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Bringing the Outsiders In 

Outsiders are the insiders of the contemporary art world these days, and that makes Indianapolis artist Mary Jo DeMyer's collection accidentally trendy.

Once ignored or considered avant-garde, outsider artists -- the self-taught, sometimes mentally ill men and women who create with provincial materials like housewares, toys and other everyday materials -- have made their way into more major American art museums and moneyed collectors' hands over the last few years.

click to enlarge Mary Jo DeMyer became fascinated with outsider art at art school. - DOUG MCSCHOOLER
  • Doug McSchooler
  • Mary Jo DeMyer became fascinated with outsider art at art school.

But despite the whims of the art market, DeMyer has been fascinated by the genre since the 1970s, when she learned about it while getting a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Kansas City Art Institute.

"I thought, 'wow, I've never seen anything like that before,'" she says. "There's just tons of heart in that work. There's not a lot of art thinking going on. I just find it very believable. It really speaks to me."

She's not the only one.

Dating back to the 1940s in Europe, discussion of artwork created outside the fine art tradition used the term "art brut" (meaning "raw or rough art") to describe spontaneous, unprocessed, nonconformist works such as that of the mentally ill, according to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. French painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet was a high-profile collector then, but didn't get much attention for it. About 25 years later in 1972, art critic Roger Cardinal's book on the subject coined the term "outsider art."

More recently, deaf and illiterate artist James Castle's name was heard around the world when a set of his works was acquired by the National Gallery of Art. And Indianapolis got to know self-taught Alabama artist Thornton Dial in 2011 when his large-scale pieces, made of objects including bed springs and toys, were exhibited at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

click to enlarge DeMyer finds outsider art to be full of heart in a different way than traditional fine art. - DOUG MCSCHOOLER
  • Doug McSchooler
  • DeMyer finds outsider art to be full of heart in a different way than traditional fine art.

Meanwhile, inside her family's Meridian-Kessler bungalow, DeMyer has been quietly collecting pieces by American outsider artists and filling her home with her own work. And despite the college degree, which makes her something of an insider, her artwork looks a lot like that of her favorite genre.

The colorful, even sparkling, works bring about a whimsical décor and make DeMyer smile and laugh as she discusses them.

"Art is just necessary to me," she says, adding that, to her, everything should be beautiful.

To that end, the DeMyer living room holds several of her creations, including a life-size sculpture of a dog. Put together with sticks and dried flowers, it has an old plastic spoon as a tongue and appears to be laughing. Nearby, in the dining room hangs "The Answer Lady," a portrait of a made-up character that DeMyer fashioned out of glitter and glue about 13 years ago. The woman's dazzling dress is surrounded by images of unopened envelopes.

"This little image came from a drawing I made in my early 30s," she says, chuckling. "She's just someone who has got the answers, but she is pretty quiet."

In the kitchen is a fanciful work by schizophrenic Paul Darmafall, who became so popular he was known as "The Baltimore Glassman" before his death in 2003. Darmafall's inexplicable painting is augmented by glass pieces glued into the shape of a character with an orange face, cane and top hat. It proclaims, "Prepare for winter" and labels itself "Mr. Peanuts."

click to enlarge An airplane hangs outside the Yonder Studio. - DOUG MCSCHOOLER
  • Doug McSchooler
  • An airplane hangs outside the Yonder Studio.

DeMyer picked that one up for about $200 to $300 in Indianapolis more than a decade ago when Midland Arts & Antiques Market held an outsider art fair.

DeMyer's reason for buying it: "I just thought it was kind of odd."

Another work hanging in her living room is by street-preaching artist Robert Roberg. DeMyer paid $500 for the portrait in the early 1990s when she took a road trip through Florida, mapped out Roberg's home and stopped there. The painting, about a missionary trip to Haiti, reads "who can tell me about God, I must know" next to a portrait of a dark-skinned man or woman, presumably a Haitian, with vibrant eyes.

She says she has mimicked one of the techniques in the painting in some of her own works: coloring the whites of a person's eyes blue.

click to enlarge Using wood-burning techniques, DeMyer intricately engraved this bed frame crafted by Larry DeMyer. - DOUG MCSCHOOLER
  • Doug McSchooler
  • Using wood-burning techniques, DeMyer intricately engraved this bed frame crafted by Larry DeMyer.

Still, DeMyer says she doesn't intend to copy the outsider artists.

"I don't want to make fake outsider art," she says.

It's just that they inspire her as she creates her own collages, mobiles and sculptures.

Well before she was introduced to the outsiders, DeMyer used household materials in her artwork. She has childhood memories are of playing alone, fascinated by everyday objects. Wallpaper with silver stars in her closet looked beautiful to her, and she remembers as a kid making tiny room models with foam rubber in shoe boxes.

She says that world inside her head just seemed more satisfying than the world she lived in.

"I was really thrilled to be alive, I think," she says. "My joy for the artwork and the feeling I get when I'm working, it's like this meditative thing."

Now, when DeMyer thinks about society's big problems, she heads to her workshop, which she calls "Yonder Studio," behind her home and produces something colorful and sparkly. Lately, she's been constructing mobiles out of holiday ornaments and objects she has kept. The finished ones will dangle in her studio until DeMyer comes up with a spot for them.

"It's like a survival thing to do," she says. "I try to create beauty where there is none."

As do her outsider artists.

DeMyer works out of her Yonder Studio to create her art. - DOUG MCSCHOOLER
  • Doug McSchooler
  • DeMyer works out of her Yonder Studio to create her art.
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Cathy Kightlinger

Cathy Kightlinger

The first 20 years of Cathy Kightlinger’s career were spent as a newspaper reporter and columnist, so she is new to freelance writing. In her most recent role as The Indianapolis Star’s social columnist, Cathy wrote about fascinating people and parties, big and small. Fabulous shoes and contemporary art make her... more

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