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a Right Thought on Outsider Art and Reclusive Artist and Writer, Henry Darger

It’s a cliché statement but unfortunately a true one, some artists never get the recognition they deserve while alive and only after they’ve passed, their talent and work is truly appreciated. Their work may be considered ‘Outsider Art’, a phrase first coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972, revering to artists working outside the official art scene or work done by patients in mental institutions or even prisoners in jail, often the manifestation of their mental state. In some cases a person’s work is only discovered after their death, without anybody ever seeing their work while they were alive. Arguably one of the best examples of an ‘Outside Artist’ was American writer and artist Henry Darger.

Henry Darger lived a reclusive live as a hospital custodian in Chicago, Illinois, and as a child he was institutionalized in the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois. The asylum’s practices included forced labor and severe punishment for those stepping out of line. He often bud heads with teachers believing himself to be able to “see through the lies of adults” resulting in a “smart-aleck” attitude which also caused teasing from other attendees. After escaping the asylum at the age of 16 he returned to his birth place of Chicago. He had an inherent love for children and he and his one close friend, William Schloeder, often discussed establishing the “Children's Protective Society", an organization that would put abused and neglected children up for adoption with loving families. In 1930 Darger settled in a second floor room on Chicago's North Side. It was in this room where he wrote and illustrated The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion for 43 years.

a Painting from The Realms of the Unreal

The Realms of the Unreal consists of 15,145 pages bound in 15 volumes with 3 of them consisting of several hundred illustrations. The majority of the story deals with a child rebellion against a regime of child slavery formed by an evil overlord. He pulled, at least in part, inspiration for his work from his experiences when institutionalized in the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children. He was also inspired by the portrait of five-year-old murder victim, Elsie Paroubek in the Chicago Daily News. After a newspaper clipping of the little girl’s portrait was supposedly stolen from his locker, among some other possessions, he got quite distraught as the portrait and the story of the unsolved murder held great significance among is ever increasing collection of newspaper, magazine and other printed media clippings, usually featuring children. This event sparked a clear idea for the The Realms of the Unreal’s story, building upon an earlier draft of the novel.

His illustrations consisted of scroll-like watercolor paintings, all done on pages from magazines and coloring books. He used clippings from magazines, children’s books and other trash he collected for his human figures, composing them in collages and he is often praised for his natural gift for composition. He also made use of tracings and had an excellent pallet as exhibited in his water color paintings. His illustrations depicted large scale battles, scenes of torture and daring escapes.

I find it really sad that some artists will never know their work’s influence or how their work touched others, but I also understand that for some people art is a very personal thing and is used as a form of therapy and they choose not to share their work with others. Someone should also never be forced to share their work with the world if they don’t want to as this can do more damage than good, robbing them of their therapeutic outlet.

While visiting Cape Town earlier this year I bought an old unmarked photo album at a local thrift shop, the album contained truly remarkable nature photographs. I know nothing about the person who took them and for all I know it could be the work of a famous photographer, either way, in the spirit of underappreciated or unknown artists I would like to share some of the photos below.

Franscois Potgieter

Founder, Artist, The Mind Is Right


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