Outstanding: Contemporary Self-Taught Art at BCA

painting of a person in a green dress holding a book with a bird in the bottom left corner

The following blog post was written by John Flanagan, the Communications Director at Burlington City Arts.

In the Field: Contemporary Self-Taught Vermont Artists Featured in BCA’s Outstanding Exhibition

Until old age and the demands of farming curtailed Anna Mary Robertson Moses life’s work on Mount Nebo, a farm 15 miles from downtown Bennington, Moses considered painting to be a frivolous pursuit. Less than a decade later, three of her paintings would appear in a group exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, with her first solo exhibition opening the following year, when she was 80 years-old and known as Grandma Moses. By the time Moses died, at 101 in 1961, the late-blooming painter had appeared on the covers of Life and Time, and her paintings were ubiquitous, part of the national zeitgeist celebrating the rugged independence of pastoral iconoclasm.

Grandma Moses is the preeminent artist associated with this third movement—alongside Cubism and Surrealism—of modern art: Self-Taught. Her inextricable relationship with rural life and Vermont, in particular, underscores the region’s long history of inspiring, nurturing, and welcoming artists who stand outside the academic or conventional expectations of their medium.

Outstanding: Contemporary Self-Taught Art, a new exhibition opening at the BCA Center on Friday, May 19, surveys the current state of Vermont and the surrounding region’s deep bench of such artists. The eight artists featured in Outstanding are continuing a rich dialogue with historical self-taught artists while also reshaping the movement’s discourse into one that is more inclusive, meanwhile investigating themes of healing, memory, community, and the otherworldly.

BCA Curator and Director of Exhibitions Heather Ferrell chose the title “Outstanding” as a playful upending of the term “outsider,” which originated in 1972 as a means to describe artists who were isolated from the art world.

“Self-Taught” is more inclusive, Ferrell says, “and ‘Outstanding’ recognizes these artists for their exceptional work, which stands out from other amateur or mainstream artists.”

These proto-disrupters offer a counterbalance of authenticity to the top-heavy hype endemic to “the art world,” eschewing renown or the requisite pursuit thereof to explore boundary-defying creativity on their own fiercely individualistic terms.

So, who are the featured artists?

Larry Bissonnette, based in Williston, is a disability rights advocate who has been painting and drawing since he was a child. “Love to look at my art as intuition driven not ordered by my disability,” Bissonnette, who is on the autism spectrum, told Dr. William Ellis, Chair/Associate Professor of Fine Arts: Music at Saint Michael’s College and scholar of self-taught artists, in an article for Folk Art Messenger.

Bissonnette began a collaboration with the Vermont nonprofit G.R.A.C.E (Grass Roots Arts and Community Effort) in the 1980s, helping to establish the artist and introduce him to a broader audience. His multimedia artworks often include themes tied to memory, transportation, faces, and the humorous juxtapositions of marginalia. Ellis writes that Bissonnette’s “spontaneous, untutored aesthetics [that] offer social discourse coupled with incisive humor…place him in a select vernacular of Vermont artistry.”

Liza Phillip, who paints characters they refer to as “monsters,” finds inspiration from their walks around Burlington. With a focus on their LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities, Phillip’s playful creatures riff on “phrases that I’m feeling, the people around me,” they write in their artist statement. Phillip’s acrylic monsters are positively benign, yet playfully menacing.

Like Phillip and Bissonnette, artist Chip Haggerty’s raw and slyly humorous style represents Vermonters’ propensity toward unvarnished social commentary. With deceptively superficial themes such as traffic, food, and people, Haggerty’s paintings go deep, inspiring reflections on repetition, consumerism, exploitation, and the frequent bête noire of self-taught artists, the art industry itself.

Exhibiting artist Denver Ferguson likewise employs apparently simple themes to consider darker complexities. While working as a cashier at the Upper Valley Co-op, in White River Junction, Ferguson began drawing as a way to alleviate culture shock and anxiety following the devastation of his native Virgin Islands caused by Hurricane’s Maria and Irma, in 2017. His drawings collect a mélange of influences, including Caribbean/Yoruba culture, 20th century science fiction, and contemporary comic book characters, according to New York’s Kishka Gallery and Library, which hosted Ferguson in the Outsider Art Fair NYC 2023.

Like Ferguson, Montreal-based artist June Gutman calls on her art to process difficult personal traumas. Having spent her formative years over-medicated for mental illness, Gutman details her own experiences through images while commenting on the hidden nature of the individual mind. Similarly, Burlington artist Thomas Stetson uses his highly detailed pen drawings to focus on fear and anxiety, creating art that his publisher, Scream and Writhe, describes as “disorienting and nebulous, saturated yet astoundingly precise.”

Elsewhere in the exhibition, Burlington-based painter Kalin Thomas draws upon his extensive research into art history to improvise new techniques in masterful strokes. Incorporating the dramatic lighting and structure of the Baroque style in his early works (2011-2014), Thomas has since evolved his painting to evoke ambiguity of both style and content. This liminality between history and fiction, sincerity and satire is on display in Frontiers in Lobotomy (2021), featured in the exhibition.

Rounding out the exhibition are Pamela Smith’s astounding dream-inspired portraits of women posing in vibrant settings, often paired with animals and other companions. The Bristol-based artist has sculptures included in the permanent collection of at the American Visionary Art Museum, in Baltimore.

Occasionally referred to as “outsider artists,” the “self-taught” sobriquet refers to artists who are not formally trained, who live or work in the shadows of mainstream culture and art marketplaces, and whose style is idiosyncratic and highly personal.

Outstanding: Contemporary Self-Taught opens Friday, May 19 with an opening reception at the BCA Center from 5-7 pm. The exhibition runs through September 17. For exhibition hours and more information, visit burlingtoncityarts.org.