With 15,145 pages of single-spaced typewritten text and several hundred drawings and watercolor paintings, Henry Darger’s epic, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, is the largest known work by a single author. Double-sided panoramas ranging from two to twelve feet in length feature the story’s protagonists, the Vivian girls, whom Darger created using composite tracings from the popular sources he collected: magazines, newspapers, catalogs, coloring books, comics, and religious iconography. His prolific body of work also includes a second work of fiction of more than 10,000 handwritten pages, a 5,084-page autobiography, several diaries, and a daily weather log that he kept for ten years.
Darger was born in Chicago. His mother died in childbirth when he was four years old. He never met his sister, who was given up for adoption. Darger’s father took care of him until 1900, when the elder Darger became infirm and was taken to St. Augustine’s Catholic Mission home, where he died in 1905. Henry was first placed in a Catholic boys’ home and then in an asylum in Lincoln, Illinois. After a series of failed attempts, he successfully escaped in 1908. According to his autobiography, he walked back to Chicago and witnessed a large tornado on the way, which is often related to the foreboding import of weather in his work. He was dismissed from the army in 1918, an experience that may have influenced his interest in the Civil War and the prominent role of soldiers and war in his stories.
Darger moved into a room in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago in 1930. He found a job as a janitor in a Catholic hospital with the help of his godmother and worked until his retirement in 1963. He attended mass daily, often multiple times. Darger became ill and was taken to St. Augustine’s, where he died in 1973. His landlord, Nathan Lerner, realized the power of his work while dismantling the stacks and piles that filled his room. Much of Darger’s writing and collection is now at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago. The Henry Darger Study Collection at the American Folk Art Museum in New York also holds many of his works.
Image: Henry Darger (American, 1892–1973) Blengiglomeneans Displaying Their Wings (recto); Images of Men Strangling Children (verso), n.d. Watercolor, pencil, carbon, and collage on paper 24 x 109 in. (60.96 x 276.86 cm) Lent by Anthony Petullo M2012.21a,b Photo credit: John R. Glembin © 2011 Kiyoko Lerner / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Frederick James Lloyd grew up on a farm in Alsager, a town in the county of Cheshire in England. As a young man, he worked variously as a farm laborer, builder’s laborer, stoker, lamplighter, bus conductor, and police officer. He married in 1931 and had a son, but he and his wife separated after Lloyd returned from voluntary military service in North Africa and Italy. Lloyd remarried at age forty-two and fathered nine children. Working to support his family during the day, he painted in the evenings at his kitchen table—a surface that influenced the size of his works.Lloyd had made black ink drawings in his youth and started making art again when his family could not afford Christmas cards one year. Many small strokes make up his gouache and watercolor paintings of the people, farm animals, yellow-green grasses, and clouded skies of rural England. Studying reproductions of works of John Constable and Joseph Mallord William Turner led him to develop a pointillist technique inspired by the colored dots that made up these printed images.
Although the community near York where Lloyd and his family lived did not value his art, his wife, Nancy, brought his work to an appreciative audience by contacting British art critic Sir Herbert Read. Read and art critic John Berger went to see Lloyd and purchased many works. London gallerist Arthur Jeffress contacted Lloyd in order to exhibit his work. His work was subsequently represented by Portal Gallery in London. Thanks to his success, Lloyd lived to see the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) air a documentary on him in 1964. He also played French painter Henri Rousseau in a BBC film, and traveled to the Netherlands, Yugoslavia, and other parts of the world. Lloyd died in Skirpenbeck, near York. His work is now in the Tate Gallery and in many other European and American collections.
Image: James Lloyd (English, 1905–1974) Landscape with Figure and Dog, 1968 Gouache on paper 13 1/2 x 9 1/2 in. (34.29 x 24.13 cm) The Anthony Petullo Collection M2012.146 Photo credit: Larry Sanders
The folk art of his native Mexico, the Madonnas carved in the church near where he grew up, and the gun-toting horseback riders of the West animate Martín Ramírez’s 440 known drawings and collages.
Ramírez was born in Jalisco, Mexico. He worked as a rancher and laundry cleaner before he immigrated to the United States from Tepatitlan, Mexico, in 1925 in order to find work and send money home to his wife and four children to pay off his purchase of a small farm. In Northern California, he worked for six years on railroads and in mines, and these experiences would shape in his drawings.
In 1931 Los Angeles authorities picked him up for vagrancy. Distressed by his misfortunes and unable to speak English, he was misdiagnosed as demented and interned in the Stockton State Hospital in Stockton, California. In 1948 he was moved into the tuberculosis ward at DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, California, where he continued to live and make art until his death.
Tarmo Pasto, an artist and visiting professor from Sacramento State College who was researching creativity and psychology, started collecting Ramírez’s work in 1949. Incredibly inventive with materials available at the hospital, Ramírez drew on examining-table paper, brown paper bags, cups, and book pages he glued together with a paste made of potatoes and saliva and collaged with pictures from magazines. He used a tongue depressor as a straightedge. Pasto started bringing him materials such as graphite, colored pencil, and crayon. Ramírez melted the crayon on a radiator and applied it, like paint, with a matchstick to create rugged lines. He emphasized the perspective created by the many parallel lines that he composed by directing viewers on where to stand. Following a retrospective of Ramírez work at the American Folk Art Museum in 2007, descendants of a doctor at DeWitt brought forward more than 120 previously unknown drawings.
Image: Martín Ramírez (American, b. Mexico, 1885–1960) Courtyard, 1954 Graphite and colored pencil on paper 40 1/2 x 36 in. (102.87 x 91.44 cm) The Anthony Petullo Collection M2012.196 Photo credit: Efraim Lev er
German, b. Lithuania, 1892–1982
Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern’s allegorical drawings, made in pencil and crayon layered over paint washes, are charged with symbolism and sexuality. The shapes of the many eyes—looking out from unexpected places—of the slyly grinning, hybrid creatures in these surreal works seem to suggest female anatomy.
Born in Kaukehmen (renamed Kuckerneese in 1938), Lithuania, Schröder-Sonnenstern was the second of thirteen children. His father was a postal official and alcoholic. At the age of fourteen, Friedrich was sent to a home for delinquents and subsequently to several correctional institutions. In 1910 he was accused of stealing from a farm where he worked. After he pulled out a knife during his arrest, he was committed to a psychiatric hospital for five months, an experience that inspired him to write poems condemning social injustice. Schröder-Sonnenstern was institutionalized again in 1917 for smuggling while working for the postal service. He used some of his profits from working as a healer, astrologer, and clairvoyant to buy sandwiches for victims of inflation in the 1920s. Hospitalized again in 1930 for debts and for posing as a medical doctor, he met an artist and started drawing in 1933.
After his release, Schröder-Sonnenstern lived in Berlin with his companion until her death in 1964. He sold wood to make money, then began actively making art when excess fluid accumulation around his knee joint temporarily prevented him from walking. He able to earn a living from sale of his work, and during his lifetime, exhibitions were held throughout Germany and in Paris and Tokyo. Schröder-Sonnenstern died in West Berlin. In 2011 a major survey of his work at Michael Werner Gallery in New York enjoyed critical acclaim.
Image: Friedrich Schröder Sonnenstern (German, 1892–1982) The Demoness of Urgency (Die Dämonin der Eile), 1958 Crayon and colored pencil on paper 25 x 35 in. (63.5 x 88.9 cm) The Anthony Petullo Collection M2012.204 Photo credit: John R. Glembin © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Louis Freeman (who later changed his name to Robert “Scottie” Wilson) grew up in a tenement room-and-kitchen in Glasgow and left home at the age of nine to be a drummer boy in the army, where he acquired the nickname “Scottie,” commonly applied to Scottish soldiers.
Scottie Wilson’s early drawings were populated by malevolent figures that he described as “evils and greedies.” He started creating his totem-like figures and patterns, often built up of parallel lines, in his secondhand shop in Toronto. Years later, Wilson described how he was listening to Mendelssohn when “all of a sudden I dipped the bulldog pen into a bottle of ink and started drawing—doodling I suppose you’d call it—on the cardboard tabletop.”1 His later works are benevolent, decorative depictions of nature, especially birds, fish, flowers, and fauna, which (perhaps coincidentally) happen also to be the three major components of the crest of Glasgow, where he spent much of his childhood. He also designed and hand painted earthenware with the same iconography for England’s Royal Worcester Porcelain Company. Artists André Breton and Pablo Picasso were early collectors of his now widely sought-after work.
Notes 1. Helen Marzolf, Scottie Wilson: The Canadian Drawings (Regina, Saskatchewan: Dunlop Art Gallery, 1989), 8.
Image: Scottie Wilson (English, 1891–1972) Blue Birds in the Tree, ca. 1960 Crayon and ink on paper 25 5/8 x 20 1/2 in. (65.09 x 52.07 cm) The Anthony Petullo Collection M2012.250 Photo credit: Larry Sanders
American/Swiss, b. Germany, 1939–2007
While Rosemarie Koczy was not trained in drawing, the visual acumen she developed in tapestry design and production informed her drawings. In 1975, frustrated with the limitations of tapestry, she began drawing—often with two hands, thanks to her weaving skills—ultimately penning more than twelve thousand ink works memorializing the victims of the Holocaust. Written on the back of her drawings are the words “I Weave You a Shroud.”
Koczy was born in Recklinghausen, Germany. She was deported in 1942 and survived two concentration camps. Her thousand-page memoir of this experience is housed in the Yad Vashem archive in Jerusalem. She moved to Geneva in 1959 to study at the École des Arts Décoratifs, graduating with distinction in 1965. She became known in Europe for her tapestries and made hundreds of paintings and wood sculptures. Her work was encouraged by the collector Peggy Guggenheim, Thomas Messer (former director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum), and the artist and collector Jean Dubuffet.
After she married her second husband, the composer Louis Pelosi, in 1984, she moved to Croton-on-Hudson, New York, becoming an American citizen in 1989. Koczy worked in a nursing home and supported the artistic practices of elderly and disabled residents. She also taught art in her studio.
Image: Rosemarie Koczy (American/Swiss, b. Germany, 1939–2007) Alva Bound/Nursing Home, n.d. Ink on paper 14 x 10 5/8 in. (35.56 x 26.99 cm) The Anthony Petullo Collection M2012.74 Photo credit: John R. Glembin
In her shapely, symmetrical works on paper, Minnie Evans often combined a central human face with parts of plants to create decorative biomorphic landscapes.
Minnie Eva Jones was born in Long Creek, North Carolina. Her family was of Trinidadian decent. Her parents were rural farmers. She grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, and was raised by her grandmother in the Methodist Episcopal faith. Evans described having many vivid visions and dreams since childhood, which her grandmother told her were “signs and wonders” sent from God. She attended school until she was ten years old and then worked selling clams and oysters. When she was sixteen, she moved to Wrightville Beach and married Julius Evans. They had three sons. Beginning in 1918, Minnie Evans worked for the family of Sarah and Pembroke Jones, first as a domestic servant, then for twenty-seven years as a gatekeeper in the Airlie Gardens, which Sarah had started designing in the early 1900s. When Evans started drawing in 1935, her work featured brightly colored flowers and foliage like those in the garden. She later added winged, mythical, and biblical creatures to her works in ink, graphite, wax crayon, and oil paint. A trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1966, on the occasion of an exhibition of her work in New York, influenced her decision to make larger-scale works.
Image: Minnie Evans (American, 1892–1987) Untitled, ca. 1946 Oil and pencil on paper 14 x 11 in. (35.56 x 27.94 cm) The Anthony Petullo Collection M2012.42
More Artist Biographies
Download a complete list of all artist biographies (PDF)