When he first started painting a little more
than 10 years ago, Matt Sesow's work conveyed his reality: enduring a
significant trauma in childhood.
Though titles such as "Lost Luggage," "Alone in Death" and "Waiting for
Coagulation" provided hints, the story of Sesow's life became clear on
the canvas. In 1974, a landing airplane struck Sesow, then 8 years old,
as he played near his family's home in Lincoln, Neb. . Though surgeons
reattached his left arm, severed by the propeller, they amputated his
gangrenous dominant hand. At 9, Sesow learned to write and draw all
over again; at 27, he taught himself how to paint. At first, his
favorite subject was the accident.
"Losing my hand gives me an additional theme to
explore through my paintings," says Sesow, who is known for blood-red
backgrounds that sharply contrast the angry and averted orange eyes of
his heavily outlined figures.
"It's as if I have another dimension of emotions and experiences to
draw from while creating my work. Painting has enabled me to express
things that would have not otherwise been possible."
Though he says he's moved on from the trauma days, many collectors
still classify the self-taught Sesow as a practitioner of Art Brut,
known in some circles as Outsider Art, or raw art that is "uncooked by
society." The movement is defined by the early 20th-century painter
Jean Dubuffet, and aficionados consider Art Brut the purest form of
creation - art that often looks more like art therapy. And its
popularity keeps growing.
But even Art Brut has not entirely escaped the cultural
manipulation of the gallery world. Like their starving Pratt and
Parsons counterparts, many "discovered" Art Brut artists suffer through
wine-sipping openings, pay agents and curators up to 50 percent
commissions and wind up selling their work for a song.
The categorization of Art Brut has also expanded. Originally meant as
art created almost solely by trauma survivors or people with mental
illnesses, artists can fall under the Art Brut umbrella if they meet
more than one of the following criteria: Their illness or trauma
influences their work; they are self-taught; they do not participate in
the "mainstream art world"; they create prolifically; and they often
use found, or given, material for their media.
All of this creates a fundamental problem for Art Brut artists,
according to Sesow, who says that Art Brut is more a phase in an
artist's career than a movement. He makes the point that if an Art Brut
artist has any talent, he or she will eventually learn the fundamentals
by creating. If an artist has experienced trauma or is living with a
mental illness, the art heals it. Finally, if an Art Brut artist starts
deriving an income from the work, he or she cannot avoid baptism into
the invasive art world - Art Brut or not.
"I don't consider myself part of the old Outsider or Art Brut
movements. I don't know what label I am. ... I just know I like to do
it. It challenges the hell out of me, and I'm going to keep doing it,"
"I don't know where the Brut or Outsider movements are headed. I
suppose desire to make a lot of money from the living painters will
eventually spell the downfall of the movement," he says. "Regardless of
the label, people will continue to use art to heal and express
Walk into the home of Beverly Kaye, one of Connecticut's premier Art
Brut collectors and curators, and you walk into a gallery of raw art.
Works by Sesow; Maurice Hansen, a deceased New Haven painter who had
schizophrenia; and Clyde Angel, an Iowa scrap metal sculptor with
schizophrenia, compete for every bit of wall space not already occupied
by other Outsider Art creations.
"I've been collecting since college," Kaye explains, as she pulls out a
large sheet of butcher paper filled with miniature caricatures of
patients in mental hospital. "When we're children, we're taught to draw
in the lines, use certain colors. In this art, the talent and the
creativity we had as children hasn't been squashed. The early stuff is
Kaye, who studied special education and fine art at Syracuse
University, explains how she finds the artists she represents. She will
stop at a flea market or a remote weather-beaten store along a lazy
stretch of highway. Occasionally she will take the call of a mental
health clinician impressed by something from a patient's art therapy
session. Quite frequently, she just stops at a table on the street,
which is how she discovered Sesow in Georgetown, then a software
engineer at IBM pulling in close to six figures a year.
Though Kaye no longer represents Sesow, she has kept some of his
artwork. Some of her current favorites - and clients - are Alexandra
Huber, a German artist whose small mixed media drawings, mostly of
childlike "head-footer" people, reflect the puzzling order of life
circumstances, and Paul Pitt, a factory worker who paints about 12
historically inspired, almost Puritan looking, oil canvases a year.
"In every one, he paints a little black boy wearing a red scarf -
that's his signature," Kaye says. "He used to paint each one over and
over obsessively. I told him, `Paul, you're never going to finish them
if you keep doing that."
Once Kaye finds an aspiring, self-taught artist, the door to the Art
Brut world swings wide open. As in the established art world, the first
step in the process is entrance into the shows: Chicago's Intuit Show
of Folk and Outsider Art in the fall and New York's Outsider Art Fair
every January, where all of the best-selling Art Brut artists started.
Next comes a residency in an Art Brut-approved gallery, followed by an
ad or better yet, an article in Raw Vision or The Outsider magazines,
the Art Brut journals of record.
Once the paintings start selling, Kaye says collectors keep coming back
for more, often for work from the same artist. For all her connections
and promotion, Kaye takes half of a painting's selling price, but she
says that working with Art Brut artists, depending on the mental
conditions of some, isn't always easy. She recently ended the
representation of one artist because of his demanding, and sometimes
"I help many artists, who often don't want the world at their doorstep,
bring their art to people who wouldn't normally see it," says Kaye. "I
don't want to sell the art because a person is schizophrenic or manic
depressive or traumatized in some way. I want to sell the painting.
Sesow says not all art in the tradition of
Art Brut is created by people with mental health diagnoses, but the
movement certainly has roots in mental institutions. Beginning in the
1920s, European psychiatrist Dr. Hans Prinzhorn began noticing
something interesting in the work of their patients when they were
handed paper, pen and paint, and it began to appeal to him. He started
collecting thousands of works, then wrote the book "Bildernerei der
Geisteskranken" ("Artistry of the Mentally Ill"), which distinctly
influenced the contemporary and Surrealist artists, including Dubuffet.
The French painter and several other artists, including Andre Breton,
formed the "Compagnie de l'Art Brut" in 1948, a collective in which the
artists believed that innovative art should "bypass the Renaissance,"
according to Raw Vision magazine, "and return to a much earlier
tradition of art dictated by ideas rather than by appearance." Dubuffet
also sought out works of extreme individuality by untrained creators
for his own personal collection, the "Collection de l'Art Brut," which
he eventually sent to America in the hopes of finding it a home.
That never materialized. But the city of Lausanne,
Switzerland, eventually agreed to house it. The Collection de l'Art
Brut, or Art Brut Museum, is now one of the most popular art museums in
With the advent of psychiatric medications, however, far fewer people
live their lives in psychiatric hospitals, and far less artwork is
discovered. But there are still those who find a way to create.
New Haven's Van Gogh
Like Van Gogh, Maurice Hansen, who had schizophrenia, spent time in
mental institutions. But unlike the peripatetic Vincent, he created the
majority of his large-scale paintings and wall murals in his hometown,
New Haven. Throughout his 40-year career, the self-taught artist
painted thousands of canvases, each depicting dozens of interlocking
mythical scenes and popular story tales.
While Van Gogh's artwork achieved notoriety after his death from the
complications of a suicide attempt, Hansen, who named his earless cat
Vincent, became the poster artist for the American Art Brut movement
during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s before he died of
leukemia in 2000 - an illness exacerbated by his fear of treatment.
In retrospect, Hansen fits Sesow's mold of Art Brut artist: "an artist
who evolved, who used the art to heal and who eventually transcended
Though he started in the outsider shows, beginning in 1992, the
mainstream art world took notice of Hansen's work. Lincoln Center's
Cork Gallery displayed his 8- by 30-foot mural "Coney Island" in 1995,
and he held retrospectives throughout the Northeast. One of Hansen's
paintings hangs in the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. It is simply
signed "Maurice" and, like every one of his paintings, includes a
depiction of the earless feline Vincent - his true imprint.
Sesowhas probably outgrown the Art Brut scene, though some of his
paintings still evoke trauma, and he continues to paints obsessively.
"Beverly [Kaye] first associated my work into the Art Brut genre, and I
went with it. I figured I had to keep painting disability issues and
keep going to these shows, which were just bringing me down," says
Sesow, though he acknowledges Kaye's help and says the two still have
an amiable relationship. "I still do some disability painting, but I'm
past that; I have tackled social problems such as 9/11, the wars in
Iraq, divorce and disabled soldiers through my paintings.
"I feel my purpose as a painter is to document the times I've lived through ... the personal and the societal."
Sesow suggests he might have developed a more modern variation of Art
Brut by selling his work almost exclusively from his website and
working outside the traditional gallery system. Surrounded in his
studio by miniature busts of the Communist hero Vladimir Lenin, he
wants to teach emerging artists how to escape the Art Brut system.
Kaye waffles when it comes to defining Sesow as an Art Brut artist, but
she also believes the "umbrella has become too large." In the end,
however, both agree it's still all about the work.
"In 50 years, people will forget the stories behind the paintings and
the sculptures, and they will probably look at them as fine art," she
For more on Matt Sesow's work, visit the website www.sesow.com.