Asylum to Artiste: Inspiration from Social Outcasts


Writing, for me, is painfully slow.

Gone are the days I would sit down, spill my thoughts onto the page and emerge with something that sang with poetry. Something never to be published. Never to be read by another. But something that released an inner joy. And made my heart feel light.

I’d forgotten that passion when I stepped into the L’Art Brut gallery in Lausanne. A life-sized timber horse, commanded the floor, and colourful canvasses looked on from every wall. Grave human likenesses and traced cartoon figures. Intricately detailed cityscapes and crazed smears.

In 1945, French painter Jean Dubuffet began collecting artwork. In a quest to free art from social conditioning, he focussed on works by individuals with no academic background. Loners, prisoners and inmates of psychiatric hospitals. The artists had drawn only from their own experience, and with no desire for attention, or regard for judgement, their sole purpose had been to create. In 1971, Dubuffet donated his collection to the City of Lausanne, and in 1976 L’Art Brut was born.

Norimitsu Kokubo was diagnosed pervasive developmental disorder and sent to a school for the disabled. It was there his talents were recognised and his pieces started to appear in numerous exhibitions

I stepped away from the unnerving works of an obviously troubled artist, my eyes falling on a mess of random scrawl. Gentle swirls, and haphazard shapes, neither attractive nor ugly. Just a silent story unravelling from the artist’s brush. The plot made no sense, yet I found myself tangled in the artist’s mind.

In contrast to my own blank pages, this intricate creation had emerged from something. Had it been grand vision, or simple evolution? From the depths of the artist’s mind . . . or from deep in his soul?

It was the large woollen cocoons created by deaf mute, Judith Scott, which highlighted how simple art could be. Born with Downs Syndrome, Scott spent thirty-five years in an institution before being taken in by her sister. She then began stealing everyday items and entwining them in wool. Fans, magazines, umbrellas. Bound together. Wrapped. Woven. Protected until they were completely concealed. Her pieces were unique, reflecting nothing of traditional weaving or knitting. They were perhaps her only means of personal expression. And they were raw, pure art.

Complex Mechanical Sculpture by Emile Ratier and Woolen cocoon by Judith Scott

Writing is my art, yet I no longer allow my raw, pure ideas to flow, despite having the means. Instead I wrap my words in a fear of judgement, obsess about making my work ‘worthwhile’, and become overwhelmed by a quest for non-existent perfection. I spend more time staring at a blank page than filling it with words.

Beyond the hubbub of the main gallery, the works of Henriette Zéphir stilled my thoughts. Her soft flowing lines ebbed and flowed, like the silence surrounding them. They grew, then faded in the shadows of a thousand tiny pen strokes. Zéphir began drawing in 1961, urged to create by a ‘presence’ at her side. She continued until her death more than fifty years later, always refusing to acknowledge herself as the author of her works, crediting instead the spirit guides who had ‘led’ her hands.

Works by Henriette Zéphir

Zéphir wasn’t the only artist to claim divine intervention. Unseen forces were said to be the motivation behind several L’Art Brut artists. And from the delicate drawings and stunning symmetries it’s easy to believe they were.

But what if we all possess a divine gift? An unseen force to guide our hand . . . if only we allowed it? What if we went beyond our minds, and looked into our souls? Tuned in to our own intuition and followed it?

Emile Ratier embraced his blindness, creating elaborate mechanical sculptures which moved and creaked, and allowed him to experience his own art on its completion. Clément Fraisse used his two years in solitary confinement, and the handle of a chamber pot, to sculpt shapes into his cell wall.

The wall of Clément Fraisse’s solitary confinement cell where he spent 2 years after using his family’s life savings to set the family home on fire

But it was on a page of biro scribble that the inspiration stopped.

The artist was unremarkable. He had suffered no childhood trauma and spent no time in hospitals. His blue inky scrawls reflected the margins of my own notebooks. Thick, jagged lines of frustration, born, absent-mindedly from the boredom of meetings or lengthy phone calls. For a moment I wondered, how this rubbish had landed in this inspirational gallery.

Only it wasn’t rubbish . . .

. . . and this wasn’t a typical gallery. The intent had not been to showcase beauty . . . or talent . . . or fame. It had been to exhibit the simplicity of human expression . . . and to free art from the exact social constraints I had subscribed to.

. . . the exact social constrains my own art had fallen victim to.

In a modern world, obsessed with public image, our unique voices are often repressed by our quest for social acceptance. For perfection. And a pressure to conform. But perhaps we can all learn something from the loners, and those once written off as ‘lunatics’ in this world.

Justine Python went from silent withdrawal to writing to dense letters of protestation after being committed to psychiatric hospital

Relevance to my own flailing art peaked in the final gallery, dedicated to words. To individuals who ignored the rules of language. Whose words strayed so far from convention, they chilled me to my perfectionist core. Japanese figures, transposed studiously onto discarded calendars. Dense words of protestation covering entire sheets. Beautiful calligraphy and crazed scrawl, all striving, not for perfection, but simply expression.

I’m yet to move past my quest for ‘perfection.’ This post didn’t roll off my fingers as I’d hoped it would, and it hasn’t left my heart feeling light. But L’Art Brut has inspired me to focus on letting go. To forget purpose from time to time, and write for fun. To follow my intuition. Write badly. Screw up and start again . . .

. . . And to create in the absence of judgement.

* Photos sourced from Check out their website for the entire L’Art Brut collection.

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