In search of Chico’s outsider artists
Life truly can be lived as a piece of art. If more of us were willing, the world would be a more beautiful place.
—Debra Lucero, director of Friends of the Arts, Chico
I am looking for Mike Davis. He’s a local painter, and no one can tell me where to find him. Nearly every person in the Chico arts community whom I’ve asked about this fellow artist has either never met him or never even heard of him.
Let me back up. What I’m looking for are “outsider” artists. Chico has an active art scene, full of galleries, theaters, public artworks and, of course, the month-long Artoberfest celebration, but I want to find out if there might be some unknown quantity hiding in the shadows. Are there any self-taught artists, isolated visionaries, vigilant builders, or maybe even an inspired insane person or two waiting to be found?
The term “outsider art” comes from American art historian Roger Cardinal, who coined it in 1972 as an English variation of French painter Jen Debuffet’s seminal Art Brut categorization. In the 1940s, Debuffet’s distinction helped bring attention to works (mainly by mental patients and children at the time) that were created outside mainstream culture. The “outsider art” term broadens the scope to include folk artists, naïve artists who have some contact with the art world, and self-taught visionaries such as Georgia preacher Howard Finster and the reclusive Henry Darger, subject of the recent Emmy- and Sundance-nominated documentary In the Realms of the Unreal.
Even the slight possibility of finding a Finster or Darger in Chico is too exciting to ignore, and the first lead of my outsider quest was the aforementioned Mike Davis. The tip came from Dean Willson, manager of James Snidle Fine Art and Appraisal’s Chico gallery (sister to the San Francisco Snidle gallery). Willson talked about this self-taught painter who had shown at the gallery more than a decade ago, and who would stop by every so often to check on sales. The only problem was, he had no contact information for him. As it turns out, no one in Chico knows how to contact him. Here was an actual self-taught artist, creating colorful, almost child-like paintings that were as exciting as the best locally made art, who was so completely beyond reach that not even the gallery that chose to show and sell his works could find him.
But thanks to great tips from many passionate local artists I was able to track down a few people. Some of them even invited me into their homes and inside creative worlds that before I endeavored upon my little journey, I knew little to nothing about. These are some of the people I met along the way.
Since Nature provided me with sculptures I shall become an architect and a mason.
—Ferdinand Cheval, creator of Le Palais Idéal
One day in 1879, after 12 years of delivering mail on foot in the rural town of Hauterives, France, postman Ferdinand Cheval tripped on a unique stone during his rounds. Despite absolutely no training in building or sculpture, he spent the next 33 years using that rock and other rocks and boulders that he collected from along his postal route to construct Le Palais Idéal, the “fairy-like palace beyond imagine” that he daydreamed about while delivering mail.
One day, about a year and a half ago, after more than 20 years of delivering mail in Vallejo and Chico, postman Bill Meier went through a difficult breakup, and in the aftermath gave away all the art and decorations hanging on the walls in his home. Despite absolutely no training in painting, he spent the next year and a half covering those same walls with art that he created.
Like his kindred spirit Cheval, Meier is a self-taught artist who didn’t begin making art until he was in his 40s. Upon walking into his south Chico home, it becomes apparent that he has been motivated to make up for lost years. Inside is a cave of paintings running from the front door through the long living room and on past the kitchen to the back door. Illuminated by a couple of work lights that wash out the diffused glow seeping through the curtains are dozens of pieces, all by Meier, mostly watercolors, covering every surface.
“I have no idea if any of these would match up to anyone’s idea [of art],” Meier says as he walks through his home gallery (the “Wild Heart Studio"), beginning with his early painted reclaimed window panes (all of Meier’s art—canvases, frames, everything—is produced using recycled materials) and moving on to the bulk of the collection, the colorful watercolor-pencil works depicting the people in his life. He stops at the portrait of a reclining female form titled “Summer Awakens” and seems moved at the memory of painting it while watching a friend who had fallen asleep on some blankets at a pool party.
Meier is a fairly serene and soulful guy. He stands slouching slightly in his overalls and blousy white shirt, and speaks softly but steadily about the art-making process, saying things like, “What sustains you fascinates me,” and “Do I hit upon the honesty inside them?”
Despite his lack of professional training, the 47-year-old divorced father of three sons has turned himself into a painter practically overnight. Meier has been moving in local artistic circles since arriving in Chico 14 years ago, doing theater and dance with the Burning Man and CRUX crowds and modeling for Chikoko fashion shows. So, the fact that he has started painting as well doesn’t seem out of character.
It is pretty incredible, though, that he already has a solo show currently hanging on the walls of the Naked Lounge downtown.
“I’m glad people like it,” he says, adding, “I’m not trying to be an artist. I’m just trying to live.”
He admits that the stability of his postal carrier job has been the foundation on which this burst of expression has been made possible. But it was still a little scary. Once he decided to give it a shot and to trust that he had it in him, he was comforted at how it all opened up.
“There are many things in place that want to help you along the way … I believe in me more now.”
Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain one once we grow up.
Norm Dillinger will paint anything. His style of choice is pointillism, and he covers any surface that comes within the sphere of his home at 821 Orient St. with brightly colored dots. The Buddha statues in his yard? Glittering dots. The twisted root in his driveway? A rainbow of dots. His pickup, his acoustic guitar and even the glass windows of his living room? All covered with dots.
In the world of outsider art, Dillinger’s place is what would be called a “visionary art environment.” And if you’ve walked by his home, you know that he has completely taken over the environment with his art. The fence is lined with paintings, the carport is completely covered, a couple of sly raccoons peek down from the attic, and out front a cowboy and cowgirl welcome “art lovers” to what looks like a Georges Seurat funhouse.
“The reason I did the outside was to attract people in,” Dillinger says as we cross the threshold into the dimly lit living room of the gallery he’s named “Lumina.” Very little light actually makes its way through the colors painted on the room’s windows. The giraffes on one side filter in a little yellow, while the three red-headed women out front allow little more than a glowing outline of their forms across the glass.
Though he considers himself semi-retired from the art business, Dillinger still has paintings—not attached to the house—for sale, and as we pass under the aluminum-foil bricks that wrap the ceiling, we join dozens of wooden canvases covered in polka-dots in his den/art store. My favorite during this visit (Dillinger’s home is the only destination on my outsider visionquest that I had already experienced) is one of the smaller pieces, featuring a little girl holding a bunch of balloons while she pops a wheelie on her bike. It’s dark outside in the painting, and sparkling glitter rains down through the moonlight.
Dillinger has been in Chico for 37 years, and he says that he’s been in this house-of-constant-redecoration for 20 or 25 years ("I paid $12,500 for it, if that tells you anything"). Even though he may have had little luck selling his work—whether through his home, art agents or galleries (he claims to have put two galleries out of business)—that longevity is enough to have met his stated goal to “amaze and delight myself in the creation of my art and delight the viewer in the viewing of my art.” Not to mention the fact that, in 2006, Home & Garden Television featured Norm and his Lumina environment in a segment on its Offbeat America program.
For now, Dillinger is contributing all proceeds from the sale of his art to Play Pumps International, an organization that brings clean water to developing countries. His goal is to raise $14,000 to purchase one of the combination water pump/merry-go-rounds for a needy South African community.
When pressed to explain why he paints so much, the reserved Dillinger responds simply and succinctly: “Mine is just the joy of vision.”
When one delves a little deeper it is impossible not to be overcome by the force and wonder of the heroic expression of those who are ever true to themselves.
—John Maizels, editor Raw Vision outsider art magazine
Before we get to the art, there’s the trick. The one where Patricia “PRAVDA” McCroskey’s four beige miniature poodles—Winnie, Angelica, Star and Teddy Bear Rothgar—sit at her feet, hypnotized by the sound of the plastic, toy phone that signals a dog biscuit reward for each of them.
As each puffball receives its treat, it bolts to a hiding place to crunch in private. And make no mistake, there is an unending labyrinth of hiding places for little dogs in this artist’s house. PRAVDA, it turns out, is a world-class pack rat.
“I like to collect things,” she giggles, punctuating the obvious with mischievous eyes that smile behind glasses at secrets yet to be revealed. Even though the living room of the modest west Chico home (one of more than 200 built in the ‘80s and ‘90s as part of the CHIP community-housing program) is impressive with its massive collection of hats, endless assorted books and papers and nearly a dozen (fully operational) telephones, this room is nothing compared to what awaits in the rest of the house.
Behind one door, PRAVDA reveals her master bedroom, which is probably best described as the Great Wall of Laundry, as it features two extended six-foot-high walls neatly constructed with bricks of folded clothing, enough for PRAVDA to probably wear a different outfit every day for an entire year. And no matter what I’m told about the existence of the artist’s studio through the door off the dining room, the mountain of blankets and art-making detritus that peaks at the ceiling fan inside makes me doubt that there could be any real space for art making in there.
Her partner, Robert John “R.J.” Muhlheim, comes in and out of the conversation during my tour, and at one point lovingly puts the scene into digestible perspective: “It’s not mild and ordinary. It’s strong and extraordinary,” he says. “This is what I call an art house.”
The “strong and extraordinary” center of it all is the irrepressible PRAVDA. With her wavy, snow white locks topping off today’s bold orange-and-yellow tie-dye outfit, she looks like a sunburst. And as she leads me through her gloriously crowded creative space, and begins pulling her oil paintings and ceramic creations from impossible nooks and crannies, it becomes apparent that the same hot colors that make up her clothing are the hallmark of many of her works of art.
Also becoming increasingly apparent is the fact that PRAVDA is really, really good. Each highly expressive piece she unveils is better than the last. A psychedelic Mandala man gives way to a molten red, yellow and orange Elvis with an exaggerated crotch that barely prepares me for an eroticized New York City street scene scattered with wild, naked lovers.
PRAVDA was actually born in New York City, in Greenwich Village’s St. Vincent’s Hospital Village in 1944. She ran away to Chicago at 19 to learn jewelry making and ceramics, and after suffering a major head injury during a motorcycle accident (which resulted in a propensity for seizures that are held in check by medication to this day) she made her way west to Berkeley and eventually to Chico. This is only part of a story that includes dancing topless in Berkeley’s People’s Park, giving birth to a daughter, protesting nude (and appearing in both Playboy and Penthouse magazines as a result) and getting married three times.
So, I was obviously wrong about PRAVDA’s ability to create in her hectic environment, but I didn’t know the extent to which I was mistaken until my two endearing hosts and their four canine shadows led me to the two out buildings hidden in the forest of their backyard. Up the steep wooden stairs to a treehouse-like storage shed were at least two dozen giant paintings, most even more impressive than those in the house.
Behind that building, stacked in dusty piles around the perimeter inside a miniature barn, were more than 100 completed canvases, none of which was accessible enough for me, or anyone else in Chico, to enjoy.
There are always more kinds of art at the fringes of our knowledge than we could possibly imagine.
—Roger Cardinal, art historian, originator of term “outsider art”
“You just have to have brain problems.”
This is how Tim McKee talks. He has just finished showing me the meticulous tile work he did in his home’s bathroom (complete with a snow-capped mountain scene on the shower wall) and this was his response to remembering the two fume-filled months he spent in the small room.
His gravelly voice strains, especially when he raises it while having fun with my questions. Like, when I ask what motivates him to make the metal sculptures he’s decorated his property with, he jokingly barks, “You tell me, and I’ll shoot you!” Then, with the timing of a blue-collar Dean Martin, he lights the first of many hand-rolled cigarettes and waits for my laughter to subside before soberly admitting, “It’s a way of life.”
One just has to look at the trail of scars along Tim McKee’s tan arms to get an idea about that way of life. The product of 36 years of working under the saws and drills of machine shops, the scars tell the story of a craftsman who got his start drilling metal, moved on to welding and then to his current gig cutting marble for Marblecraft.
As he progressed in his craft, McKee began to get increasingly inspired by the tools and the materials he was working with. Sprockets, shredding-machine blades, the wire used to bundle rebar—these began to take on shapes in his imagination beyond their intended function. Though he is a musician (he won an Annie Award in 1992 for Best Guitarist as a member of local blues bands like the Road Rockets and The Losers), McKee had zero training as a visual artist.
“I’ve always had a tendency toward making things,” he says, which comes across as a most incredible understatement given the ornaments he’s created for his home exhibition space. Carefully framing his immaculate front lawn is everything from enormous mobiles made of giant rocks hanging from rusted steel rigging to a sculpture of white, delicately contoured metal blades.
Out back is more of the same, with various wire-framed sculptures, including an intricate horse-and-chariot wind vane with waterwheels for wheels, plus many other playful creatures hiding in the garden.
Until recently, McKee had some of the most visible art in Chico. Two of his wind-vane sculptures, one on top of Kramore Inn and the other atop The Roost, were two of the bright spots along that fairly dreary section of Park Avenue. The closure of Kramore brought down its large, rotating dual-windmill, and last January’s windstorms sent his red-and-white beauty crashing into the Roost’s parking lot.
Both pieces are now on display at home, along with the rest of his inventions in the orchard lands of northwest Chico, in the most secret art installation in town.
A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “Self-Reliance”
I never did find Mike Davis. I’m not even certain that I found anyone who could definitively be labeled an outsider artist as he might have been. I did uncover many local artists who were new to me though (and probably most folks in Chico) as well as a treasure of creative expression.
Undoubtedly, there are many more veins still untapped. That’s the nature of outsider art. There are no scenes or collectives to help connect the dots. There are just people.
Those few featured here are a decent representation of those who create their own artistic universe outside of schools, movements or galleries. Despite being varying distances from the middle of the arts community, they all continue to make room in their lives for the creative urge with which they were born. Distinguishing them as outsider, or naïve, or whatever, doesn’t seem nearly as important as recognizing that there is art to be found in everyone, no matter one’s background.