Gone But Not Forgotten
- Oct 29, 2003
- Reaction score
ScradjeLife on the outside
By Dan Bell
For many in the art world their creations are little more than the daubings of madmen. Their work has been bulldozed and vandalised, and one artist had bricks thrown through his window. Mostly they are completely ignored. This is the lot of the UK's outsider artists.
Outsider art is art that sits outside any known idiom. It is art created from an entirely new language. It is not for sale. And it is marked by obsession.
To some who are weary of the increasing commercialisation of art, outsider works are unpolished jewels, and the people who make them are the purest artists of all.
And hidden away on an old allotment near Wigan, a vast new creation has recently come to light. Former Lancashire cotton mill worker Kevin Duffy, 62, has poured his life's energy into creating a magical alternative reality.
For over three decades he has used reclaimed building materials to transform his allotment-turned-garden centre into a labyrinth of three-quarter-size Tudor-style cottages, rendered pillars and curved walls.
On Boxing Day 13 years ago, his wife fell dead beneath the Christmas tree, and Duffy's work took on a dramatic new urgency. Since then the site has erupted with more than 80 buildings and sculptures.
He doesn't use scaffolding because it slows him down. He says he will never stop building and he expects to die with the work still in progress.
Those who think outsider artworks are the daubings of the insane have a point - outsider art was first recognised in the early 19th Century among the inmates of asylums.
In 1948, the artist Jean Dubuffet began to collect these obsessive, surreal and powerful works made by people who not only had never been to an art gallery, but barely knew what one was.
Dubuffet coined the term Art Brut to describe his collection. It translates as raw art - as in uncooked by culture or aesthetics, and like a nerve. This is outsider art.
But is it art?
No-one knows how many of these pockets of creative obsession are scattered across the country, but there are at least a dozen, and they have often evolved over decades.
• In Guernsey, a French monk built a miniature chapel and encrusted its entire surface with brightly coloured broken glass, shells and pottery
• In Northumberland, a strange menagerie sprung up out of concrete
• The setting for the TV series The Prisoner in Portmeirion, Wales, is an artwork
• And in Suffolk there is a garden made of hub caps
But is it art? According to Iain Jackson, an architecture student who has written about Duffy for Raw Vision magazine, the country's only publication devoted to outsider art, Duffy's environment has both the deliberation and ambiguity of a work of art.
"Like a lot of outsider environments, it's like a narrative or story," he says.
"Kevin thinks about the perspectives and axis that are created by his installations. He explained to me how he thinks of the foreground, middle and distance, being careful to place structures at key moments to create a scene and carefully composed arrangement."
Duffy says he wants his world to offer people an escape. Visitors to his garden centre are encouraged to explore the artwork it is built around. "We're trying to illusionise people, so it knocks them a bit dizzy because they don't know where they are," he says.
"All I want them to do is to take them out of themselves. To come on, to forget that they've got a mortgage, and they've got wife trouble, and the car's broken down, and they go off in a different mood."
He knows all about the need to escape. When his wife died unexpectedly he was devastated and he and his son Carl, 41, ploughed all their energy into the work.
"Rather than just brood and stop in on a rainy day and put on the cricket, we put on the dirty clothes," he says.
"It takes your mind off it, because you become obsessed when somebody dies. You can't think of anything else because of the grief. Keep going till you drop, that's the best way."
The Tudor era is his muse - the stately homes and gardens of nearby Yorkshire helping fire his inspiration.
There is no organisation devoted to preserving these works and many have been lost. One man spent 15 years encrusting his entire garden with sculptures and sea shells, only to have it pulled down by his son with a JCB when he died.
Duffy, who was known locally, only came to the attention of Raw Vision a few months ago when he asked the council mark his creation as a place of local interest. They refused but told him to contact the magazine.
John Maizels, editor of Raw Vision, is heartbroken when they are destroyed. "It's really upsetting because it's gone forever," he says.
From a small clapperboard house near Watford, the magazine traces outsider artists from across the world. Its walls are lined with brightly-coloured books and magazines, each one a window into an alternative reality.
"It is not affected in any way," says Maizels. "It's not for sale and most of it isn't even done to be exhibited."
"When I came across it I was just so amazed by it, it was so powerful and it had such strong personal meaning... people are revealing themselves, their demons, their own aspirations, their own inner feelings.
"When you get to go into them and walk around, you're right inside someone's creative world and it's an extraordinary experience.
"They don't go to exhibitions or private views, they just work. They've got an inner compulsion."
Duffy says he has created 15 "sculptures" in the last year alone. "I can't help it," he says. "I do it all the time, every day, even when I'm ill."
Will it ever be done?
"No, no. I'll die and there'll be a building half done. It'll never be finished. It can't be finished."
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2007/10/26 14:51:55 GMT
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