A mural-sized painting is hanging in the atrium of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. It looks old, but it is a newly commissioned work by Esther Pearl Watson, who grew up in the eastern exurbs of Dallas.
She is the second contemporary artist whose art the Carter has hung in this large space, part of an outreach program of director Andrew Walker’s to include works by living artists with local roots.
The painting is also a herald of things to come. Watson’s style can be allied with that of unschooled artists from a millennium ago who painted with a naive flatness and awkward scale. Watson, though, is a thoroughly trained contemporary artist with a bachelor of fine arts from Art Center College of Design and a master’s degree from the California Institute of the Arts.
She has a long-running graphic novel, Unloveable, and she has done illustrations for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.
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Watson’s painting Pasture Cows Crossing Indian Creek, Comanche, Texas, Looking for the Old Civilian Fort of 1851, North of Gustine and a Mile West of Baggett Creek Church is a precursor of more works like this to come our way. In October, the Carter will present “Self-Taught Genius: Treasures From the American Folk Art Museum.” This exhibit will have paintings that have a similar innocence to them that suggests a lack of formal training.
There is a big bag of adjectives used for these artists; sometimes they are called visionary artists or folk artists, and their efforts are often referred to as outsider art. In the Folk Art collection are pieces by unknown artists and institutionalized people who communicate better through their artwork than on society’s terms.
The individual expressions are quite varied, but one thing is consistent: There always seems to be an adjective in front of the word “artist” in this universe to define the creative efforts as something not quite like art.
But these are not second-class artworks.
One of the pieces that will travel to Fort Worth from the Folk Art Museum is Marino Auriti’s Encyclopedic Palace/Palazzo Enciclopedico. Made in the 1950s, it is a towering model made of wood, plastic, glass, metal, hair combs and parts of other models. It was a scale model of a museum that Auriti envisioned holding all of human discovery.
Watson’s father was like Auriti, building fantastical things in the family’s yard. The senior Watson’s specialty was spaceships that he was sure he could sell to the government or to Ross Perot once he figured out how to get them aloft.
Watson grew up with this. Her family was that family on the block. They moved frequently.
This unique family dynamic gave Watson a great back story, and she frequently incorporates it into what she calls her memory paintings. She intentionally paints in this style because it succinctly defines the childhood interpretation of events.
Pasture Cows Crossing Indian Creek is set near Comanche, where her grandfather had a ranch. Here is a herd of cows crossing the creek and a spaceship hovering over the landscape. Children frolic, horses gambol, cotton-ball clouds float in a perfectly blue sky and someone is fixing fence — someone always has to fix fence on a ranch.
“I’ve got a story to tell, and I thought this style would work really well for a memory painting, like Grandma Moses. I really like how she would idealize her memories of childhood,” Watson says.
Watson has more work on display at the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, a place that regularly hangs the work of folk artists. The label distresses the gallery’s owner, Julie Webb, as it tends to lump visionaries with memory painters, such as Watson, and the truly unschooled who nevertheless communicate their special visions through paintings, drawings and sculptures.
They are all artists, Webb says, and when the various labels are applied, it denigrates them all.
The tyranny of classifying the academically trained as “artist” and all others as less than artist is still in force. Recently, David Penney, the guest curator who worked with the Carter installing artifacts in the “Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art From the Diker Collection” exhibit, could not bring himself to refer to the makers of these beautiful creations as artists.
It is a cultural myopia that runs deeps in the academic circles, explained one of the Carter’s curators.
Yet these works are becoming more appreciated and respected. Auriti’s model of the Encyclopedic Palace was submitted to the 2013 Venice Art Biennale, where it became the international art fair’s centerpiece.
It was considered an oddity but not an outlier. It was appreciated for the skill and the intent of the artist.
Watson’s artwork will hang indefinitely at the Carter, and through Aug. 2 at the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie.
Gaile Robinson, 817-390-7113