Henry Darger, Martin Ramirez, Adolf Wölfli and Bill Traylor are among the first tier of outsider artists associated with this new form of expression. These and other figures help define both how non-traditional art is defined and what kinds of people fall under the category. Darger (1892-1973), for example, was a Chicago hospital custodian for most of his life, who suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome, and his main work (The Story of the Vivian Girls) was revealed post-humorously. His drawings, collages and watercolors range wildly from fantasy pastoral landscapes and Edwardian interiors, to bizarre images involving horror and the torture of children.
Such a decidedly non-academic or non- artist lifestyle, and unconventional output is typical in outside art. Martin Ramirez (1895-1963) was a schizophrenic inpatient in California institutions for several decades, where he produced various highly complex drawings. Despite mental illness, he produced a self-taught style that combined Medieval, Renaissance and Mexican folk art into his work. The Village Voice declared in a review about Ramirez’s prominence among “the so-called ‘Self-Taught’ or ‘Outsider’ artists–baldly limiting, not to mention bogus categories considering that on some level all artists are self-taught–but he ranks as among the greatest artists of the 20th century…”
Wölfli (1864-1930) was likewise originally a Swiss farmhand, laborer originally identified with the ‘art brut” category. Like the others mentioned, he was admitted in 1895 to a psychiatric hospital in Bern due to crimes or behavior associated with mental illness (psychosis), where he spent his remaining days producing intricate drawings. These were collected and published by one of his doctors into a volume called A Psychiatric Patient as Artist in 1921, which both showcased both his work, and specified how the artist “seemed to have no previous interest in art and developed his talents and skills independently.” This last detail helped Jean Dubuffet and others establish what distinguished these artists from other creators.
By far the most dramatic back story related to such art pertains to Bill Traylor (1854-1949), an African American who was born a slave in Alabama. He lived as a sharecropper and factory worker until his retirement years (1930’s), where he turned to art by creating drawings about his life during the plantation years. His images look like primitive folk art, which he was associated with until the latter 20th century, when the term “outsider artists” became more established. Other contemporary examples of outsider art can be reviewed here, or ordered from this site.