Self-taught artists in spotlight at Smithsonian American Art Museum

Artists without formal training, who learned from family, community and personal journeys, have long been a presence in American art. But it was not until the 1980s, with the help of dedicated collector-advocates, that the collective force of their creative vision and presence reshaped the mainstream art world. “We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection” traces the rise of untrained artists in the 20th century and examines how, despite wide-ranging societal, racial and gender-based obstacles, their creativity and bold self-definition became major forces in American art.

“We Are Made of Stories” is on view from July 1 through March 26, 2023, at the museum’s main building in Washington, D.C. The exhibition will not travel.

The exhibition celebrates Douglas O. Robson’s 2016 gift of 93 artworks collected by his mother, Margaret Z. Robson (1932-2014). Margaret Robson embraced art that reflected diverse and personal journeys, and she supported museums and scholars in making it more available to the public. Her son now carries these efforts into the future. The exhibition features selected works from the original gift, 32 additional promised gifts and a major painting by Dan Miller that Douglas Robson donated to SAAM in 2022. It is organized by Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“We are delighted to share recent gifts from the Robson Family collection with the public, and we celebrate Margaret and Doug Robson’s commitment to supporting the creativity of American artists,” Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, said. “Since the 1970s, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has been a trailblazer in recognizing the broadest range of artistic expression. With this exhibition, SAAM continues its commitment to building a truly diverse collection that reflects the unique stories and voices of all artists.”

“We Are Made of Stories” confronts issues of marginalization that extend far beyond definitions of “self-taught” versus “academically trained” artists. Featuring 110 artworks, the exhibition examines the extraordinary lives of 43 artists, including James Castle, Thornton Dial Sr., William Edmondson, Howard Finster, Bessie Harvey, Sister Gertrude Morgan, the Philadelphia Wireman, Nellie Mae Rowe, Judith Scott, and Bill Traylor, among others. By bringing the personal stories of the artists into focus, the depth and meaning of the artworks they made comes more fully into view.

“The works of art in the Robson Family Collection give voice to people who faced challenge, oppression and often extreme marginalization in their lifetimes, but by leaving their imprint in the form of art, moved the needle toward a more enlightened age, a more humanistic moment,” Umberger said. “This project amplifies unique perspectives and argues that multivocality is essential for a full and genuine picture of the United States. It looks at the solitary paths many of these artists traveled, as well as the collective ground they gained by asserting their personal views of the world and telling their own story.”

An introductory video features interviews with curator Umberger and collector Douglas Robson. Fourteen artists identified as “gamechangers” are examined in greater depth in the exhibition through text panels featuring biographical information and portraits of the artists. Through audio clips, the voices of artists Calvin and Ruby Black, Finster and Morgan are in the galleries and provide critical insight into select artists’ practices and unique environments. In-gallery kiosks highlight additional artworks from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection, allowing visitors to further explore the creativity of these influential artists.

Nellie Mae Rowe (American, 1900–1982), Untitled (Dandy), 1978-1982, crayon and pencil on paper.
Nellie Mae Rowe (American, 1900–1982), Untitled (Dandy), 1978-1982, crayon and pencil on paper, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of Harvie and Charles Abney, 2021.40

ABOUT THE COLLECTION

The Smithsonian American Art Museum was among the first major museums to collect works by self-taught artists and to advocate for a diverse populist voice within the context of what is traditionally considered art. The museum began collecting this kind of work in 1970, when James Hampton’s astonishing “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly” came to light in a makeshift studio not far from the museum following the artist’s death. This iconic work serves as the foundation of a collection that tells an expanded story of America.

Several major collectors, with their transformative donations, helped build the collection over the past half century. In the early 1980s and 1990s, Chuck and Jan Rosenak donated important artworks by self-taught artists to the museum. The museum’s largest single acquisition of this material came in 1986 with more than 500 works from the groundbreaking collection of Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr., which firmly established the museum’s commitment to untrained artists. Important gifts from William Arnett, Orren and Marilyn Bradley, David L. Davies, the Kallir family, Mike Wilkins and Sheila Duignan, and others followed. Douglas O. Robson’s gift of art and program support is among the largest donations to SAAM’s self-taught program and confirms the collection as among the most significant anywhere.

The museum has had dedicated gallery spaces for folk and self-taught art for more than 50 years.

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