Interest in Outsider Art has grown rapidly throughout the world in recent years. The Musgrave/Kinley collection, a major resource assembled by the English surrealist Victor Musgrave and his partner, Monika Kinley, is currently at the Irish Museum of Modern Art on a 25-year loan.
Although the collection has given IMMA international status as a repository of Outsider Art, the institution has no brief to collect or catalogue examples of similar Irish art. The task of discovering exactly what sort of Outsider Art is being produced in Ireland has fallen, ironically, to an outsider, the Scottish artist Peter Haining.
The Archive of Contemporary Irish Folk and Outsider Art grew out of Haining's project, Hibernia. Grand though it may sound, the archive is currently languishing in a cardboard box on an upper floor of IMMA. The good news is there is plenty of relevant activity. The bad news is that Outsider and folk art are not appreciated, and the works are unlikely to survive the death of an artist. Relatives have no idea that decorated cottages or painted wooden sculptures are of interest, and a life's work can very quickly be eradicated.
A self-effacing character, passionately committed to his project, Haining has embarked on a programme of articles and public lectures to raise awareness of the existence and cultural value of such work.
Haining has been interested in the democratisation of art since his days as a student at Duncan of Jordanstown College of Art, Dundee, in the early 1970s. In 1999, he helped to establish the Edinburgh-based magazine of Outsider art, Artesian, which is promoting and archiving Scottish Outsider art.
Haining originally came to Ireland to see the Musgrave/Kinley Collection at IMMA. "I spoke to the staff at IMMA and said that I would like to come over here to research Outsider Art in the whole island. They suggested that I do that under the artists' work programme, a five-month period of studio practice and research," he says.
"After the residency ended, I went down to Kerry to work in Cill Rialaig. When I left there on March 1st, I started to travel independently by bicycle, carrying on with my fieldwork.
"I have two panniers and a rucksack. Everything is very compact, but not so lightweight, consisting of 150 items, including camera, lenses and drawing equipment. I keep a concentrated daily journal, and have done for 20 years. This research is an extension of my work as an artist."
Haining camped in 69 different places this year, and was only once refused permission, due to the foot-and-mouth scare. His journey took him from Ballinskelligs to Allihies, to photograph the work of the naive painter Michael Sheehan. Then he headed to Cork City, to renew contact with John the Painter, a patient in Our Lady's Hospital, Cork, and Cork Community Artlink, which has done such significant work providing art facilities for psychiatric in-patients.
I introduced Haining to Paddy Grey, an elderly naive painter in Kinsale, and Tom Walsh, an artist based near Midleton who paints in the naive style.
Then Haining cycled up to Tipperary, where the artist Pat Looby has been a helpful collaborator. Next he went to Co Clare, and on to Achill Island to meet Joan Scanlon, a naive artist; to Castlebar to visit Deirdre Walsh, artist in residence at St Michael's Day Hospital; and then to Sligo.
The most dramatic discoveries that Haining made on his epic journey were also the most distressing: wholesale destruction of the work of recently deceased naive or folk artists.
"The trouble is that many of these artists are in their eighties and nineties and their families do not appreciate the significance of their work. Nobody seems to be aware of the high profile this sort of work has in other countries. Take the case of John Baker, near Ruan in Co Clare, who died in 1998 aged 93. He had produced hundreds of pieces of painted sculpture, including figures as diverse as Sammy Davis Jnr, the Pope, LBJ, Michael Collins and St Patrick. They were sited around his cottage. Recently, one of his sons bulldozed the lot. Luckily the artist Matt Black and I managed to salvage a significant amount of work owned by his other children."
Haining cites the decorated cottage as a special Catholic Irish tradition. There is a fine example by Larry O'Grady, who is now in his 80s, near Balymacarbry, Co Tipperary. But other projects have not survived: "Pat Looby told me about the cottage of Tommy Boland near Mullinahone, which was torched by vandals two years ago, after his death. Only a handful of photos survive."
True Outsiders in the academic sense are few and far between in any culture, and Ireland is no exception: "So far I have only discovered two genuine Outsiders: John the Painter and Moscow Joe McKinley of Carnlough, Co Antrim, a former milkman, son of a Catholic schoolmaster, who has turned his cottage on the Ballymena Road into an overwhelming art environment."
The archive covers a wider remit than pure Outsider Art: "It includes naive art - that is, naive painting and naive carving and the bog wood carving tradition. I've also looked at folk art sculpture, which is quite different from naive carving. And I have included decorated cottages, Outsider environments and various phenomena such as grottoes, holy wells and orange archways."
Haining has to distinguish between the naive and the amateur: "It is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the differences, but the amateur tends to refer directly to a naturalistic world, and is consciously seeking approval of the fine art establishment, whereas naive artists are usually looking back to periods in their own lives and that of their community, and is not interested in compromising their standards."
Among the naive artists whose work is recorded in the archive is the late Michael Sheehan from Allihies, who started painting at 77. His work survives largely because incomers to the Allihies community, including American Tony Lowes and artist Charlie Tyrrell, recognised the significance of his work.
John Bourke was a psychiatric patient in Limerick from the age of 17 until his late 60s, when he was put into care in the community. Both he and James Finley, a patient in Downshire Psychiatric Hospital, Downpatrick, used art to escape the routine of the psychiatric ward.
The title of the archive draws a distinction between contemporary folk art, and Outsider Art. While Outsider Artists generally reflect their own psyches, the folk artist tends to make very direct, decorative art.
The archive consists primarily of documentation, as Haining had no budget to make purchases. Catherine Marshall, head of collections at IMMA, says: "The Museum is in a transitional phase, and while we are fully supportive of Peter's research into Outsider and folk art, which urgently needed to be recorded, and we are happy to continue to store his archive, we cannot commit ourselves to anything more at the moment."
The American Museum of Folk Art in New York is about to open a new wing; the Museum of American Visionary Art recently opened in Baltimore, Maryland; the pages of the Outsider Art magazine Raw Vision advertise an astonishing number of American and European galleries of folk and Outsider Art. Yet Outsider and folk art have extremely low cultural profiles in Ireland. The archive, which is intended as a national resource, remains unfunded. Existing works of folk and Outsider Art are more likely to be thrown into a skip or bulldozed than preserved.
Peter Haining's next illustrated lecture is at 1 p.m. on Wednesday at the Niland and Model Arts Centre, Sligo. He can be contacted c/o The Archive of Contemporary Irish Folk and Outsider Art, the Collections Department, IMMA, Kilmainham, Dublin 8; or e-mail: email@example.com
The magazine Raw Vision can be seen on its website: www.rawvision.com
Alannah Hopkin is the author of the essay Outsider Art in the Southwest, published in the Lavit Review, Volume 1, 2001.