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“I was born an artist. I have been doing everything which you have to go to school for. I can do, beat you doin’ it.”

William Hawkins (1895-1990), quoted in “Self-Taught Genius”

What is genius? What is the source of artistic inspiration? How important is training in expressing that inspiration? Those are questions that “Self-Taught Genius” puts out for pondering.

“Genius,” which opens Sunday at the St. Louis Art Museum, features the work of self-taught artists and work that’s been labeled “outsider art.” Ranging from the mid-18th century to the early 21st, the touring exhibition encompasses a wide range of objects, all drawn from New York’s American Folk Art Museum, selected by Stacy C. Hollander, the museum’s director of exhibitions, and curator Valérie Rousseau.

Sometimes the genius is expressed through conventional means; sometimes it comes out of left field. There are quilts, delicately stitched by the hands of slaves, and a gate built and painted to resemble an American flag, with an idiosyncratic arrangement for its field of stars. A startlingly realistic carved lion that once carried passengers on a carousel shares the space with seemingly random assemblages of words, of yarn, of wood.

There’s an arresting, beautiful portrait of a little girl in a red dress, with a white cat on her lap, painted in the 1830s by Ammi Phillips, an itinerant artist in New England. At the exhibition’s entrance, visitors are met by an 11-foot-tall “Encyclopedic Palace” from the 1950s. It was intended by its creator, an auto mechanic named Marino Auriti, as a model for a massive building, to cover 16 blocks in Washington, D.C., and tower 136 stories above the landscape.

“These are the best things from the Folk Art Museum, right here,” says Melissa Wolfe, the St. Louis Art Museum’s curator of American art. “Some of them are iconic, like the Flag Gate,” created around 1876 by an unknown artist in upstate New York. More of them will be completely new to visitors.

Wolfe points out that folk art collections are lacking in this region. “In some ways, that’s why this is a great show for the art museum,” she says. “This is our way to offer something no other museum in this area has.”

Visionaries abounding

“Self-Taught Genius” is divided into seven categories. There are “Achievers,” showing the subject’s accomplishments or something grandiose. There are “Encoders,” which may hide a message or use symbols to convey a secret meaning. “Messengers” may express a belief, religious or otherwise. “Improvement” celebrates the young American republic, its people and institutions, as well as the idea of self-sufficiency. “Reformers” covers ground including scenes from the Civil War and a screed painted on wood by Fulton, Mo., original Jesse Howard (1885-1983). In “Ingenuity,” innovation and adaptation get their due. The final category, “Guides,” includes exploration and a couple of thorny characters.

“I find these seven categories humanizing,” Wolfe says. “These artists are people who were born with a visual sophistication.”

Wolfe says that “for over the first hundred years of this nation’s settlement, there was no academy” where aspiring artists could be trained. “Virtually every artist in this nation was self-taught.”

Some of her favorite works in the show are sculptures, including a vivid, primitive representation of Adam wrestling with the serpent (“It has presence,” she says), and a ferocious coyote, carved with a chainsaw, by Felipe Benito Archuleta (1910-1991). Archuleta said he’d been told in a vision to make woodcarvings of animals; Wolfe calls this one “psychic.”

Nearby is “Lady With Muff,” a stone figure by William Edmondson (1874-1951), who also claimed a divine mandate to carve. Overhead is a wooden carving of the angel Gabriel with a trumpet; he started life as an inn sign in early 19th-century New York.

Many of these artists were visionaries, Wolfe says. “Many of them were in communities where they didn’t fit. But if God comes to you and says, ‘Do this thing,’ then the community may say ‘OK.’ They may give you a pass.”

Various styles

Some objects are practical at heart, including weather vanes, clocks and chests. Some were purely ornamental, like a sample box for 19th-century decorative painter Moses Eaton Jr. (1796-1886), who used a number of techniques to imitate “fancy woods” or to be simply fanciful. The box contains 10 panels with different finishes, from leaves to shells to pseudo-brocades; the box itself must have whetted the appetites of the curious, covered as it was in smaller examples of the works within.

Some of the pieces are from artists still working today. “Funeral for ‘Titanic,’” by George Widener (b. 1962) is the mysterious work of a numbers savant. “Don’t Go Crossing My Fence,” an assemblage by Lonnie Holley (b. 1950), descends from the “yard shows” of Southern blacks.

There’s charm here, too, in pieces like the Pennsylvania Dutch Fraktur drawings. Fraktur (which shares its name with an ornate German script) combines writing with drawings — of hearts, birds, figures and abstract designs — and watercolor. One particularly delightful example is the “Liebesbrief (love letter),” a late 18th-century piece by Christian Strenge (1757-1828) with its sentiments written inside hearts.


What “Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum” • When Sunday through Sept. 11 • Where St. Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Drive, Forest Park • How much $12 adults, $10 seniors/students, $6 children 6-12, free for members, children under 5 and on Fridays • More info 314-721-0072; slam.org

Sarah Bryan Miller is the classical music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; she has also written on a variety of other topics.