In a creative world filled with big name artists, rock stars and starchitects, it’s not always easy to sort out the egalitarians from the egotists. For some, it may be difficult to imagine a career spent simply following one’s inner passions, with or without glory. So perhaps now is a good time to honor the fierce and passionate outsider artists who do what they do, simply because they can’t imagine it any other way.
I grew up with one of them.
Given the nickname of “Peanut” by his childhood friends, he was raised in a poor working class family in Charlottesville, Virginia. His father was a plumber, until he lost a leg in the early 1940’s in a freak car accident, leaving Peanut, at the age of 15, to support his parents and seven siblings until World War II broke out and he volunteered for service in the US Navy. After a harrowing ride as a ship fitter onboard a heavy cruiser in the South Pacific, he returned home with new skills in woodworking, metal craft and deep sea welding.
This led to a lifetime of tinkering, and finally a career as the director of maintenance for a local hospital. There, in addition to manning a complex set of building systems, he also honed his creative skills. Once, at the request of a surgical resident, he wrangled a stainless steel knife from the hospital cafeteria into a precision surgical instrument. Meanwhile, at nights and on weekends, he explored his art and honed his self-taught craft.
Peanut was always up to something. He would often play pranks on the doctors and nurses, and always had a joke to tell. But beneath the humor there was also substance. He cared deeply about his community and was a regular contributor to the local newspaper’s “Your Right to Say It” column. He was a naturalist, an environmentalist and a political activist, if only to serve as a ward captain and organize the distribution of political flyers for his favorite candidate in local elections. He once considered a run for office, but his commitment to work and family prevailed. He eventually found his voice in his craft, where the outcome was often a simple and poignant form of visual storytelling.
One of his earliest pieces was cobbled together from the crankshaft of an old automobile engine, three wheels from a discarded hospital gurney, and a host of dials and gadgets from his maintenance shop scrap heap. He stood the crankshaft up on its end, welded on the dials and gadgets, and lined the three wheels up in a triangular configuration. Peanut titled the piece “Political Machine,” because, as he explained: “it just goes around in circles, and even then only when you push it.” This work led Ruth Latter, the local newspaper art critic, to dub Peanut “Charlottesville’s Master of Assemblage.” A more serious piece called “The Last Drop,” crafted in mid 1980’s, well before the looming environmental crisis, included an elegantly twisted knot of steel pipes with diminishing diameters, capped by an elaborate faucet with a four-inch stainless steel water drop hanging from its spigot. He created “Conversation Group” from a cluster of young trees that he found on a walk in the forest near the log cabin that he and his wife, Merle, built with their own hands. In all, he made dozens of artworks, mostly in the latter years of his life.
But even after years of making his art, Peanut could never make it in the art world. He was an outsider artist, long before it either had a name or experts to champion it. With works guided by his instincts for steel, wood and a wide assortment of found objects, he never developed the kind of coherent “style” that would attract contemporary art collectors, so most of his work is now in the loving hands of friends and family. Nevertheless, in 1995, when the Visionary Art Museum celebrated the grand opening of its glistening new galleries on the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, Maryland, Peanut was invited to contribute three of his largest pieces to the exhibition. Still, most of his artistic achievements were more personal. He was content with executing his craft with the highest level of precision, and with the joy that it brought to him and his family. It was a beautiful thing to watch, and to enjoy, because Peanut, the visionary artist, was also my father.
We live in a time when the intentions of creative thinkers are often called into question. What do we stand for? Do we take ourselves too seriously? Are art and architecture only material possessions? What’s the rudder that we should use to guide our creative planning and design decisions? Is it money? Recognition? Or is it for the pleasure that these manifestations can bring to our clients, or to our client’s clients, the ones who will live with, or in them every day? And what’s the best way to engage with these end users? Is there a role for untrained artists, or perhaps a new genre of outsider architects? When we look around for role models, in addition to the ones we read about in the history books, perhaps we should also turn to the work of outsider artists like William Russell (Peanut) Bingler for clues about how to make it all more genuine, evocative, and real.