Bringing the Outside In

Marc Steene, founder of Outside In, introduces the pioneering project and explores the enduring appeal of non-traditional creativity.

As the director of Outside In and one of the selectors for this year’s national competition I am in a unique and privileged position to have had an overview of the work of over a thousand artists, most of who may never have exhibited or shared their work before. The work produced by these artists is some of the most powerful and beautiful work I have seen in recent years, refreshing in its lack of pretension and moving in its ability to communicate a wide range of life experiences and emotions.

Over 25 years ago I stumbled across a group of learning-disabled artists in a Day Centre in Hove and my life changed forever. I was at a low point in my life; as an artist I had grown disillusioned with the art world and had recently been through a period of mental ill health, partly brought about by the pressures of having to sell my work in the hardnosed commercial art world. I was trained at the Slade and having an Italian mother, passionate about art, I was introduced to the great works of the masters at an early age. I had a thorough understanding of the renaissance and the methodology of art historical thinking, but none of this prepared me for the work of the artists I met in that day centre. There was Elsie, endlessly painting fields of the most beautiful flowers into which one could walk and escape to a life of seemingly eternal bliss, David, expressing his pain and pride by creating Jesus in his own image with three fingers on each hand, nailed to a cross, and Keith a young angry man whose paintings had a tribal and physical intensity, three of many I could recount who attended that day centre, all uniquely talented.

What I found most shocking and upsetting at the time was the life of creative abuse and neglect many of these artists had suffered, the decades of lack of encouragement and understanding of them and their work. But ironically looking back what was also equally noticeable was that through this creative neglect their creativity hadn't died but had grown and shone even brighter. This neglect meant that where others might have tried to step in to teach and give advice, or given them works to copy and colour in, they had been left alone to their own devices, allowing them to maintain an innocence and close relationship to their creativity. My experiences at that day centre has in one way or another shaped the rest of my life and led to the creation of Outside In and underpins a lot of the values and thinking behind the learning and community programme at the Gallery.

What has always interested and moved me in my work with non-traditional artists is seeing how creative endeavour can have a purpose and aesthetic outside of conventional attitudes to art and its function as a commodity in our market based society. Artists from the margins, on the whole, seem to have maintained a close relationship to their creativity; it has honesty and integrity, commodities rarely seen in our cynical and increasingly conceptual art world. Their work often serves a purpose and function closely aligned to their individual needs, this can mean that their work can serve as a tool for self-discovery, healing or for manifesting personal obsessions. Sometimes it can be used to express life situations and circumstances, it can be cathartic, it can create a world of peace and calm to escape to, or to help release inner demons, it can sometimes be, as in the work of artists with learning disabilities, an intuitive process driven by a person’s innate aesthetic and creativity. What is clear is how different this is to what is commonly taught in today's art schools as artistic practice, or what is exhibited and sold in commercial galleries, or discussed in art journals or taught on art history courses.

There is an attraction and growing market for art that has sidestepped the conventions of what the art world presents as art. Value and quality is totally subjective, especially in art, and when people are released from the fear of not understanding what art is or whether they can allow themselves to like it, they are then freed to choose what it is they like and acquire work that communicates to them directly on an emotional and aesthetic level, values that work by non-traditional art has in abundance. At its heart the impact of Outside In and the values it carries is a liberating influence for both the artists and most importantly the audience, allowing a broader discourse, widening participation in the art world and allowing art and creativity to take its place at the heart of our communities.

Freed from convention many of the artists that Outside In engages with have sidestepped traditional art processes and techniques. Often they have evolved highly personal ways of working, artists such as Neil Pearce produce work that seeks to explore the mystery of life through a personal codex, a series of symbols that will at some point reveal the mystery of the universe.

Another artist involved with the project, Ronald, produces work that is life giving, often consisting of kidneys, hearts and other gifts that he gives as blessings to friends, the police and other people in his life, believing entirely in the power of his art to change and benefit lives. I love the purpose to which Ronald uses his art, bypassing commodity and any art world context.

Similarly the artist Ben Wilson's chewing gum pictures on the pavements of London, often to commission, commemorating various events in people’s lives, a centenary, birthday or other significant personal events, serves another purpose other than commodity. His work acts as a way of recording and celebrating the seemingly insignificant milestones in people’s lives, making them into art.

These artists are fulfilling different roles in society, some using their art as shamans, creating spells to ward off evil spirits or to bring blessings others as modern day diarists, recorders of their inner and outer worlds. I would like to believe that one day we can live in a society where there are as many ways of creating as there are individuals living in it,  a world where art has integrity and purpose, where it allows everyone the opportunity to learn about themselves and to grow and discover about themselves and their place in the world. Where they can trust to and develop their own aesthetic and not feel cowed by convention or other people’s opinions. Unless we aspire to an art world where the benefits are shared more equally and where everyone has a place in it then I believe Outside In and society as a whole will have failed. Creativity is one of the most powerful tools we have at our finger tips and everyone should have the right to use it.

This is the third time Outside In has offered the opportunity to artists from the margins to have their work on display in Pallant House Gallery, now a triennial, and for the first time in the main gallery spaces, these works and artists are now being given the due value and prominence that they and their work deserve. From the deeply spiritual to the darkest of visions, from the achingly sad to the sharply acerbic Outside In: National will provide audiences with an exhibition that explores the full range of human emotions, a must see for all those curious about art, life and the human spirit.

Image: Chaz Waldren