Bill Douglas has been making art since he was a solitary kid, tromping around in the woods outside Knoxville Tennessee. He built houses out of sticks out there, whole apartment buildings, fantastic constructions that no one but him would ever see.
His family was embedded in Tennessee since the 1850s, when his great great grandfather Douglas came from Scotland - his parents lived their whole lives there without leaving it. None of his immediate family is left in Knoxville now. His sister has settled in Nashville. Bill came to Chicago to go to art school in the 1990s; he came to Bridgeport in 2014 as an artist with Project Onward, a studio for artists with mental illness or disabilities at the Bridgeport Art Center.
Project Onward connected him to an audience. It’s also tied him into a neighborhood, which you could make a case is just as important. We all need some context in which to operate.
For the audience looking at art, maybe also for artists making it, putting art in context often entails finding some way to categorize it. In the art world, there’s a whole social apparatus for doing that: schools, critics, galleries collaborate to evaluate art work, to make ways to talk about it. Mapping it into categories is something to start from.
Project Onward participates in a category called outsider art. Critics coined the term in the 1970s, and then promptly began to argue about what it was. You can describe it as art made outside the critic’s apparatus, but then what happens if the critic and the collector start paying attention to it? Or you can describe it as art made by an artist who is self taught.
Bill sometimes says he isn’t technically an outsider artist because he went to art school. He studied painting at the University of Tennessee. He spent a year studying the epic paintings of 18th century French artists like David and Poussin, he studied print making, and abstract art. Later, he studied painting and ceramics at UIC.
After art school Bill got a job at a therapeutic day school, working with elementary school kids for 13 years. He loved that job, some of those kids were coming from highly unstable environments, he got to know them, saw them respond under the attentions they got at school.
He got married too, his wife, Kelly, was a travel agent, before that industry collapsed, they travelled a lot together, got to see the world. Bill’s life was good for a lot of years.
Then, in 2013, things started to fall apart. He lost his parents first. And his job, and his wife. He had been diagnosed with mental illness before that, it was part of his background for much of his life. It was manageable if he attended to it. When things were coming apart he couldn’t do that. There was a surge of clinical depression, and schizophrenia. There was a narcotic interlude. He watched a friend die, watched the paramedics bring her back to life and watched her go back out almost without missing a beat.
Bill took the lesson himself. He quit the drugs cold turkey and cut off ties with everyone he’d been using with. He found his way to an art therapy program at Thresholds. It was his art therapist at Thresholds, Kathy Osler who picked him out as a candidate for Project Onward.
In an essay they’ve written to accompany an Intuit Gallery art exhibit called Chicago Calling: Art Against the Flow, curators Kenneth Burkhart and Lisa Stone describe appreciation for outsider art taking different paths in Europe and the United States.
In Europe, the genre was informed by doctors collecting the art of psychiatric patients. Institutionalized, socially isolated, their work seemed to represent pure personal vision drawn from deep psychic sources, untouched by fashion.
In the United States, it was fed by an interest in folk art that traces back to WPA projects to document a distinctive American cultural heritage. Art valued as the expression of local traditions more than individual genius, the artists themselves might be anonymous.
Bill relates to both those strands, at least to the extent he has lived with mental illness, and that his art has been informed by tradition. But with the happy caveat that as an artist at Project Onward he isn’t isolated or anonymous.
Project Onward screens its applicants for talent, and also for their willingness to grow, to develop as professional artists.
When Bill submitted his portfolio for consideration, he was drawing forests from the vantage of someone lying on this back on the forest floor - trees with leafy branches ascending toward the sun, dense with birds, often encircled by streams, or mountain ranges, or tombstones.
Bill says he isn’t so interested in perspective or shading, he is more interested in other kinds of information. His drawings are dense with it, complex patterns, solid shapes sometimes filled in with tiny patterns of birds and leaves and other creatures indicated only by their eyes.
They are reminiscent of the piece-work patterns of quilts, laced together with a profusion of stitchery, like the ones his mother, her mother and her aunt used to sew in Tennessee. He keeps a news clipping on the studio wall about the prolific quilting of his great aunt Georgia Mize. The first line reads “Georgia Mize doesn’t think she’s an artist. She just makes quilts."
Project Onward encourages its artists to put in regular hours at the studio. They manage sales of the artist’s work, and split the proceeds with the artists - Project Onward's portion helps keep the studio going. There is a studio manager and volunteers who circulate among the artists, offering encouragement, making suggestions.
Being present in the studio has definitely made Bill’s work more visible to collectors. Collectors can come through anytime the studio is open, and things really buzz on 3rd Fridays, Bridgeport’s open studio night. Bill’s met a couple collectors who have shown particular interest in his work, he describes them as patrons because they’ve been so supportive of him and his development as an artist.
On any given afternoon at the studio, there are a couple dozen artists at work. They are all quietly engaged in their work, but friendly, happy to pause to chat about it. Bill likes to circulate and interview his fellow artists for short videos. He’s made some good friends there.
And then about a year ago, he was able to move into an apartment in a Bridgeport 6 flat owned by Project Onward’s Executive Director. It’s affordable so he’s got an anchor amid the rising neighborhood rents, and it’s right on Throop Street, so he’s close to the studio. That’s a big deal.
Bill’s friend David Hence takes the train all the way from Richter Park to get to the studio - the trip can take hours. If he arrives early David may while spend an hour drawing streetscapes and passersby from the windows of Bridgeport Coffee, imagining their lives comic book style panels. When he works late and the trains are even more infrequent, Bill lets him sleep on his couch.
Other friends from the studio will drop by his apartment to watch a game now and then. And Mike Pocius, who volunteers at the studio, lives a couple blocks away on Racine. Mike is restless instigator, when he’s not out and about he sits in his yard chatting with whoever stops by. Bill often stops by, or accompanies him, they organize the occasional impromptu art show together.
Working from the Project Onward studio, Bill’s perspective started to change. First it changed from drawings of forests, looking up into the trees, to drawings of Bubbly Creek, looking down into the water. There are wavy reflections of trees on the surface, crossed with currents of imaginary fish, their numbers probably always a little fanciful, considering the notorious quality of the water, they’ve grown more diverse and more oceanic as he worked.
And still stitched with intricate detail. Right up until a year ago, when Bill’s life took another turn. He had a stroke. He was alone in his apartment — this was a different apartment out in Berwyn. He was alone for 3 days, passing in and out of consciousness, calling for help.
It was Kathy Osler who found him. Kathy isn’t his art therapist anymore, she was just stopping by as a friend. “She saved my life,” Bill says. He’s mostly recovered, though the stroke still affect his balance and coordination, and he still doesn’t have the use of his right arm.
How do you come to terms with that, Mike Pocius asks, when so much of your identity is wrapped up in making art, and then something happens to the arm you make it with?
Intuit’s catalog for Chicago Calling: Art Against the Flow describes how Chicago’s people and arts institutions have been exceptionally receptive to art “from beyond the academically self identified center.” Then it goes on to identify Chicago as the center for the study and cultivation of outsider art.
It relates how, as early as 1941, the Fine Arts Club of Chicago presented self-taught negro artist Horace Pippen in a gallery alongside a show of the flamboyant European surrealist Salvador Dali. Bukhart and Stone say it was significant that Pippen was shown not as a folk artist, but as a fine artist. They say Dali was insulted when Pippen asked him “Are you an artist too?”
Imagine Pippen as the figure of Chicago, trying to strike up a conversation with New York. For much of the 20th century New York was the center of an art world that favored the modern, the abstract, high theory, and a critical remove from the marketplace. Chicago was all marketplace. It built its reputation on its status as an intersection of thoroughfares that connect more distant places, an entrepot between other endpoints, multiple centers.
The purist would describe the center as the place of privileged access to matters of ultimate concern, the circle where talented initiates build a common project, everything outside it sort of fades into lesser significance.
But if you stand among multiple centers, with competing demands, then it’s the points where they meet, clash, connect that have special access to vital energies. They loose that access if they turn inward, are less open to influence from outside.
Burkhart and Stone suggest using the ecological metaphor of the ecotone, the transition zone between two populations or environments, like an oceanic tide pool. The creatures that thrive there must adapt to survive in air, and under water, they take nourishment from the tidal flux. The authors evoke a “tide pool of the mind” nourished by the unceasing interplay between outsider and academic, creativity and commerce.
Bill Swislow describes old Maxwell Street market as just such a zone. His essay Chicago We Own It describes professors and students from the School of the Art Institute training their tastes there, learning to pick objects of beauty and wonder out of the flux. He says it gave rise to a different mode of collection: the “more is more aesthetic”, the studio crammed with artifacts, the personal reference library that is both an expression of the artist’s personal vision of the world, and a living source to work from.
The tide pool might be an especially useful metaphor for the artist imagining the context from where he can practice his work. Bill Douglas’ Tennessee roots and his experience with mental illness both connect him to the category. But at their roots, both those sources flourished in a kind of protective isolation — the dream painted from inside hospital walls, the folk art flowering in the hamlet — and some of the first collectors seemed to think they got their power from that.
Bill cut loose from his Tennessee roots. Years later, he was cut loose again in a more radical way. It was more tsunami than tide, Bill’s art didn’t thrive under the experience. He had to get a foothold, first. Project Onward, an institution with an interest, helped him do that. Now that he has the foothold, he’s immersed in an environment conducive to work.
Bill says that when he was alone for those 3 days after the stroke, he experienced a kind of semi-euphoric state, he figures it was his brain protecting him from fear as he waited for help. Some of his first drawings and paintings when he came back to the studio were of neurons and their matrix, brain structures, with notes added about their functions, and the symptoms of damage.
The euphoria was short lived. Recuperation has been frustrating. His right hand couldn’t execute the details it once could. For awhile, he experimented with paper cut outs, revising themes from his intricate drawings.
His friends from the studio have been supportive. His patrons visited him in the hospital and stay in touch on the phone when they’re not at the studio. Mike Pocius had suffered a stroke a year before Bill did - the common experience strengthened their bond.
Mike says when he found Bill particularly discouraged one day, he told him “You’ve been making art your whole life, you are an artist, so the things you make are art.” It doesn’t matter if the drawings he makes with his left hand don’t look the same as the ones he used to do with his right.
More recently, Bill’s been drawing Lilith, the unruly first wife of Adam. Legend has it God made Eve after Lilith flew away. She’s had recent career as a feminist hero, but also a longer more sinister one as a seductive demon, a danger infants and women in childbirth. For awhile, Bill painted her in the style of a comic book heroine, with swirls of entangling hair. Now he figures he’s finished with her, as a topic.
Bill says he’s been wondering recently where he fits as an artist. The question partly inspired when he was told he couldn’t participate in a recent show of outsider art in New York because he wasn’t self taught. He’s not preoccupied with the problem though. In June, he’s scheduled to have a solo show at Project Onward, and a show at Zhou B Art Center at the same time.