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Self-Taught Art

The Old Water, 2004, by Thornton Dial, Sr.

Known at various times and in different contexts as “Self-Taught Art”, “Outsider Art”, “Vernacular Art”, or “Visionary Art”, the wide range of artists often grouped in this evolving category are generally untrained by formal academic or artistic schools. Inherently wide-ranging in their material approaches, they share an impulse to make art, sometimes from a young age or later in their lives.

In the United States, an important group of Self-Taught artists are associated with Black communities of the Deep South, but individuals who make art outside of the professionalized art world are found throughout this country and the world. Their work cannot easily be described on the whole, as each artist bears a different personal history and a singular way of working. Yet some through lines can be lightly traced through the category of Self-Taught art, such as the use of assemblage of found and everyday materials, the use of nontraditional surfaces and supports for drawing and painting, and the profound will and need to make art despite—and at time due to—the lack of educational access and entry into the art system. While some artists did live in the same neighborhoods and communities, many worked in isolation. Others made work while incarcerated or institutionalized, cut off not only from art but also from the world at large.

As a category of art, Self-Taught is perhaps one of the hardest to define. Diverging from traditional and canonical narratives of art history, it is perhaps most notable for how it challenges clear-cut or academic understandings of art and art making.