Art Without Art School

Art Without Art School

An exhibition celebrates nine artists who’ve traveled an unconventional path.
Jill Moniz

For the exhibition “Work Over School,” curator Jill Moniz selected self-taught artists whose success challenges traditional art-world hierarchies. Pictured with Moniz, left to right, are sculptures by Valentin Toledo, Fred Eversley, and Susan Feldman. The two wall pieces are by Miguel Osuna. 

Arts4Good

You don’t have to go to art school to become an artist. But to truly make it in the art world these days – to have shows, get reviewed, sell pieces – is an MFA the only realistic track?

Not necessarily. “Work Over School: Art from the Margins of the Inside,” at the Craft & Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles through January 8, presents nine self-taught “outsiders” who took alternate routes to mainstream success. Ranging from 37 to 75 years old, all had various careers – architect, chemist, teacher, engineer – before finding their true calling as artists.

“People who make that change are so courageous in taking a leap of faith, recognizing themselves and living in that truth,” says Jill Moniz, who conceived and organized the show. The daughter of a curator (Francine Kelly, former executive director of the Featherstone Center for the Arts on Martha’s Vineyard), Moniz, 47, grew up on the East Coast and in the Midwest around art and artists. She studied art history in college before switching to cultural anthropology: “I was interested in the larger narrative, art as a bridge to cultural understanding and awareness.”

After getting her PhD, having three sons, and teaching for a while, she moved in 2005 to Los Angeles, where she worked in community engagement at the Museum of Latin American Art, was head curator at the California African American Museum, and now focuses on independent projects. Over lunch recently in LA’s downtown arts district, she reflected on artmaking as a personal imperative, and how the old hierarchies and exclusivity of the contemporary art world may be giving way to an embrace of new voices.

How did this project come about?
“Work Over School” was born out of a strong desire to work with [CAFAM director] Suzanne Isken. The show is about this idea of outsider versus insider, folk versus fine art. I wanted to unpack those classifications and conversations. So I chose nine artists who are self-taught but who live and work as artists, who show in galleries and museums, whose work is really fine art. It’s not a repudiation of art school at all. It’s about individuals who have found themselves to be makers, artists – who have been accepted as such, but still remain sort of on the periphery because they didn’t go to art school. I want to celebrate them and extend the conversation about what it means to be self-taught, or to be inside or outside.

Their work speaks to me as an anthropologist, as a person of color, as someone who has been on the periphery in a lot of ways. What I love is that they do it because they can’t not. It satisfies something in them.

Tell us about some of them.
The group is very diverse. Fred Eversley is sort of the father of the work-over-school movement for me. He was an engineer. He came to California to work for the aerospace industry in the early 1960s and was part of a program where they were linking artists up with science, to see where art and science met. And he fell in love. Obviously, in his heart of hearts he was already a maker, but he realized that was how he wanted to live his life. He had a story he wanted to tell for himself, more than he wanted to work on jet propulsion. So he did, and he’s never looked back. You see the expertise of his art, these beautiful resin works that are so brilliantly executed because he knows so much about the material itself.

Miguel Osuna came to LA from Mexico as an architect, then decided that if he wanted to be true to himself, he was going to have to live as an artist. Lisa Bartleson worked in the medical industry as a chemist before switching over. Dana Bean, from South Africa, is a collage artist and still works in marketing. Valentin Toledo, from Spain, was an art director for magazines, though he studied math in college. Susan Feldman was a graphic designer and mother who works in [mixed media including] yarns and reclaimed wood – to me, there is so much domesticity in her artmaking, and it’s powerful.

Everyone in the show is based in Los Angeles?
Yes. I wanted to show that there was something unique about LA, where people come to reimagine themselves. Is it LA that gives us the space to take that risk, that leap of faith? Maybe. I think it’s the space where you have to confront yourself. As they say, it’s where you fake it till you make it. For people who are creative, it forces you to get down to it and find your way forward.

There’s a heavy emphasis now in art schools on theory, as opposed to empirical wisdom and experiential awareness and understanding. These artists had a certain work ethic from their past lives, and so they just did it. They got to it.

It’s hard enough for any artist to break through. Was it harder still for these artists?
In some ways, yes. But their talent couldn’t be ignored. That’s the beautiful thing.

It’s also a perfect storm. The art world hit a critical moment, backed itself into a corner with all the leaning toward theory and conceptualism. And conceptualism was withering on the vine, frankly. So in the last couple of years, the art world started to look for inspiration. And where have they gone? To the outsiders – the self-taught, the primitive, the naïve, the folk artists. These are now the people they’re lifting up and celebrating as true innovators.

So what is the ideal education for an aspiring artist?
It has to be an organic process, whether it’s work or school. There has to be meaning and resonance in whichever path you take. I went to graduate school – as so many of us did – because I didn’t know what else to do. [Laughs.]

The experiences of living in the world obviously affect the choices we make. But sometimes you go forward because there doesn’t seem to be any other way forward. And that’s your truth.

Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor.