In Me, My Cat and My House, artists with mental disabilities challenge the notion of outsider art 

Drawing the line between outsider and contemporary art is a thorny undertaking. After walking into the inviting hallway of gallery F and catching a faceful of the masks, drawings and paintings created by five mentally disabled artists, I wonder whether that division is even relevant.

In the accompanying literature for the current exhibit, Me, My Cat and My House, the gallery describes the work using the French term art brut (raw art), rightly questioning the more typical "outsider" label. In the end, given the art's emotional immediacy, splitting terminological hairs would be missing the point. The work on display is as much about permitting an open heart as keeping an open mind.

Nestled in the 10-acre Scarritt-Bennett Center, gallery F shares space with the Front Porch coffee and gift shop, providing sort of a mini-museum situation where you can see art and buy gifts or just sip coffee or a smoothie and kick back. The surrounding Gothic architecture and abundant tree cover provide a peaceful, relaxing environment, and the patio should be delightful as the autumn foliage unfolds. The meditative setting suits the center's mission: to promote cross-cultural enlightenment, interfaith spirituality and an end to racism. It also suits the innocent and soulful artwork hanging on the gallery's walls.

The pastel crucifixes of Paul Miktarian hang flush with the ceiling. Their asymmetry and bold color exude a humanity wholly unfettered by doctrine or dogma. "I just want to get the word out about God," Miktarian says. Below the crosses hangs a sea of houses, each a block-work of pastel resembling stained glass.

In the center of the room stands Tracy L. Martin's "My Notebooks and My Bibles," two Bibles and two notebooks sitting on a pair of podiums. Passages from the Bibles have been copied into the notebooks—not exactly transcribed, but reproduced as lettered drawings. At the art opening Tracy read from her books without actually following the words on the page, but rather conveyed her own interpretation of the scripture through an improvised sermon. All these elements combine to form a small church, wherein you're sure to experience some kind of spirit—if not holy, then superbly human.

Gallery F curator Sabine Schlunk worked with developmentally challenged artists in Germany. "Their intellects may be that of a small child," she says, "but their emotions are developed perhaps beyond our own."

Around the corner from the little church of stained-glass houses is a hallway where Martin's work continues. The walls are filled with floor plans, reproduced from real estate magazines, with titles like "Baths: 3/ In a Class by Itself," "Memories in the Making" and "Shaded Kiss." The analytical and detailed nature of these drawings is striking, particularly given that Martin has Down syndrome. Her artist's statement is exceptionally straightforward, and her art perfectly reflects it. She wants a big house so all of her friends can be together, and she misses her boyfriend who passed away.

Even though these artists work together and their communion with each other is evident in their art, the undertones of isolation are quite powerful. The clay masks of artist Mike Rewis seem to howl out from the wall like joyous ghosts. The cat mask "Lisa's Eyes" gazes out with giant golden foil orbs adorned with a single glass bead in the center of each. Still, there is a darkness that comes through in Rewis' work. In "Half Man, Half Cat," he channels the ancestral and creates a face that would be perfectly at home sitting next to the Easter Island heads.

Because these artists are impervious to trends, their message is completely without ego. It's not surprising that children are more easily keyed in to the art. Three works by Lisa Manus hang together—"Black Beard the Cat," "Jasper" and "Fat Cat." A little girl approached them and remarked, "Father cat, mother cat and baby cat." The images are all open for interpretation and free from sarcasm. It's as if the artists were working in a bubble, within a collective unconscious that hasn't changed in eons. Creating with such raw sensibilities allows them to form fully realized mythologies, such as Bill Guion's "Abraham's Springtime," a depiction of a character who is an amalgamation of the biblical Father Abraham and Abraham Lincoln. In the background, the sky rains blue diamonds upon tall flowers.

No matter what term you use to identify this art—art brut, raw art, outsider art—what ultimately separates these artists from their contemporaries is their uncontrollable sincerity. In a short documentary about the artists that accompanies the exhibit, Guion is asked how drawing makes him feel. His response: "Happy."

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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