Somewhere in northeast Baltimore, where four roads and a forest meet, there is a sprawling wood-shingled house that is nearly impossible to find. Because of a mapping error, it has two addresses. Like a kind of Bermuda Triangle, neither address leads to the house. For years it was inhabited by a city groundskeeper. Then, for two decades, it lay vacant. Since 2011, it has been occupied by an idiosyncratic artist named Brian Dowdall, his partner, Alison Spiesman, who is also an artist, and some 5,000 pieces of what is known, variably, as “outsider,” “visionary” or “self-taught” art — art that is outside of the mainstream.
Call Dowdall on the phone and this message will greet you: “You’ve reached visionary! Please leave a message,” along with what sounds like the vibrations of a sitar. Meet him in person and the first thing you will notice is his hair: thick, curly, white and long. On most days, it is covered by a baseball cap printed with a single eye, the logo of Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum, or AVAM, where Dowdall’s work is on display.
Enter Dowdall’s house and you will notice that it is far more museum than residence, so chock-a-block with art — starting in the kitchen and extending to the bedroom — that it almost swallows Dowdall whole. Dowdall, despite being 69, is very spry, and also very short. He and Spiesman call the house their own “Howl’s Moving Castle,” like the magical flying castle in the 2004 anime film of the same name.
About half the art inside the house was made by Dowdall, who is known for colorful, ecstatic paintings of “animal spirits” and goddesses, which he says he “calls up… from his inner being.” Mostly, he works with tempera or house paint, and usually on cardboard. The remaining art in the house was made by other well-known outsider artists, many of whom were Dowdall’s friends and have since passed away. He acquired these pieces over the course of decades, often by gift, barter or trade.
For years, this collection — a treasure trove of what is essentially the first wave of outsider or visionary art in the United States, created before the turn of the century — sat jammed inside storage containers and Dowdall’s house in Cocoa Beach, Florida, which he lovingly called “the cave.” But when Rebecca Hoffberger, who runs AVAM, which itself has over 4,000 pieces, saw Dowdall’s collection in 2010, she thought: “We’ve got to do something” to preserve it.
As if “by grace,” Hoffberger learned that a house on Baltimore city park land had long sat abandoned. By further kismet, the city, in an uncommon arrangement, agreed to have the artists come live there indefinitely; in exchange, they’d provide art for the city.
The house, though, was in rough shape, with unpainted walls, no heat and rusty pipes. No one had lived there for years. No one wanted to. But Dowdall and Spiesman jumped at the idea of being so close to AVAM — a museum that showed the kind of art Dowdall made — and at having a real home for their collection.
In the years since they’ve arrived in Baltimore, Dowdall and Spiesman have created large-scale murals in several city parks, so brightly colored and filled with fantastical creatures they are impossible to miss. Soon, they’ll start a program to make art with kids in recreation centers and schools in a “satellite visionary experience”; in the second floor of their house, a collection of stuffed animals — which they call their “petting zoo” — lies ready.
“I don’t know how this happened,” Ron Rudisill, a parks district manager for Baltimore, said of the arrangement. “But it’s working.”
And, perhaps most importantly, Dowdall and Spiesman are now at the beginning of a years-long process to catalogue their collection, noting how and where each piece was acquired. Someday, they hope, all of this outsider or visionary art — which spans more than 50 years of the 20th century — will finally be seen by the public. “We’ll leave it as a gift after we’re dead,’” Spiesman said.
It is not easy to precisely define outsider, or visionary, art. It is, however, a clear offshoot of a European art movement known as “art brut,” or “raw art,” a term coined in the 1940s by French artist Jean Dubuffet, to describe art outside of conventional culture.
But while Dubuffet focused on art made by the mentally ill, outsider or visionary art in the United States has come to mean something much broader. At its most basic level, it is art made intuitively, by an artist who is self-taught, in a visual language often very much their own.
In the decades since Dubuffet’s art brut collection was donated to the City of Lausanne in Switzerland in 1971, this kind of art has increasingly appeared in museums — from AVAM, America’s official museum for self-taught, intuitive art, to England, Germany and Holland, which have recently featured outsider artists such as peasant farmers and psychiatric patients. Outsider art fairs and festivals have also become more common, in places like Paris and New York.
When I ask Hoffberger to define visionary art, she laughs. “We don’t say that if you have three months of art school you’re damaged goods, but almost,” she said.
But then she grows serious. “Visionary artists are creative in all the ways they live. If they happen to manufacture something the world calls art, it’s because of how they think and live … and they don’t watch themselves be artists.”
In 1999, a Florida newspaper tried to ask Dowdall about his work, and whether he considered himself an outsider or visionary artist, or something else. “I’m a turnip farmer,” Dowdall said.
When I visit Dowdall at his Baltimore house, he said those labels, “have too much baggage,” and brings out an encyclopedia of folk art, in which he is included, to show how many different ways this kind of art can be classified.
“I told them that I’m a turnip farmer,” he says, eyes twinkling now, “because you can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip.”
Outsider artists often do not have much interest in selling their work. Bill Traylor, a self-taught artist and former slave who did distinctively flat, bare compositions on cardboard, often let his work blow away in the wind. Clyde Jones, who is famous for making wooden “critters,” gives all of his sculptures away. Dowdall gifts or barters his work, including for root canals and attorney services; he and Spiesman live their lives almost entirely on the barter system. When they first arrived in Baltimore, and their tabby cat Sonnie fell ill, Dowdall offered the local veterinarian a painting in exchange for his services.
“He was new in town. The cat had a urinary tract infection. He gave me one piece. It just kind of stuck. Now I have five,” said Baltimore veterinarian Duane Mangini, including paintings of a Cheshire cat, guitar-playing dog and juggling fish. “People look at them, double take, and look again.”
People look and look again at outsider art, Dubuffet argued back in the 1940s, because of how it is made. And once a person sees outsider art, “these flourishings of an exalted feverishness,” Dubuffet wrote, “we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade.”
The outsider artist, on the other hand, lives life fully and intensely, he wrote. And the outsider artist often experiences some kind of dramatic event that takes him or her away from a conventional life and toward making this kind of art.
“When a life experience is too big for words, either a great ecstasy but more often a devastation, the best work comes out,” Hoffberger said.
Take, for example, outsider artist Mose Tolliver, whose legs were crushed in a factory accident. He made flat portraits and landscapes from his bed, reportedly cleaning his brushes on the sheets. Or Mary T. Smith, who had a hearing impairment and made art out of tin strips she found on the road, and later, paintings in her back garden. Or Mr. Imagination, who suffered from dyslexia, seizures and was shot twice selling jewelry on the street, and found spirituality in found objects and recycled materials, like bottle caps. (Dowdall was friends with Mose Tolliver and Mr. Imagination. All three artists are in the collection.)
These kind of events, Dowdall said, are “a crack in their life that switched the railroad track.” For him, he says, the track switched at age 9.
Dowdall grew up in a big Irish Catholic family in the mountains of Anaconda, Montana, where he attended Catholic school. There, strict nuns taught about the consequences of mortal and venial sins, and encouraged regular confession. If he didn’t do the rosary, he was told, he’d go to hell.
“It drove me cuckoo,” Dowdall said. “I’d say ‘I have 30 sins.’ I’d make up sins. I got into this numbers game, about how many times I sinned … and then I had a nervous breakdown.”
But that nervous breakdown, he said, was a bit like the famous Leonard Cohen line that the crack “is how the light gets in.” And that crack, he said, is when he started to paint.
Dowdall kept painting when he left Montana at 18, and as he spent decades crisscrossing the country. In these years, he worked a series of odd jobs: picking cherries, making porcelain teeth, working a worm farm, tarring roofs, filling jelly donuts. He lived on the street, in a commune and in caves. Throughout his travels, a few things held constant — one being the feeling that animals protected him, or at the very least, wouldn’t hurt him. He’d catch snakes, get bit and survive. Or sleep with rattlesnakes in a cave and not get bit at all. Or walk, unharmed, beside mountain lions in the hills.
“I’ve always felt that people had an agenda, but animals are pretty pure,” he said. “In my paintings the animals are always together, like the peaceable kingdom.”
The other constant was his appreciation of women, though not in a prurient sense. As a child, he trusted the women in the bible — “the men always seemed too harsh” — and after growing up, was attracted to the powerful women described by mythologists such as Joseph Campbell, and to stories of early matriarchal societies, such as in Merlin Stone’s “When God Was a Woman.” Soon, he was making goddess paintings, too.
“In a lot of the ancient mythologies, the goddess and an animal would be one,” he says, as if that explained everything. “The more I started painting goddesses and animal spirits, the more it flew out of me.”
For many years, Dowdall’s paintings were not shown in museums or galleries. Instead, they were traded among other outsider artists, many of whom became his friends. Or they were gifted between people in New York’s art and music scene, including Dave Brubeck, Johnny Cash and Van Morrison, he says. By the early 80’s, Dowdall’s work began to make it into smaller folk, visionary and outsider shows, and then into larger ones in New York, Edinburgh and Paris.
Last January, his and Spiesman’s murals went up at the Carlton Arms, an art hotel in New York City — and, after an initial display of his work at Baltimore’s AVAM, in a large show called “What Makes Us Smile?” — Dowdall’s work is now part of the museum’s permanent collection.
“There is a lot of new age work or psychedelic work that looks generic to me. Or sometimes people say they are self-taught, but their work looks like fake Rothkos,” Hoffberger said. “But Brian has a particular style and way of looking, almost like his own language. He has a happy cat, a happy dog, his mermaids. He is a very big lover of women in the sacred sense, and that is reflected in a lot of his work” — particularly his goddess paintings.
Among Dowdall’s goddess paintings are many of Spiesman, including of her as Mona Lisa and as a mermaid. They first met almost two decades ago, in Florida, because Spiesman and her then-husband were collectors of Dowdall’s art. When Spiesman, who is a classically-trained painter, held a show of her work, Dowdall went to see it.
Spiesman had always liked Dowdall’s work, but in 2001, it became something more intimate. Her brother had fallen into a coma, and doctors were ready to disconnect life support. Spiesman tried everything to get a response from him: playing his favorite music, showing photos of her nephew, tickling him with her paintbrushes. Finally, in desperation, she asked her husband to bring over one of Dowdall’s blue dog paintings. “That was literally the first thing his eyes followed,” she said. Later, her brother came out of the coma.
Two years after this incident, Spiesman lost her husband to cancer. In the same period, Dowdall lost his best friend, another artist. “We were both in pretty bad shape. It was extremely difficult and dark,” Spiesman said. “And so we kinda got together on the buddy system,” Dowdall said. “She’d call me up and say ‘Have you eaten today?’”
After they got together, Spiesman’s grief persisted. For an entire decade, she said, she stopped painting, struck “mute” by the loss of her husband. It was only because of Dowdall, she said, that she eventually began to paint again. Now, her paintings are less academic and more narrative — almost visionary. In the Baltimore house, her and Dowdall’s studios are down the hall from one another.
“There’s something very good about Brian,” Hoffberger said. It comes through in his relationships, his demeanor and his paintings. “His work is happy, mystical, playful, colorful and doomed to make you smile.”
Joseph Rudolph, a professor at Towson University in Maryland, said he and his wife decided to buy Dowdall’s work after they lost almost everything in a house fire; they saw it exhibited at the hotel where they’d started to eat dinner. “It was bright and bold and more cheerful” than the art they usually collected, he said, and so an animal spirit painting of Dowdall’s became the first piece of their new collection.
“I’ve seen these responses [to Brian’s art], it’s a different response than to most art,” Spiesman said.
Now that he and Spiesman have settled into the Baltimore house, Dowdall, pushing 70, is as productive than ever. His most recent works, animal spirits painted on bright red cardboard, look different than what he’s done before. The animals themselves are less colorful, painted mostly in white, as if they are older, wiser creatures.
“It feels like this house has been waiting for us all its life,” Dowdall said. “It’s like we were looking for El Camino without a map,” but then found it, Spiesman said.
Dowdall felt this way from the moment they arrived in Baltimore and discovered large feline tracks in the house’s front yard. When he saw them, he called over Hoffberger, who told him they were the tracks of a puma. A puma … in Baltimore.
“To me it seemed like a gesture — like okay, this is a visitation, this is your house,” said Dowdall, who hopes to make art in the house until he dies. “Like a little kiss on the cheek, welcome.”