Vermont Arts Council

Outsider Art Inside

Nine artists’ work will hang in the Council’s Spotlight Gallery October 21-December 31, 2015. The pieces are outsider art, all made by self-taught artists associated with Grass Roots Art and Community Effort (GRACE). GRACE is based in Hardwick, and since 1975 has provided art materials, encouragement, and a supportive environment to visual artists who want to explore. GRACE staff are artists, and bring workshops to mental health centers, senior meal sites, and artists’ homes. The resulting work represents a variety of human experiences in a fresh, raw way. Some of the art is nationally known as well as widely shown and collected.

Words for the Art

Read the words of two artists talking about this genre; their writing reflects vastly different backgrounds, but they arrive at the same place. Jean Dubuffet—a French artist and curator who coined the term art brut (raw art) wrote, “We understand by this term works produced by persons unscathed by artistic culture, where mimicry plays little or no part (contrary to the activities of intellectuals). These artists derive everything…from their own depths, and not from the conventions of classical or fashionable art.” In a statement as organic as his art, Larry Bissonette—one of the artists represented in the Spotlight Gallery show—wrote, “Lost in forming conceptions about my art is the matter of creative impulse which speaks out as powerful strokes on the paint canvas, linking color and texture into a production of offbeat images, pleasing to the eyes of outsider art fans.” He also said, “Going to see my art involves leaving your lively imaginations of post impressionism works at the door of the art gallery and looking at my paintings like you would with a child’s…”

Here are the artists’ biographies, courtesy of GRACE; each with just a taste of the artist’s work.

Gayleen Aiken was born in 1934 and spent most of her life in Barre. She started painting as a child and continued throughout her life. Gayleen Aiken’s work has been shown in major exhibitions including the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland in 2004 and in a one-woman show at New York’s Lincoln Center in 1987. Her work is in the permanent collection of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Museum of American Folk Art, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, the American Folk Art Museum and in many private collections. She was the subject of Jay Craven’s award-winning film “Gayleen,” and a recipient of a Vermont Arts Council Fellowship. “Moonlight and Music: The Enchanted World of Gayleen Aiken” was published by Harry Abrams, Inc. in September, 1997. Gayleen passed away unexpectedly in March 2005 at the age of 71.Aiken-4-Bio
Joel Bertelson is a native Vermonter and has lived with his family in the Burlington area all of his life. He started attending the GRACE workshop at Howard Community Services in 1997. He is an actor with the Awareness Theater Company and has developed his own plays. In addition to art and acting, Joel likes to swim , golf, and take walks.
Larry Bissonnette was born in Winooski in 1957. A high fever at the age of two was the apparent cause of damage to his nervous system. At eight he was committed to the Brandon Train School (BTS), at that time the state’s single institution for people with [termed at the time] mental retardation. During his ten-year confinement at BTS, Larry was diagnosed in turn as [again, termed at the time] mentally retarded, schizophrenic, clinically insane, and autistic. From Brandon, he was transferred to the Vermont Psychiatric Hospital at Waterbury. At the insistence of his sister, he was soon taken out and placed in a residential program for the developmentally disabled. Bissonnette has always manifested an irrepressible creativity. He was drawing prolifically at age five. At BTS he often jimmied his way into the locked workshop to draw, paint, and build through the night. Larry, now living at home with his family, continues to work in his studio and at GRACE’s weekly workshops with Howard Community Services in Burlington. Bissonette-4-Bio
Ken Bridges first came to GRACE’s community workshop in the 1990s as a caregiver to another workshop participant. With leftover scraps of cardboard and small used pieces from old Cray-Pas sets, he began to work alongside his client. Later he began to use watercolor and other materials along with Cray-Pas in his cardboard constructions.
Merrill Densmore was born in 1943 and was raised in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. He started to paint by using paint-by-numbers sets and drawing with crayons. He began working with the GRACE program in 1994, where he was introduced to acrylic paints and other art materials.One of this favorite subjects was the Vermont landscape. Merrill used bold color patterns to fill his paintings with clouds, trees, mountains, and animals. Merrill’s work has been exhibited widely and is in many private collections in the United States. He passed away unexpectedly in May 2006 at the age of 63. Densmore-4-Bio
Lawrence Fogg is a native Vermonter who lives in West Hartford. He was born in 1929 in Pomfret. He is the father of ten and the grandfather of twenty-nine. Mr. Fogg has been a farmer and jack-of-all-trades. He was spiritually motivated to start painting after his wife died in the late 1990s. He enjoys painting the varied scenes and seasons of Vermont.
T.J. Goodrich was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, then moved to Colebrook, New Hampshire with her family. In 1992, she married and moved to Hardwick, where she decided to continue making artistic creations and drawings, now paintings. “I had art all through high school and worked with all the typical materials. In the last ten years, my collection grew, most of the work in markers. Luck was with me when a friend told me about the new Grass Roots project; GRACE, and I decided to give it a try. One of the workers introduced and encouraged me to try acrylics. Now I try to experiment with this new tool and have advanced to an even grander scale. Now I try paintings on the large paper, the markers do not have the effect of the acrylics for texture and fill. One of my new attempts for the future is to mix all the mediums; even paint plywood grains. Since attending GRACE, I have felt that freedom to create and further explore my art and visions My hopes are to improve on my methods.Goodridge-4-Bio
Dot Kibbee was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1916 and went to nursing school in New Hampshire. She spent most of her life in Hardwick, where she was a nurse for many years. She supported herself and her two sons. She is still on call to many, and says she nurses now by listening and painting. Dot has been a regular at GRACE’s community workshops since the mid-1980s. Her style of painting is unique and features heavily patterned renderings of imaginary landscapes inhabited by snakes, butterflies, turtles, and tiny people. Her artwork is in many private collections and has been exhibited throughout the region as well as nationally and internationally. She was the subject of a 2004 publication, “A Triumph of Spirit Dot Kibbee: Her Life and Art.” Dot says that when she paints, “I don’t really know what I’m doing but I know it is good when my heart starts beating fast and my face gets all hot and red.” Kibbee-4-Bio
James Nace grew up in Pennsylvania. He now lives contentedly in Montpelier. James started painting on his own in the late 1990s. “Painting is a way to express myself. I start a painting and the world disappears for a few days.” James also likes to make hooked rugs and recently has experimented with papier mâché sculpture. James manifests his unique personality with his fashion statements, his sarcastic sense of humor, his love of cooking, and his passion for cats. Besides pampering his own cats, his doorstep is a second home and feeding station for all the neighborhood cats. He also has found homes for several homeless cats.


There will be a reception during Art Walk December 4. We hope you’ll attend, and consider the advice of Larry Bissonette: “Your coming to see my art should be your potentially life changing wake up call to do art and not just make missing the point conversation about art over wine and orders of fancy meat-filled pastry and cheese. Let’s save those snacks for celebrating your doing of art and sharing it with others.”