An interview with
author of The Colorful Apocalypse: Journeys in Outsider Art
Question: How did you become interested in outsider art?
Greg Bottoms: When I was in the MFA program in creative writing at University of Virginia I began work on what would become Angelhead, a biographical memoir about my brother’s debilitating and sometimes frightening schizophrenia. I was reading about the history of mental illness and particularly schizophrenia, or dementia praecox, and read my way right into the early thinking about mental illness and art—this kind of art made by culturally marginalized individuals for their own purposes and outside of any kind of fine art systems. The main book in all of this reading, the one I never let go of in a way, was Hans Prinzhorn’s Aristry of the Mentally Ill. This book in particular was seminal to Dubuffett’s early thinking about art brut.
Question: The works and lives of each of your subjects—the artists Howard Finster, William Thomas Thompson, and Norbert Kox—are deeply religious and revelatory, growing out of the revivalist Christian fundamentalist traditions of the South. How did your own experience of the South affect how you wanted to portray the interconnectedness of these artists’ religious convictions and their art?
Bottoms: I’m from the South, and only one generation removed from the poor South, where Christian fundamentalist thinking is obviously particularly strong. I felt strangely comfortable inside of this Christian religious language, had heard versions of it before. Even though it is not my own thinking, it was familiar to me in the way a certain grid of city streets can be familiar after years of being away. I also wanted to witness and document rather synthesize or critique this thinking as much as possible. Secular, liberal, academic types like myself can too easily dismiss this stuff, or just lambast it and call it ridiculous, but since I sort of know it, and know and even care about people who have strong Christian views—grandmothers, aunts, cousins—I have a certain sympathy, see it as a template for meaning in the face of human suffering. And I have a weird impulse in writing to want to reassess what might look on the surface of things obvious, and also to offer empathy/sympathy where it might seem difficult.
Question: In your book Angelhead you recount and explore your brother’s descent into paranoid schizophrenia and its traumatic effects on your family. How did your experience of writing about your brother's mental illness shape your relationships with your subjects in Colorful Apocalypse?
Bottoms: Each of the artists in the book experienced an extreme religious epiphany after a time of daunting anxiety and stress and intolerable pressure—this epiphany led to the outpouring of art, in exactly the same way that it did for the “schizophrenic artists” in Prinzhorn’s book. These epiphanies—in a secular, scientific light—would be diagnosed as mental breakdowns, of course. So perspective and semantics become an interesting part of the investigation, so to speak. The human mind must rationalize and relativize experience, keep reshaping it, naming it, making it useful—when it can’t there lies an abyss just ahead. I know about this more than I know about anything. What’s interesting to me is that highly educated people can often believe, at least temporarily, that they’ve achieved a kind of plateau of knowledge from which they might survey others. I offer myself up, in this book and everywhere else, as personal essayist, a person who writes essais, as Montaigne had it, and whenever I feel a little authority creeping up my back, an easy and seemingly sturdy self-assuredness, I want to pull it apart, fling it somewhere. I want to point out, in the face of all I don’t know, that I’m giving it a go for myself, and hopefully for the reader.
Question: In a wonderful scene in an art gallery, you show how certain strains of the art world have come to embrace and celebrate these outsider artists and their works, even though on the face of it, their respective visions of the world are culturally at odds. How did this influence how you placed your own journalistic lens?
Bottoms: I’m an outsider to galleries. I’m not of the art world, which of course is not a world, or an insider/outsider world, but a complex network usually in the service of valuing/devaluing. I’m not bound by any allegiances there at all. The packaging of outsider art can at times be terribly troubling to me—either elitist and accidentally denigrating, or partaking of commodity fetishism where part of the commodity, the one housed inside the art object, is a troubled mind. And then there is often a mystification and a romanticizing of marginalization and creativity born of despair. I wanted to deal with the artists, stay with the artists. I wanted to de-mystify, un-romanticize. I also wanted to let them speak for themselves at length, more at length than I might otherwise, in another project.
The arists in the book are deadly honest and devoted to a religious cause, whether others see them as delusional or not, and they wish more than anything to get their message out. Art isn’t about art or aesthetics to them. It’s about message. And they are people, not so different than you or me at their core. Part of what I saw, at American Visionary Art Museum in particular, which is where that scene takes place, was a collection of art that offered eccentricity but deadened the message of the artist. So artist-gallery-audience was an interesting issue—fraught and complex. At times like this I wanted, as a writer, to step back and report, let the camera roll, so to speak. And of course the way galleries collect and shape stories made me think of my own endeavor, what I do and teach—literary nonfiction, life-writing, biography, autobiography, documentary. So we return to what I said above—self-assuredness in need of a little dismantling. Galleries collect stories and package them and offer them up. Well, what the hell do I do?