Art & Design Art & the Artist

Outsider Art: The Projects to Know About Before They’re Lost to History

With The Keepers Project, David Clegg is documenting British art environments made by self-taught artists, allowing viewers to immerse themselves in a fast-vanishing world

A flint grotto filled with fantastical creatures; Italianate buildings recreated in concrete on a remote Welsh hillside; a garden crammed with enormous wooden constructions… The Keepers Project, a new online archive, details the rich seam of so-called “outsider art” sites tucked away in homes and outdoor spaces across the United Kingdom.

The tradition of untutored art is long established within Europe and in the United States: figures such as Henry Darger, Bill Traylor, and India’s Nek Chand are the subjects of major retrospectives and command impressive figures in the saleroom. Sales at January’s Outsider and Vernacular Art sale at Christie’s New York totaled $2,137,750.

David Clegg
Keeping the faith: The Keepers Project’s David Clegg aims to highlight the UK's role in producing exceptional outsider art. Image: Thierry Bal

“Outsider artists create original, direct, and deeply personal works that are often based on life experiences, religion, and popular culture… The work appeals in its honesty and its fresh perspective,” says Cara Zimmerman, Vice President, Head of Outsider and Folk Art at Christie’s, who oversaw the sale.

In Britain, outsider or self-taught art is less revered. David Clegg believes this does a disservice to the range and scope of the work being produced, and is contributing to its rapid disappearance. The East Sussex-based artist launched The Keepers Project in an attempt to turn the tide.

Part of the impetus for starting The Keepers Project was to show that there are amazing artists making work here and now—David Clegg

“The Tate’s website lists only one outsider art site in the U.K.,” says Clegg. “There’s this idea that it isn’t really something we do here. Part of the impetus for starting The Keepers Project was to show that it is. There are amazing artists making work here and now.”

Clegg follows leads to arrange visits to each of the sites, interviewing the keepers—sometimes the original maker, often a guardian—in an attempt to discover the real-life stories behind their creation, accompanied by photographer Thierry Bal.

Rory McCormack's seafront statue gallery is the perfect example of outsider art
Beach fisherman Rory McCormack used his skills from a former job as a dry-stone waller to create his Flint Grotto on the East Sussex coast, which was inspired by ancient mythology, Neolithic and Greek art, and Etruscan pottery. Image: Thierry Bal

Previous documentation of such sites has often been scant, but by combining audio and transcripts directly from each keeper, with photographs sequenced in the order the sites are intended to be viewed, Clegg hopes to offer a fuller sense of each artist’s vision.

Bal says: “What I liked about this project is that it allowed us to immerse ourselves in the idiosyncratic worlds of the artists and to actually visit the places where they spent years of their time grafting and experimenting.”

Inspired by the Landscape

While often dismissed as the creations of eccentric loners, Clegg found the various sites to have “a far higher level of sophistication than most people would assume. They are more conceptually realized—and much more interesting.”

He cites the example of Rory McCormack, the artist behind a fenced-off grotto of flint sculptures on Brighton’s seafront. Wild rumors circulate about their mysterious creator, yet Clegg discovered a fisherman whose passion for Etruscan pottery and Neolithic and Greek art inspires him to build his own tributes out of the materials found in his coastal environment.

Statues near Brighton's Palace Pier
Flint grotto: Situated to the east of Brighton’s Palace Pier, you'll find McCormack’s eclectic seafront collection of statues. Image: Thierry Bal

“Rory’s work definitely ties into a sort of landscape art. What he says about his work being ‘made of the beach’ could equally have been said by [sculptor] Richard Long—even Antony Gormley.”

It’s all about making something amazing out of nothing. Anyone can make art out of diamonds and butterfly wings—David Clegg

Clegg was impressed by the imaginative and playful way McCormack and others used found materials, from East Sussex’s “anarchist boatbuilder” Hamish McKenzie, who turns fighter plane parts into dramatic floating sculptures, to London’s “Lithuanian Chinese flamenco-dancing barrow boy” Ron Hitchins, who covered the walls and ceilings of his London home with his Modernist ceramics.

Liverpool’s Ron Gittins, meanwhile, transformed his modest house into a Roman villa complete with life-sized centurions made from pulped telephone directories and a chariot built from a rusting baby-carriage. “It’s all about making something amazing out of nothing,” says Clegg. “Anyone can make art out of diamonds and butterfly wings.”

Interior of Ron Hitchins' London home
Art house: Ron Hitchins’ London home is covered in unique ceramic tiles. Image: Thierry Bal

Few of those featured identify as artists. McCormack describes himself simply as “a restless person with itchy fingers who couldn’t help but keep going.” But there is no doubt in Clegg’s mind that what they have created is art, a natural continuation of French artist Jean Dubuffet’s Art Brut, which he described as work created “from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses.”

The staggering work of Gerry Dalton—who filled his West London public housing home with handmade models of British buildings, busts of historical figures, and miniature tombs—was only discovered after he died in 2019. He had created all of it at night, in secret, purely for himself. “There is no sense of making a product, of making something for someone else,” Clegg says. “These people do what they do entirely for their own reasons, and that’s exciting to me.”

Statues
Gerry's Pompeii: Campaigns have been launched by major figures in the art world to save the statues and model buildings that fill Gerry Dalton’s West London home and garden. Image: Thierry Bal

But working outside mainstream culture comes at a price. While the fight to preserve Dalton’s home has been the subject of campaigning by prominent curators such as Hans Ulrich Obrist and former Tate Gallery director Sir Nicholas Serota, many of the other sites have yet to be afforded the same recognition. Upkeep is often left solely to relatives, some of whom are struggling to maintain them.

Vanishing Treasures

Joan Hillier, widow of Tony Hillier, talked to Clegg about her attempts to rehome her husband’s giant metal animals, originally designed for the couple’s Cambridgeshire garden. Redevelopment threatens the London house of Ben Wilson, renowned for his intricate paintings on blobs of chewing gum but less well-known as the creator of intriguing autobiographical wooden constructions that fill his garden.

And the relatives of John Fairnington Sr., who created a menagerie of concrete animals in his Northumberland home, spoke of their sadness at seeing his work fall into disrepair. Sometimes Clegg and Bal will be tipped off about a site only to find it has been demolished before they can get there. “These are unique spaces that are of their time and place, but they’re disappearing at a pace,” says Clegg.

Concrete animals in garden
Cement menagerie: John Fairnington Sr. began work on vast sculptures in his Northumberland garden to cheer up his son while he was ill. Image: Thierry Bal

He and Bal intend to keep adding to The Keepers Project and will shortly begin 3D scanning some of the sites. “The plan is to document the environments in a way that allows people to walk through them virtually, and hopefully to understand how all the spaces connect. It will allow people to make their own discoveries and experience a little of what it’s like to actually be there,” says Clegg.

He hopes they can afford these artists at least some posterity through The Keepers Project, which he sees as “an archive of things that are about to be lost.” It is a natural development of an idea that began with The Trebus Project, a huge collection of verbatim memories and insights given by people with dementia, for which Clegg was awarded a British Empire Medal by Queen Elizabeth II.

“Both projects stem from the same impulse—an attempt to capture something precious before it is lost forever,” he says.

thekeepersproject.com

Banner image: A Welsh hillside is the unlikely home of this Italianate landscape, constructed by Mark Bourne out of materials such as concrete and chicken wire. Image: Thierry Bal