Grassroots art at Bennington Museum

In his graduate student days in Kansas in the 1960s, Gregg Blasdel traveled the back roads of the Midwest and the rural South, documenting artists who might otherwise have vanished.

Jean Dubuffet, a friend of Jackson Pollack’s and part of the same artistic circle, supported Blasdel in his work, and Blasdel sent him photographs of created landscapes like the house of Ed Root, filled and surrounded by cement sculptures, mosaic plaques, signs and bottle whimsies filled with crêpe paper scenes.

In 1968 Blasdel published an influential article on his “Grassroots Artists.” He and his wife, and Jennifer Koch, live in Burlington, Vt., and they have loaned the Bennington Museum in Bennington, Vt., works from their own collection to form the core of the museum’s show, “Inward Adorings of the Mind: Outsider, Visionary and Folk Art by Tolliver, Yoakum, Moses and Others,” on view through Nov. 1.

Bennington Museum curator Jamie Franklin has curated a show spanning 300 years, centering around 20th-century artists Joseph Yoakum, Mose Tolliver, Jesse Howard and the museum’s collection of Grandma Moses.

Yoakum worked for a circus and traveled across the U.S. and abroad, Franklin said, and gave his vigorous landscapes titles as far afield as the Canadian Rockies and Jerusalem, though whether he meant them as fact or fiction, places he had scene or places he imagined, no one knows.

Tolliver took up painting when an accident at a furniture factory where he worked crushed his legs. He painted with house paint on plywood, brightly colorful figures and animals, birds and watermelons.

Howard covered his Missouri farm with religious and political signs, public protests and messages to his neighbors (much to their consternation).

“Grassroots Art” has come to mean work by self-taught artists outside the mainstream, Franklin said, often people who have not thought of themselves as artists, but who have won respect in the art world. This kind of work has many names — outsider art, “Brût,” visionary art — none he feels wholly capture the sense of it.

Bennington Museum has always collected folk art, since its beginnings, he said, though not always as art — sometimes, at first, more as historical objects — weather vanes, quilts, carvings, memoryware covered with jewelry, tokens, buttons and shells, and paintings by itinerant painters.

Folk art as a field of study gained ground in the U.S. in the early 1900s, he said, especially in the 1920s and 1930s.

Three years ago the museum decided to actively collect contemporary self-taught artists with connections to the region. Franklin hopes to incorporate this work into the museum’s permenant collection and, in “Inward Adorings of the Mind,” to show a span of it from the 18th century to today.

I talked with Bennington Museum curator Jamie Franklin last spring as I gathered information for the Summer Previews magazine I edited for the Berkshire Eagle in my time there. Information about the Bennington Museum show appeared in an article I wrote for that magazine about art in the region.

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