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Roger Brown and art from beyond the mainstream

Chicago is well known as a center for the recognition and acceptance of self-taught art, and also as a place where an uncanny number of outstanding self-taught artists lived and worked. Brown and his colleagues matured as artists during the time when Henry Darger, Joseph Yoakum, Aldo Piacenza, Lee Godie, Pauline Simon, Drossos Skyllas, and William Dawson were discovered living and working (or had lived and worked) in Chicago. These were no “Sunday Painters” –– all were self-taught artists who created extensive, cohesive bodies of highly original works over long periods of time. They had little or no connection with the so-called mainstream or academic art world, as Brown and his colleagues knew it.

Roger Brown developed a deep interest in the works of these and other self-taught artists. He was also interested in works by artists working in traditional folk idioms, as well as popular crafts and objects from material culture. He fiercely sidestepped the generally accepted boundary between the fine and popular arts, and rejected the prevalent “high/low” dichotomy, as an ethic and an approach. He felt the term “outsider” was inherently disrespectful, reflecting the hierarchy of art world “insiders”, who called the shots, when the artists it described could not speak for themselves. Brown was determined that self-taught artists would be recognized on the same footing as so-called “mainstream”, academic, or trained artists, and that the designations between the two would some day be recognized as contrived and irrelevant, and would be erased entirely.

While his studio (on the first floor of his home at 1926 N. Halsted St.) was essentially private, his home and collection on the second floor became a showplace to champion the works of self-taught artists, and works from beyond the mainstream in general. Brown thought of his collection as “Artists’ Museum of Chicago”. He welcomed artists, curators, dealers, and collectors into his home/museum, where they could experience works from many genres and cultures, arranged together, where they could be appreciated as equal in value.


Finding, collecting, and surrounding oneself with objects of interest was encouraged by SAIC professor of painting Ray Yoshida, and the artist and art historian Whitney Halstead. Both were role models in their voracious curiosity about the world of created things. Halstead directed students’ attention to non-Western art, of which great examples from many cultures could be seen in abundance at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. Halsted also took Brown and other artist to visit the self-taught artist Joseph Yoakum on many occasions. (Yoakum had a strong influence on Brown’s consciousness, which is especially evident in Brown’s landscape paintings of the 1970s.) Yoshida organized his legendary “trash treasure” hunting expeditions, taking artists to the city’s historic Maxwell Street market, to second-hand shops, flea markets, auctions, and other places where things of interest could be discovered and acquired for next to nothing. Collecting became a kind of shared, and to some extent, a competitive activity. Brown was renowned for his acute radar, for repeatedly finding the one-of-a-kind treasure that others overlooked.

In addition to Whitney Halsted and Ray Yoshida, significant mentors in the realm of self taught art included Phyllis Kind (who represented Brown’s work for 27 years, and legendary collector Herbert W. Hemphill Jr. Phyllis Kind began finding and showing works by self-taught artists in the early 1970s. She promoted Henry Darger, Drossos Skyllas, Martin Ramirez, William Dawson, Snap Wyatt, Joseph Yoakum, Adolph Wolfli––to name just a few––introducing many of these artists to Chicago and New York audiences. Herbert W. Hemphill, Jr., curator at the Museum of American Folk Art (now the American Folk Art Museum (, co-authored the book with Julia Weissman, Twentieth Century American Folk Art and Artists. Published in 1974, this seminal text demonstrated that folk art and art from beyond the academic mainstream was alive and kicking in the Twentieth Century. Brown provided numerous images of art and environments for the book.


Brown had a strong interest in art environments, created in the context of artist’s home landscapes, generally by self-taught artists. He and other artists were enthusiastic fans of the work of Aldo Piacenza, an Italian immigrant to Highwood, a small community north of Chicago. Piacenza created a series of birdhouse sculptures loosely modeled after the sacred architecture of his Italian homeland, which were installed around his yard and garage. In 1970 Brown began documenting art environments further afield, visiting Jesse “Outlaw” Howard’s sign-filled environment in Fulton, Missouri, S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas, and many other sites. He was especially moved by Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park, in Phillips, Wisconsin, and he photographed it extensively. Brown was deeply impressed by artists whose work erased the line between home and studio, and took over home settings entirely.


Brown was one of a group of artists, dealers, and collectors who were impelled to formalize the phenomena of self-taught art in Chicago. In 1991 the group founded Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art (, first known as SOIVA, the Society for Intuitive and Visionary Art). Brown leased Intuit his building at 1926 N. Halsted St. in 1995. The studio and workshop were repurposed into Intuit’s first gallery and office, and Brown’s extensive collection remained intact for visitors to explore. Intuit has achieved many of the goals that Brown and other founders envisioned, through its outstanding history of exhibits and educational programming, its impressive library, study center and archive, and an international roster of individual and institutional friends and supporters.

Brown was determined that his “Artists’ Museum of Chicago” would represent artists from an artist’s point of view, rather than through a curatorial or art historical lens. Preserved as he installed it, visitors to the RBSC can see works by Henry Darger, Joseph Yoakum, Bill Traylor, Lee Godie, Drossos Skyllas, William Dawson, Aldo Piacenza, Jesse “Outlaw” Howard, S.L. Jones, Alexander Maldonado, Elijah Pierce, Pauline Simon, Mose Tolliver, Edgar Tolson, Snap Wyatt and others, at home among works from the far corners of the world of art making.


“In the same presumptuous manner as the arts and crafts teacher who tried to change William Dawson’s intuitive vision, the mainstream art world hierarchy—a system of dealers, writers, artists, curators, and pundits presumes to define what art is for the rest of us. This same hierarchy that had told us that Thomas Hart Benton is a Hayseed Modernist has told us that folk art ceased to exist after the 19th century. Fortunately, Bert Hemphill wrote his book and proved otherwise. Whatever category one chooses––folk, naïve, outsider, or so-called regionalist, it is very evident that real artists exist and continue to be nurtured outside the mainstream hierarchy. In fact I would venture to say that the only real artists are nurtured there…on the outside.”

From “Setting the Stage” by Roger Brown, in The Artworks of WILLIAM DAWSON, The Chicago Public Library Cultural Center, 1990.


“To me the Mainstream is a kind of mythological presence of some half imagined half real academy handing down approvals and imprimaturs from on high. It is a very “incestuous” and “in-bred” group of people and institutions who are supportive and imitative of each other’s ideas and pet projects. This of course leads to a very tired view of art which is totally blind to anything outside itself. While the view of who comprises this group is fuzzy and hard to nail down, I think it is a real entity which protects itself by choosing its successor and through various labels keeps everything out except the chosen - outsider, regionalists, whatever.”

From Personal Intensity: Artists in Spite of the Mainstream, catalog for an exhibit of works from Roger Brown’s collection at the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin, circa 1992


“There are just so many interruptions an artist can take to his train of thought in the studio.”

From Personal Intensity: Artists in Spite of the Mainstream, catalog for an exhibit of works from Roger Brown’s collection at the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin, circa 1992


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