Documenting Self-Taught Artistic Expression

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Jo Farb Hernández, Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments Director

The art environments found within our communities open unexpected windows into folk worlds. An abandoned warehouse, someone’s backyard, a lot behind a billboard — all these unlikely places are fruitful landscapes for artists who make statements beyond established art genres. They provide place-making platforms for unique, expressive and self-taught craftsmanship and creative community.

Helping preserve and build appreciation for this form of non-traditional art are organizations like SPACES (Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments), the nonprofit incorporated in 1978 by photographer Seymour Rosen and dedicated to study, documentation and preservation of art environments and self-taught artistic activity. The archive contains thousands of photographs, videos, and artist documents of approximately 1,400 sites around the world. Much of the collection is available online, searchable by keyword, location and type of environment.

SPACES Director Jo Farb Hernández, who also is a gallery director and San José State University professor, spoke with BorderLore about preserving unique storytelling outside the mainstream art community. Folklorist Jennifer Joy Jameson, who serves as SPACES communications coordinator as well as Folk and Traditional Arts Director at the Mississippi Arts Commission, joins Professor Hernández in this BorderLore discussion about these irreplaceable examples of vernacular art from all walks of life and all types of environments.

At the Pujiula site, 2013

At site of Josep Pujiula’s construction, 2013, with a poster written by local children: “If you destroy what is left of the cabins [the local name for his constructions], you will be destroying part of our childhood.” Photo by Jo Farb Hernández.


Art Environment Definition:

How the SPACES website characterizes these decorative works:

“This term is customarily used to refer to immobile constructions or decorative assemblages, monumental in scale or number of components. Art environments may be interior or exterior, and typically include elements of sculpture, architecture, bas-relief assemblage, and/or landscape architecture. Such composite works… owe less allegiance to folk, popular, or mainstream art traditions and the desire to produce anything functional or marketable, and more to personal and cultural experiences, availability of materials, and a desire for personal creative expression.

They are generally intended to be viewed in their entirety rather than as a grouping of discrete works. Studies of individual sites usually reveal the labors of a single, passionate worker (an artist in our eyes, but not always in those of the creator), typically—but not always—begun in the later years of their lives.”

While SPACES explains that these environments should not generally be considered works of folk art — Professor Hernández stressed that these environments unquestionably reveal significant correlations between the creator-builder’s culture and the community. Her examples:

  1. The creator may have learned how to make or use his/her tools or construction techniques through an oral or organic process of folk transmission,
  2. S/he may visually present local legends or folk tales as part of the construction,
  3. In certain instances there may be clear conceptual connections that can be drawn between traditional manifestations of folk art and these unique works (a classic example being the gigli of Nola, Italy, and the Watts Towers by Sabato Rodia), and
  4. Some art environments may be able to be interpreted as just somewhat further down the creative continuum of folk art as a result of the function of scale (e.g., a standard small-scale religious display featuring a “bathtub Madonna” could grow into an idiosyncratic monumental grotto).

How Ethnographic Methodology Informs the Art

JFH comments:
I’ve worked with artists and art environments for 40 years, and I attribute a good portion of my insistence on documenting as much of the “whole” as possible in large part to my MA degree in Folk Art (UCLA), which included training in ethnographic methodologies and collecting oral histories as part of primary fieldwork. When first working with an artist — the same as if one were working with a musician, or storyteller, or dancer — it is important to cast a wide net in asking questions and in collecting data, because sometimes stray thoughts or seemingly innocuous comments can become the key to understanding important aspects of the artist’s creation and the inspirations, sources, foundations, and stimuli for that creation. …As a curator and folklorist I feel that we — as professionals in the field — have a responsibility to do thorough reporting in which we go back to interview the builder and view the site again and again and again, so we can faithfully represent the maker’s perspective and respectfully interpret the historical and cultural context of the work.
I began working on art environments in the Midwest …and since then, I’ve just kept my eyes open and have been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to document art environments all over the world. My most extensive project is an encyclopedic study of art environments in Spain, published by Raw Vision and SPACES in 2013: Singular Spaces: From the Eccentric to the Extraordinary in Spanish Art Environments.

Technology’s impact on Archiving Methodologies

JJJ comments:
Digital access to our archives is front and center to our work. We are not collecting materials and then keeping them in a dusty archive, nearly inaccessible to everyone but specifically-approved researchers, as is the case with some archives and museums. Instead, we are constantly digitizing film, documents, and other archival images and ephemera related to individual art environments and their makers, and then making them accessible via our online collection, as well as via our various social media platforms.

Because we know the huge importance of documenting art environments at every stage of their lives — from work-in-progress, to completion, to deterioration, and hopefully to preservation — we rely on both public and academic engagement to build our physical and digital archives, and SPACES has truly become a crowd-sourced effort. This works so successfully because SPACES is at such an interesting intersection of fields, and works with scholars in disciplines including folklore, art and art history, historic preservation, architecture, and cultural studies, as well as with enthusiasts of roadside attractions and world travelers. We seek to be a resource to all kinds of folks — from someone using our online collection as a guide for interesting travel destinations, to an historic preservationist referencing digitized photographs and legal documents or correspondence in order to address the conservation of a certain site.

New Media Platforms & Archive Resources

JJJ comments:
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest are hugely impactful forms of communication and direct engagement for nonprofits like SPACES, and neighboring folklife organizations like the SFA. They are a tool in increasing use of our extensive online collection, our preservation resources, and community resources like our Events Calendar, and they also challenge us to better contextualize these works of art and culture, which have often been misunderstood or mischaracterized.

Since we’ve begun prioritizing new media in our communication efforts over the last year, we’ve seen lively conversations about sites and their makers: from the sharing of valuable local memory of a site or artist, to updates in preservation work and advocacy. We’ve seen users participate in their own documentation efforts via Instagram, and become more encouraged to share their photos with our archives. We’ve seen users plan their trips around sites listed in our collection, and have welcomed submissions of new or as-yet-undocumented sites to our archives and online collection. We’ve seen artists become inspired by images and histories in our collection and make new work in response. We’ve seen personal and contextual dimension added to these sites, in sharing the carefully researched writing by our team of scholar writers. Finally, we’ve seen an increased literacy in recognizing art environments as a valuable genre of art–one that isn’t tied to one domain, but that requires participation from all perspectives: ethnographic, architectural, historical, popular, and beyond.

SPACES stands apart from other digital guides because it brings with it a scholarly interpretation of these sites and their artists, archival best practices, as well as a set of actionable resources. For example, I (JJJ) recently used the Preservation Toolbox in Vicksburg, Mississippi local meetings, regarding preservation efforts surrounding Rev. H.D. Dennis’ Margaret’s Grocery.

Art Environments: Six Illustrations

JJJ comments:
Documentation such as photographs, drawn site plans, and written correspondence can be a huge asset in the preservation of an art environment; our founder, Seymour Rosen, recognized this early on, as he became involved in documenting and preserving Sabato ‘Sam’ Rodia’s Watts Towers in the 1960s and ‘70s. Jo, who collaborated with Rosen and assumed Directorship of the organization after he passed away in 2006, continues this work for SPACES in her advocacy for sites like Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain, Josep Pujiula’s Wild Village in Spain, and many others.

Art environments and self-taught art can be excellent catalysts for creative place-making efforts. One recent success story is the creation of the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in Wilson, North Carolina. In partnership with the Simpson family, the North Carolina Arts Council, the City of Wilson and its CVB, Mr. Simpson’s beloved Whirligigs were moved off the family property and into a newly created downtown park that showcases and interprets his artistry in a sustainable way. The project received an NEA Our Town grant, as well as other support, and has become a central focus in the re-tooling of Wilson’s identity as a small, creative Southern city.

Another example is the nearly completed Kohler Foundation-led preservation of St. EOM’s massive and sprawling Land of Pasaquan in Buena Vista, Georgia. The conservation and restoration of this site depended heavily on earlier documentation of the site, as well as on local memory and participation. After the preservation is completed this year, the site will be directed and maintained by Columbus State University. The opening is slated for October 2016.

Community Engagement: Catalunya, Spain

JFH comments:

Josep Pujiula in 2001

Josep Pujiula in 2001, in the process of building the second iteration of his constructions; photo by Jo Farb Hernández.


I’ve been working since 2000 with Josep Pujiula i Vila, an art environment builder in the foothills of the Pyrenees in northwestern Catalunya (Spain). He started building in the 1970s, but ran afoul of logistical issues (too close to the road, too close to the electrical lines above, etc., etc.), and had to destroy all of his work. He began again — and this second construction was the one I began documenting — but the same kind of thing happened, so he destroyed this one as well …and then started yet again! Finally, after the authorities mandated that he destroy the third iteration of his monumental work — which included 100-foot-high towers and a massive labyrinth, all made out of branches — the community began rallying behind him to save and preserve what was left of his work.

Thanks to the SPACES network, I was able to obtain over 1000 signatures from 38 countries to present to the authorities detailing the importance of Pujiula’s work and, at the same time, I was able to provide material from our archives of examples of communities that had found a way to legitimize and preserve the art environments in their midst. The archives provided the resource to provide legitimacy for these unique works by contextualizing them within an international genre, but at the same time they provided the path for the community to acknowledge how important these works had become to their very identification, enhancing their local sense of place.

Art’s Role in Place Making

JFH comments:
Concepts of place have always had significant historical resonance in folklife studies. It’s supremely important in the development of a sense of self and community, so the physical attributes of the maker’s surroundings play an important role in shaping output. Art environments are typically built in/on/about the creator’s own property: his/her house, land, garden, farm; as such they are tightly tied in an intimate and almost visceral way to the artist’s sense of place, community, culture, and home.

While art environments are increasingly being accepted as part of a more expansive definition of art, they often still face existential threats not generally faced by works of academic arts or folk arts. It is important for us, then, to not only appreciate and document these works, but to advocate for their safety and stability — through political action, if necessary, and often over a period of many years — to ensure that future generations may also enjoy experiencing them. It becomes a partnership in which SPACES archives can provide information on comparable circumstances and resources so that members of the community in which the art environment is threatened become armed with the information they need to successfully defend and preserve them. We can’t do it alone, of course; each community needs to take responsibility for the art environments in its own areas, but we can provide direction, resources, and support. It’s a good mix.

Resources (Arizona Environments)

Professor Hernández highlights three Arizona sites. Please note that most sites listed in SPACES are located on private property, and that visitors should ask permission prior to venturing onto the land.

In Phoenix:

In Cornville:

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