” By spiritual sensation Blake meant the romantic concern for religious enthusiasm and visionary experience, and it is this element, along with its entertaining and instructive aspects, that have had an exceptional association with the art forms dealt with here. Just as Blake made use of the Bible’s storytelling and visually evocative power in all sorts of aesthetically suggestive ways, so also throughout the history of folk and outsider art is the appropriation of the Bible surprisingly dynamic—nostalgic and conservative, yet also often creatively subversive and provocatively visionary.

The Bible and Traditional Folk Art.

Early or traditional folk art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries visually incorporated particular biblical themes, stories, and images depending on the regional community and religious background of the artists. To take only some prominent North American traditions in the United States into account (while acknowledging other regional U.S. traditions as well as equally diverse traditions in Canada, Mexico, and Middle and South America), the following may be distinguished: Native American traditions that by the start of the nineteenth century were syncretistically influenced by missionary Christianity and often found inspiration in visionary and prophetic aspects of the Bible; the aforementioned New England Puritan traditions of humble plainness and stern Calvinist simplicity; and the Pennsylvania Quaker and “Dutch”/German Reformed Protestant traditions, which emphasized stylized renditions of the words of the Bible and geometric symbolism. Other regional styles include New York Jewish traditions accenting Yiddish and extracanonical mystical elements; southern and Appalachian Protestant evangelical traditions (largely Baptist and Methodist) stressing revivalist, often Pentecostal, and apocalyptic aspects of scripture; southwestern and Californian Spanish Catholic traditions focused most often on depictions of the saints and the Virgin Mother, devotional practices, and penitential rituals; and African American traditions, which combined evangelical tradition with remembered aspects of African religions and a passionate commitment to biblical themes of the exodus and liberation.

These different American traditions, as well as many European regional and national traditions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, drew upon a range of favored biblical themes and stories. Themes taken from the Hebrew scriptures highlight the tales of creation, Adam and Eve, the garden of Eden, the Fall, and Cain and Abel; the vicissitudes of God’s relation with the human race, such as seen in the story of Noah and the Flood; the accounts of Moses, Exodus, and the Promised Land; and the role of visionary prophecy and messianic expectations. From the Christian New Testament, there is a concern to harmonize the “old” scriptures with the “new” in terms of the messianic figure of Jesus Christ as a New Adam, which leads to an emphasis on the Gospel birth stories, Jesus’s parables, and the eventual crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation of the savior-god Christ. Other themes emphasize stories about the Pentecostal spiritual gifts associated with the Holy Ghost and, in a dramatically excessive way, various depictions of the end time involving renditions of the book of Revelation’s prophetic “signs of the times,” the apocalyptic travails of Armageddon and the Antichrist, and the promise of the New Jerusalem.

The prolific folk painter and Pennsylvania Quaker preacher Edward Hicks (1780–1849) is a striking example of the visual interpretation of these themes in both a conservatively didactic and a more liberal interpretive sense. Hicks carefully selected and lushly painted biblical scenes in a way that conveyed his Quaker beliefs, as seen most famously in the many versions of The Peaceable Kingdom. These paintings are not simply literal renditions of the passage from Isaiah (11:6–8) but rather allude to the Quaker theological ideal of the “inner light” of Christ, the realization of which leads to the redemption of the soul and figuratively to the peaceable kingdom of the mind and heart. Other examples of this work include coded references to political developments as well as passing comment on life in the new world. Although the 61 known versions of the Peaceable Kingdom are quite similar in appearance, the truth is that all of them are different; close scrutiny discloses many variations of position, posture, and gesture with symbolic significance.

Folk and Outsider Art

Edward Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom (ca. 1833–1834). Hicks’s painting not only illustrates Isaiah 11:6–8 but also alludes to the Quaker theological ideal of the “inner light” of Christ.

Private Collection/Bridgeman Images

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As suggested by Hicks’s symbolic approach, where his scriptural images collapse time and space by linking these ancient tales with his contemporary world, it can be said that the appeal of the Bible in early folk art was not commonly literalistic in what would come to be called a “fundamentalist” approach to the biblical stories. This was an art that largely drew upon the theological method of typology that interpreted biblical stories and images as symbolic and therefore suggestively alluding to some universal human truth and a portent of the future. It was the craft of image-making that was uniquely effective in communicating the hidden meaning of biblical stories linking ancient Hebrew prophecy with what was taken as the later Christian and American fulfillment of those scriptures. The distinct power of the Bible for traditional folk artists and later outsiders lay not only in the preacher’s appropriation of the biblical cadence of language (in English conspicuously the King James Version) but also in the fact that the stories lent themselves so naturally and easily to illustrations that depicted both the outer and inner meaning of the words. Most of all, words and pictures together were the most effective and lasting way to remember the biblical vision of life.

These symbolic and interpretive uses of the Bible and related imagery by traditional folk artists like Hicks were taken in more eccentric and often peculiar directions by visionary and prophetic artists of the same era, as seen, for example, in New England Shaker visionaries like Hannah Cohoon (1788–1864) and Polly Collins (1808–1884), who produced highly stylized “gift” (of the spirit) drawings and paintings (particularly the biblical tree of life; many of these images having a lace-like filigree of words) derived from dreams and trance states.

Another curious manifestation of these tendencies was the itinerant painter from Massachusetts Erastus Salisbury Field (1805–1900). At first painting stiffly formal portraits, Field increasingly produced romantically dreamy yet precisely painted works of biblical themes (such as the garden of Eden, the plagues of Egypt, and the Last Supper). Most haunting were his paintings of architectural structures from biblical times down to the American Revolution, the most famous and fantastic of these works being his gigantic depiction of symbolic colonnaded towers titled The Historical Monument of the American Republic. These heavenly structures seem to reveal the secret connection between biblical prophecy and the revolutionary foundations of the United States. The intense nature of this highly detailed architectural painting eerily forecasts the work of later twentieth-century visionary outsiders as seen in the strangely similar symbolic and otherworldly architecture of “Yield to Total Elation/Y.T.T.E.” by the reclusive San Francisco draftsman Achilles Rizzoli (1896–1981).

The Bible in Contemporary Folk, Outsider, and Visionary Art.

Biblical themes from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries make up a basic repertoire of stories and images that persists down into twentieth- and twenty-first-century traditions of contemporary folk, outsider, and visionary art. Considerable scholarship has been done (see Crown, 2004; Crown and Rivers, 2013; Crown and Russell, 2007; Dewhurst et al., 1983) showing the transition from traditional to “contemporary folk art.” An illustrative figure of this early transition to a contemporary folk art is the emancipated African American Harriet Powers (1837–1910), whose innovative and highly individualistic quilts at the turn to the twentieth century broke from the more conservative traditions of the previous century—an example being her Pictorial Quilt (1898), which mixed biblical scenes with celestial events and local folklore.

The 1970s witnessed the more far-reaching coalescence of contemporary folk and so-called outsider art. Many contemporary folk/outsider artists in the post–World War II period (e.g., Myrtice West, Sam Doyle, Josephus Farmer, William Hawkins, Benjamin Perkins, and Elijah Pierce) produced devotional and didactic works. Other artists (e.g., Leroy Almon Sr., Linda Anderson, Ronald Cooper, and Clementine Hunter) illustrated and commented on religious specialists (such as preachers, priests, rabbis, hoodoo practitioners), places of worship, and various social activities associated with different religious groups. Many of these works by both outsiders and mainstream artists have been exhibited in shows sponsored by the Museum of Biblical Art/MOBIA in New York City, established in 2005, which calls itself the only American “scholarly museum specifically working at the intersection of art and the Bible.”

Folk and Outsider Art

Pictorial Quilt (1898) by Harriet Powers. The quilt combines biblical scenes with celestial events and local folklore.

Photograph © 2015 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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Two other frequently interrelated categories of outsider art display a particularly captivating and distinctive appropriation of biblical themes—that is, the construction of environmental artworks and the production of visionary art. The first of these practices concerns the North American (and to some degree South American and European) passion for constructing religious environments and biblical theme parks. These eccentric, religious, and often commercial constructions allow a curious visitor to enter into and theatrically experience a bodily return to a vivid simulacrum of biblical times. Structures of this kind are part of a long American tradition associated with roadside attractions of secular wonder as well as with places of religious exaltation. There is a profound connection between roadside Jesus Saves signage, Rock City gnomic caverns, side show amusement parks, miniature golf courses, wayside shrines and memorials, Ripley’s Believe It or Not “odditoriums,” Roman Catholic grottos dedicated to the crucifixion story or the Virgin Mary, reconstructions of the garden of Eden and Noah’s ark, and all manner of other and often funky Protestant Bible emporiums.

All of these constructions concretize the deep-seated human need to revive one’s spirit and to experience corporally the stories that give meaning, wonder, and hope to our lives. These environments embody stories that in Western tradition are simultaneously specifically biblical, universally mythic, and emotionally nostalgic in nature. Such productions, whether overtly religious or not, collectively draw upon the human drive for healing self-affirmation and world production through obsessively driven, ritually patterned, and artistically expressive creating and making. Miniature world-making is most sentimentally and sacramentally embedded in what the folklorist Michael Owen Jones called the “aesthetics of everyday life” (2001, p. 47–60). This involves aspects of a decorative or cosmetic (from the root for ordering a cosmos or world) “ordering” and “making special” that embraces furniture arrangement, Christmas and Halloween decorations, festival costuming, tattooing, hair arrangements, religious and secular shrine construction, as well as all manner of cosmetic display and collecting behavior.

The practice of creating such religiously oriented environments has been insightfully charted by the religion scholar Timothy Beal and the art and design historian John Beardsley. A paradigmatic example is certainly the extraterrestrial Baptist Howard Finster—the self-styled Second Noah, Man of Visions, and Stranger from Another World—who spent the last quarter of his life in northwest Georgia building, and never finishing, what came to be called “Paradise Garden.” As an improbable assemblage of bible signs, accumulated junk constructions, embedded concrete sculptures, the multi-tiered architectural structure called the World Folk Art Church, and other miscellaneous and recycled found objects, Paradise Garden is one of the most famous contemporary examples of a fantastic environmental artwork.

The compulsive construction of large-scale outdoor works, paradisiacal realms, and microcosmic worlds of biblical, esoteric, and patriotic symbolism is a common characteristic of self-taught outsider art. Many of these works are heroic in ambition and scale, but this creative urge is also seen in smaller, more humble, and less overwhelming outdoor and indoor constructions—such as all manner of African American yard art, Annie Hooper’s (1897–1986) house of brooding doll tableaus of Bible stories, Clyde Jones’s (b. ca. 1938) Haw River Critter Crossing, or Billy Lemming’s (ca. 1920–1988) electrically charged red-white-and-blue environment.

Folk and Outsider Art

Leonard Knight’s “Salvation Mountain” environmental art installation.

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The tradition of making religiously oriented constructions and Bible parks is often associated with extraordinarily impassioned outsiders who can best be called visionary artists or visionary virtuosos. Visionary art is by definition an outsiderish tradition that imaginatively and sometimes ecstatically or shamanistically takes the artist to otherworldly realms and allows the artist to share those amazing extraterrestrial sights with men and women still earthbound. In its most compulsive and flamboyant expressions, such as Finster’s Paradise Garden or Leonard Knight’s (1931–2014) Salvation Mountain, these visions are made whole and incarnate, but visionary art may also take more traditional forms, as seen in Finster’s myriad “bad and nasty” tractor enamel paintings and self-published coloring books about his outer space journeys, in the rough and colorful imagery of Pentecostal spiritual flight by Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900–1980), or in the more edgy and esoteric Bible-code symbolism in Norbert Kox’s (b. 1945) technically refined paintings and sculptures. As the Bible says (Prov 29:18), “without vision the people perish,” and it is certainly true that folk, visionary, and outsider artists have worked heartily and indefatigably to keep vision alive and to change their world and our world for the better.

The Art of Everything.

The “Art with No Name” in the second decade of the twenty-first century has become in some ways the ultimate cultural mash-up, a veritable “Art of Everything” for people from prehistoric times to the present. What was once called the “hidden face of contemporary art” is no longer unseen, but at times the picture is not so pretty. Witness the debacle of the financial collapse and partial regrouping of the American Folk Art Museum in New York and the demolition in 2014 of its signature building by an imperious Museum of Modern Art. Nevertheless, there are many other more positive signs, as seen in this art’s increasing acceptance by several important mainstream museums in the United States; an expanding market of dealers, auction houses, and collectors; meager but growing academic attention; and a heightened visibility in Europe and parts of Asia.

A telling international development is the “Encyclopedic Palace” exhibition of outsider artists at the 2013 Biennale in Venice under the curatorial tutelage of the Italian Massimiliano Gioni, director of New York’s New Museum. The New Museum and the Biennale’s notable embrace of all kinds of contemporary folk-tribal-outsider art alongside mainstream art represent the very antithesis of the actions of the once-pioneering Museum of Modern Art. As the obsessive creation of the mostly unknown Italian American self-taught artist Marino Auriti, the “Encyclopedic Palace” was a fabulous 11-foot-tall tiered skyscraper model built out of discarded parts and intended, once it was constructed to its full heavenly height of 2,300 feet, to house the entire world’s cultural wisdom. Gioni used this artwork as a centerpiece for his understanding of the Biennale as a place to bring all the different global manifestations of art together. Alluding to the Bible’s Tower of Babel, Auriti and Gioni’s palace became a powerful symbol of the dream of constructing a home for all spiritual and material manifestations of art and knowledge. This impossible vision for building a paradisiacal structure containing all things and everything is, indeed, a theme that resonates throughout outsider traditions and is seen vividly in the two- and three-dimensional visionary architecture of Erastus Field, Achilles Rizzoli, and Howard Finster.

Rooted in preindustrial and largely rural cultures, traditional folk art, along with the later non-mainstream Art Brut, contemporary folk, outsider, and visionary forms of artistic expression associated with both common and exceptionally uncommon men and women, collectively disclose the intuitive relationship of passionate artistic creativity with both everyday life and extraordinary religious experience. Moreover, in the West and by extension throughout the world, these are art forms that regularly and imaginatively draw upon the Bible for inspiration and meaning. In this sense, an appreciation of folk, outsider, and visionary art, no matter how it is named or not named, is crucial to the difficult task of remembering, seeing, and experiencing again what it means to be human within the hyperinterconnected but increasingly artificial and virtual reality of the contemporary world. There are other more salutary and sensual worlds out there, if only we have the opportunity to see them through the eyes of primitively gifted artists. Without a creative vision the people perish.



  • Ardery, Julia S. The Temptation: Edgar Tolson and the Genesis of Twentieth-Century Folk Art. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Well-written and groundbreaking sociological analysis of the emergence of contemporary folk and outsider art in the United States.
  • Beal, Timothy K. Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith. Boston: Beacon, 2005. Sprightly interpretation and appreciation of Bible parks and religious environments from the phenomenological perspective of religious studies.
  • Beardsley, John. Gardens of Revelation: Environments by Visionary Artists. New York: Abbeville, 1995. Important interpretive overview and insightful analysis of some “classic” outsider environments.
  • Blake, William. Quotation documented at English Romantics Set to Music.
  • Cardinal, Roger. Outsider Art. New York: Praeger, 1972. The work that sparked the worldwide interest in Outsider Art by one of the very best scholars of the tradition.
  • Cardinal, Roger, “Marginalia.” In Marginalia Perspectives on Outsider Art, edited by Jos ten Berge, pp. 51–75. Zwolle, The Netherlands: Museum de Stadshof, 2000. Explorations of the theme of “margin and mainstream” by leading international scholars.
  • Carlano, Annie. Vernacular Visionaries: International Outsider Art. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. Significant collection of articles on worldwide outsider practices by leading scholars and commentators.
  • Crown, Carol. Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible and the American South. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004. Essential collection of scholarly articles and many color images of biblically oriented art.
  • Crown, Carol, and Cheryl Rivers, eds. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Vol. 23: Folk Art. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Up-to-date and knowledgeable entries on southern folk art with attention to the relation of traditional, contemporary folk, and outsider art.
  • Crown, Carol, and Charles Russell, eds. Sacred and Profane: Voice and Vision in Southern Self-Taught Art. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. Provocative articles on the relation of religion and art as found in the American South.
  • Dewhurst, C. Kurt, Betty MacDowell, and Marsha MacDowell. Religious Folk Art in America: Reflections of Faith. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1983. Important but now somewhat dated study of religion and folk art from a largely theological point of view.
  • Dissanayake, Ellen. Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995. Influential study of the cultural origins of art as the ritual practice of “making special.”
  • Dubuffet, Jean. L’Homme du commun à l’ouvrage. Paris: Gallimard, 1973. Classic essays by the founder of Art Brut.
  • Dutton, Denis. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Readable and helpful discussion of the evolutionary context for art by a leading philosophical theorist.
  • Girardot, Norman. Envisioning Howard Finster: The Religion and Art of a Stranger from Another World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015. The first interpretive analysis of the interrelationship of religion and art in the life and work of Howard Finster.
  • Glassie, Henry. The Spirit of Folk Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989. Description, theory, and images are impressively and passionately combined in this study by one of the leading folklore scholars.
  • Hall, Michael D., and Eugene W. Metcalf Jr. The Artist Outsider: Creativity and the Boundaries of Culture. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994. Interdisciplinary collection of articles on some key issues of definition and meaning.
  • Jones, Michael Owen. “The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.” In Self-Taught Art: The Culture and Aesthetics of American Vernacular Art, edited by Charles Russell, pp. 47–60. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
  • Maizels, John, ed. Outsider Art Sourcebook. Radlett, U.K.: Raw Vision, 2009. Essential international guide to all aspects of the outsider art world.
  • MOBIA: Museum of Biblical Art. Website with good online overviews of various bible art exhibitions including “Coming Home” about southern folk and outsider art.
  • Morgan, David. Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Pioneering theoretical work from a cultural or visual culture perspective.
  • Plate, S. Brent. A History of Religion in 5½ Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses. Boston: Beacon, 2014. Fascinating reflections on the sensual context for understanding religion and art by a leading exponent of “material religion” studies.
  • Rhodes, Colin. Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000. Arguably the best general introduction to the outsider field by a prominent art historian.
  • Rosenak, Chuck, and Jan Rosenak, eds. Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists. New York: Abbeville, 1990. Useful compendium of articles on folk and outsider art and artists.
  • Russell, Charles. Groundwaters: A Century of Art by Self-Taught and Outsider Artists. London: Prestel, 2011. An impressive interpretive appreciation from a broad cultural perspective.
  • Russell, Charles, ed. Self-Taught Art: The Culture and Aesthetics of American Vernacular Art. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. Impressive array of articles from various methodological perspectives along with an important introductory essay by Russell on the cultural history of these art forms.
  • Schorsch, Anita, and Martin Greif. The Morning Stars Sang: The Bible in Popular and Folk Art. New York: Universe Books, 1978. Still valuable early descriptive discussion of the symbolic nature of biblical symbolism in traditional folk art.
  • SPACES (Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments). A visually rich website dedicated to identifying, documenting, and advocating for the preservation of large-scale art environments.
  • Umberger, Leslie, ed. Sublime Spaces and Visionary Worlds: Built Environments of Vernacular Artists. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007. Valuable interdisciplinary compendium of descriptive and interpretive views about environmental artworks.
  • Vlach, John Michael, and Simon J. Bronner, eds. Folk Art and Art Worlds. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1986. Critical discussions of issues related to folk art by some leading folklore scholars.

Norman Girardot