Women on Brown Paper Bags
March 6, 2003 10:08 PM   Subscribe

The eccentric art of Lewis Smith - a man who lived alone in the woods with no amenities, at age 60, he began drawing all day, every day. His themes included muscular and wrestling women drawn on brown paper bags, and diner scenes drawn on cracker boxes. He drew or painted on every surface including the walls of his home and his barn. If he were alive today, he would probably be amazed to learn that many of pencil and crayon drawings sell for upwards of $1000.
posted by madamjujujive (31 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
awesome as always, ma'am.
posted by condour75 at 10:44 PM on March 6, 2003

Very interesting. Slightly reminiscent of the work of another 'outsider' artist, Henry Darger, who has been discussed here before.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 10:58 PM on March 6, 2003

At last, I've found my dream home! Thanks madam!

posted by homunculus at 11:12 PM on March 6, 2003

I am simultaneously intrigued by his sincere approach to art and appalled that some pieces are selling for over $1000.
posted by quadog at 12:16 AM on March 7, 2003

Art sure is weird like that. Can't draw, but does. The finished product is comparable to drawings by children (which I believe wasn't on purpose). And yet, there's a market for it. What the hell am I doing wrong?
...don't answer that...
Weirdos have it so good.

Astral Weeks... such a great album on the graveyard shift.
posted by Witty at 1:49 AM on March 7, 2003

madamjujujive, you are the brightest star in the online firmament. You do honour to Metafilter and to us.
posted by Ljubljana at 2:21 AM on March 7, 2003

Witty - 'Can't draw, but does'

Still, his artistic output is superior to other Lewis-Smiths that I have encountered. With possible exceptions.
My dream home in the woods.
posted by asok at 3:29 AM on March 7, 2003

I certainly don't mean any disrespect. Stories like this just confuse me... in a good way.
posted by Witty at 3:41 AM on March 7, 2003

Astral Weeks! If there was ever an album that existed in its own little universe - it's this one. If you ever begin losing your faith in music, play this. Thanks Witty - I'm gonna take Astral Weeks to work today. It's been too long.
posted by davebush at 3:46 AM on March 7, 2003

Thanks madamjujujive, this is great. :)

That site also has a nice collection of other resources.
posted by plep at 3:47 AM on March 7, 2003

His themes included muscular and wrestling women

[from the link] He was widely read and subscribed to over 100 newspapers around the country.

He read 100 newspapers, and starting drawing muscular women in the late 1960's? Sounds like he also got ahold of some hippie comic books, and was influenced by R. Crumb [The links from this second page, depending on what cubicle you're in, might not be safe for work.]
posted by LeLiLo at 4:02 AM on March 7, 2003

As a related note, the Amercian Visual Arts Museum [Note: Front page is very animated and graphics intensive - but there doesn't seem to be a lot of/any Flash] specializes in "outsider art". It is located in Baltimore, MD, USA, and I am a member.
posted by kalessin at 4:39 AM on March 7, 2003

Sorry, I always make this mistake. It's the American Visionary Arts Museum. Duh.
posted by kalessin at 4:39 AM on March 7, 2003

Nice again, Mjjj! I love a reclusive eccentric, especially one that diagrams female wrestlers on grocery bags.

I tool one look at the walls, and my first thought was: This guy's not married.
posted by hama7 at 4:48 AM on March 7, 2003

A few of his drawings would make really great tattoos.

His life seemed very solitary, lonely. The paper dolls kept him company. It's as if he kept trying to recreate his mother, or possibly a companion for himself. Damn - I'm going to be dwelling on this all day, I just know it.
posted by iconomy at 5:04 AM on March 7, 2003

I tool

Ha ha! Maybe it's better as it is, but I meant "took".
posted by hama7 at 5:43 AM on March 7, 2003

kalessin: Another vote for the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore. Funky, fascinating stuff. I was there last year. If you enjoy this kind of outsider art, and you're anywhere near Baltimore, don't miss it.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 5:47 AM on March 7, 2003

It's sincere, but pretty bland, IMO. Not nearly as fresh and exciting as Darger. A thousand dollars is the near-equivalent of FREE in the art world. Semi-wealthy patrons will throw money at anything in the hopes that it will someday be worth millions. Why is everyone so "appalled" at the price?
posted by jpoulos at 6:29 AM on March 7, 2003

As he and his environment got older, he did not try to preserve things, even as roofs and outbuildings began to collapse. He believed it should go "back to the earth", that the earth would take care of it. In 2001, with plans being made to clear the site, the remaining art was removed for preservation.

What a wonderful eccentric old character. I wonder how many others like him are hidden in the woods of Ohio. Not that he's not one-of-a-kind.

Travel east of Cleveland towards Ashtabula county and you will find stretches of farmland and used-to-be-farmland, and old people of the toughened stock of wiry, leather-skinned farm-folk. They used to rise at dawn, eat breakfasts the size of four-course meals, then milk cows or pitch hay. Now they are left to play cards with neighbors or drink coffee at a greasy-spoon or walk along the highway with a bag of groceries from the local store.

They sometimes live in a trailer or modular like Lewis Smith, or they may grow old in an ancient farm house that smells wonderfully of decaying wood and apple pie. Always the smell of decay, though--a sweet natural smell that reminds you that people are part of the cycle of life, too. Coffee, usually brewed in a kettle (or "open-pot"), is always offered when you enter a house, and it will put hair on your chest. And cookies or pie or kuchen or nissua, served with a smile revealing very few teeth...

I'm sure I've met Lewis Smith or his simple, sincere ilk, and I like him.
posted by Shane at 7:05 AM on March 7, 2003

That American Visionary Art Museum is great, kalessin, thanks! For those interested in Outsider art, here's an interesting publication called Raw Visions.

Witty, I certainly understand why you or anyone else might have trouble understanding the allure of outsider (also called "brut" or "naive") - it's usually very raw. I'm hardly an expert, but it has always fascinated me. The High Museum in Atlanta has a decent collection, including the art world darling, Howard Finster.

I am intrigued by the obsession of this man, his passion; the fact that he was doing his art just for his own pleasure; the oddness of the themes he chose. (And lelilo, good theory about Crumb as an influence!) I simply have a penchant for true eccentrics! There's also something very appealing to me in much of the outsider art, the simplicity of execution. As we grow more jaded and our technologies advance, there is something wonderful about people who see the world so simply.

jpoulos, good point about the cost - a pittance in the art world! I remarked more for the irony that he probably could have lived for a year on the sale of one or two works.

I see we have quite a cabin in the woods contingent here....a MeFi commune? Looks like asok has found us a reasonably priced builder.

Witty, thanks for reminding me about Astral Weeks, truly a gem, and Slithy_Tove, for pointing out that great past post which I had never seen. (...and thank you Ljubljana for your very kind comment!)
posted by madamjujujive at 7:12 AM on March 7, 2003

Shane, that is a great comment. Nicely stated!
posted by madamjujujive at 7:15 AM on March 7, 2003

True story: I was turned on to the Astral Weeks album one night, years ago, while watching The John Larroquette Show (of all things). Some character on the show asked asked John what his top 3 "must have" albums would be. One was Miles Davis - Sketches of Spain, one was Astral Weeks... and I can't remember the other. I took that moment as a sign and promptly bought all three. Success!
posted by Witty at 7:56 AM on March 7, 2003

Sounds to me as if he may have had a stroke or some other brain damage. Sudden onset of drawing, all day every day? Similar to hypergraphia, I think it's called, a compulsion to write. The quality of the "art" is about what you'd expect from someone who had never developed any skills -- about elementary school level.

Why are people such suckers?
posted by gordian knot at 8:43 AM on March 7, 2003

The diction of his writings is top notch =)

I only see one sucker here, gordian knot.
posted by Satapher at 10:35 AM on March 7, 2003

and the quality of that criticism is about what you would expect from someone who doesn't seem to have anything better to show.
posted by the aloha at 10:51 AM on March 7, 2003

someone who doesn't seem to have anything better to show.

Oh, please. One is only allowed to criticize an artist if one is an artist too?

I'm sure Lewis Smith was a fackin' sweetheart of an old man, and he could draw better than me. That doesn't necessarily make his art worth two shits.
posted by jpoulos at 12:46 PM on March 7, 2003

That doesn't necessarily make his art worth two shits.

Yes, it does.

The quality of art does not rest in the quick tongues of others.
posted by Satapher at 2:19 PM on March 7, 2003

Isn't it funny how people see things differently? The fact that there is a market for this work would seem to me to indicate that people are NOT suckers. But then again, it depends on how you define a sucker. While I am rather inclined to ascribe to a live-and-let-live philosophy in matters of taste, if pressed, I would define suckers as people who are satisfied to have their aesthetic sensibilities shaped and cookie-cuttered by advertisers and mass media.

There are any number of $1000 purchases that I could name that might reflect "suckerhood" but someone's purchase of a quirky piece of art would not be one of them. It is precisely because Smith's work has not been refined and shaped by the intellectualism of the art world that it is intriguing to me...it is naive, yes...but it definitely has personality, passion and wit. But hey, your mileage may vary.
posted by madamjujujive at 4:14 PM on March 7, 2003

You have to get past the crudity of some of the forms and look at the work as a whole. Much of his work is laid out on the page very well. It might help to try to look at each piece as an abstract and appreciate how the different elements fill the page...

Sorry, I'm getting all obscure on you all, but there is a difference between art and childish scribble (even tho at first glance it isn't evident.)
posted by konolia at 6:55 PM on March 7, 2003

But hey, your mileage may vary.

posted by Satapher at 9:04 PM on March 7, 2003

no... criticism walks a line and gordian's words, to my ears, crossed the line from useful discussion into jealousy that people are paying attention to smith.

by the way, not everyone in ashtubula is like smith by any stretch. there is a certain charm about the place that sets it from other areas right around it, though.
posted by the aloha at 2:15 AM on March 8, 2003

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