Review:Spiritual American Trash Celebrates the Lives of Eight Outsider Artists

Outsider art, Spiritual American TrashGod help the outsider artists. The emotional carnage of their lives suggests they were abandoned by God long ago, yet they continue to reach out to any listening Supreme Beings through their work, looking for soul-sustenance and peace of mind. Whether they can find either is a matter of interpretation. At least that’s my take after reading Greg Bottoms’ Spiritual American Trash—eight portraits of self-taught artists who followed sacred aesthetic callings. If their success is measured by output and devotion, Bottoms’ subjects triumphed, though not always divinely, as his delve into their personal histories reveals.

Outsider art is a squishy term, referring to self-trained artists unattached to an established school or movement, who follow very particular, peculiar aesthetic visions. Anyone can be an outsider artist, really—kids, hobos, hayseeds, and other dwellers on society’s borderlands—but, the mentally discombobulated seem to account for the biggest share. Chicago’s Henry Darger (who passed in 1973, whose work is on display at Chicago’s Intuit Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, but who is not covered by Spiritual American Trash) is the archetype: a socially inept, slightly addled janitor who spent his time off picking through garbage, typing a 15,000-page fantasy novel about hermaphroditic little girls, and tracing/painting accompanying Catholic- and Oz-themed illustrations of staggering complexity and violence. Darger did it all by his lonesome in his Lincoln Park apartment, and without a single adult ed class in figure-drawing. His work remained unseen until he moved to an old-folks home and his landlord discovered his tenant’s mind-warping oeuvre while cleaning up. Alive, Darger barely spoke to? anyone, so his motivation to create his work remains unknown. Why did he create such an incredibly fucked-up universe?

Henry Darger, outsider artist
Chicago janitor Henry Darger is the archetype for an outsider artist.

We’ll never know, and the mystery is a large part of the man’s melancholic allure, aided by Darger’s impressive and self-taught sense of color and composition.

As for the eight subjects of this book—coincidentally Darger contemporaries, though not in his artistic weight class—Bottoms makes a game effort to peer into their internal clockwork to see what made them erratically tick and tock.

Luckily for Bottoms, his artists (with the exception of James Hampton, who secretly crafted his heavenly Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly in a rented DC garage, leaving it to be discovered after his death), were a bit more high-profile—at least locally. Several enjoyed roadside attraction status. Outsiders they were, and fellow artistic anchorites, after a fashion, but not wholly in the Dargeresque mode. Either way, Bottoms reviews and sifts through their lives trying to discover the bits of magic and inspiration that led them to create art from literal garbage.

James Hampton, Hapton's throne, outsider artist
The throne James Hampton secretly built in his garage.

Spiritual American Trash’s recurring theme is religious belief, and how it manifested itself through painting, sculpting, and assemblage. Some of the artists’ beliefs are more familiar than others, if slightly hallucinogenic. Hampton pored over his Bible, prayed for guidance, and received orders to prepare the Throne out of tinfoil, jam jars, light bulbs, and other found objects for the Almighty’s return, whereupon Hampton would become a saint. Inmate Frank Albert Jones—who signed all his art with his prison number, 114591—drank heavily while drawing page after page of psychedelic “devil houses” to soothe the voices in his head as he languished in Huntsville’s Texas State Penitentiary. Annie Hooper, was a North Carolina Sunday school teacher who packed her home with biblical scenes rendered with concrete, driftwood, and styrofoam trays. Elsewhere, Frank “Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder” Van Zant—a Dutch-surnamed gent who claimed Creek Indian heritage—created his crude and blocky cement and glass shrine off I-80 in Nevada. All fascinating cases. All creating art that was certainly “outside” the norm, though often more notable for quantity than quality. But that’s a large aspect of outsider art: it is often amateurish and overwhelming, but obviously the product of a sincere desire to reach out and be understood—quite often failing.

The stand-out essays are about Hooper and Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey, who built a 13-building village out of cement and discarded bottles in Simi Valley, California. Spiritual American Trash shines here. Not only are Annie and Tressa the only two women in the book, unlike the eccentric gentlemen surrounding them, they seemed like relatively normal women who dealt with heartbreak (Hooper experienced periodic depression, and Prisbrey outlived six of her seven children) through art.

Teresa Grandma Prisbey, Bottle Village, outsider artist
Bottle Village by Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey

I only have a few quibbles with the book. The inter-chapters are peppered with quotes and musings taken from a “commonplace book” (at first I was confused and assumed they came from the artist’s notes). They’re evocative, but confusing. I suppose they’re intended as Bottoms’ meditations, like Charles Simic’s book Dime-Store Alchemy, which ponders works by establishment-approved assemblage artist Joseph Cornell (who teetered on becoming an “outsider artist” himself, honestly). All well and good, though Bottoms’ quotes might carry more meaning for himself than his readers.

Another issue: for a book about art, there isn’t any, other than artist portraits drawn by illustrator W. David Powell. Distractingly, Bottoms also has a habit of making statements like, “I am looking at a photograph of…” and trying to describe whatever, whoever, or wherever he’s looking at. It doesn’t quite work. I imagine purchasing the rights to reproduce the actual art isn’t cheap, but a few photos would have been appreciated. Furthermore, and I might be wrong, but the “ I am looking at a photograph” statements suggest he hasn’t actually visited the sites; obviously not in the case of Clarence Schmidt’s home/installations Journey’s End and House of Mirrors, both of which burned down decades ago. One does what one can, I suppose.

Ultimately, does Bottoms succeed in penetrating his subjects’ troubled psyches? He makes a game effort, though he set up a challenge for himself since the last of his subjects died in the late 90s and thus remains unavailable for interviews. Like Jim Elledge’s Henry Darger “biography” Throwaway Boy, Bottoms speculates based on what information exists about the artists, albeit with more restraint than Elledge used. But I’d like to know what evidence he’s basing it all on. Call me an outsider artist wonk, but including a bibliography and his list of resources wouldn’t have been amiss.

Overall though, the book reads well, and Bottoms clearly admires and holds his subjects in esteem. Spiritual American Trash is a respectful book that praises its eccentrics without overlooking the foibles, troubles, and pain that made them that way.

Buy Spiritual American Trash from Counterpoint Press for $15.95. 

Guest Author
Guest Author

Our Guest Authors are occasional contributors to our site, and authorship is noted at the beginning of each piece. Some of them go on to become regular authors and write under their own bylines. If you're interested in contributing to Third Coast Review, drop us a note and tell us about yourself and what you write.

Plan Your Life with 3CR Highlights

Join Our Newsletter today!