What the American Visionary Art Museum Reveals About Creativity

The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) is one of my favorite museums. Just below Federal Hill in Baltimore, it’s a collection of strange delights. The museum focuses on art “produced from self taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vison that revels foremost in the creative act itself.” From a six-foot-tall ball made of bras to small scrapbook pages, it’s weird, wonderful, and joyful. It’s also a place that breaks down assumptions on creativity that can benefit all of us.

No training required

In case you missed the quote above, none of the artists exhibited at AVAM learned their skills via school. One artist began because he wanted to impress a girl. In the middle of her apartment, he just picked up a brush to show off and he fell in love with painting.  Another artist made her work long after her daughter left the house. She transformed her hoarding into beautiful sculptures and collages.

I love these stories because they undermine the narratives so many of us hold about creativity. The narrative we hear is that if we want to be good we have to know at a certain age, usually as children or in our 20’s. We have to learn from others certain tools, certain techniques, certain ways of doing that will allow us to be creative. Each story becomes evidence discrediting that narrative. Since AVAM runs across multiple buildings with rotating exhibits, each artist shares a story that diverges from expectation.

It inspires me to embrace being different. So I didn’t start really getting into photography until my 20s? Whatever your journey, these artists show it’s never too late to start.

Everything is material

This kaleidoscope was made from CDs
This kaleidoscope was made from CDs

One of my favorite pieces in their collection is a replica of a boat, The Lusitania, made entirely out of toothpicks. Not only is it too scale but it’s also painted. I can’t imagine how many hours it took and the boat is exquisite. Before I saw that boat, I’d never thought of toothpicks as a material for art. Cleaning my teeth? Sure. But I would never imagine a boat made from toothpicks. But Wayne Kusy did just that.

Everyone is inspired by different things. I’ve seen portraits made with coffee and Christmas ornaments made from washi tape. Just because your materials may not be found at an art store doesn’t make you any less creative. In fact, it takes even more creativity to find inspiration in unlikely places. Use what you love, not what you’re told to use.

Creativity’s powerful benefits

One of the artist’s, Gerald Hawkes, used to be a printer. However, a mugging midlife left him disabled and unable to continue his work. It left him feeling both angry and helpless. He fought these emotions by creating meticulous sculptures made from matchsticks. It combined his love of both geometry and precision for beautiful works, including gorgeous wooden busts. Hawkes life shows that creativity isn’t just an indulgence. It helped him to thrive again.

It can also be a form of resistance. For instance, one of the Angola 3 Herman Wallace, found small ways to bring beauty into his life despite being in solitary confinement for over 20 years. In his narrow cell, he would make paper flowers using a meticulous process that could take hours. Despite having no windows, he brought nature back into his life. His story shows what a resource creativity ca be, regardless of your reality.

Creativity has been key for me to reframe my own experiences. Photography has helped me see my own body as beautiful. Gratitude lists have helped me stay positive even on my worst days. Creativity doesn’t make suffering worthwhile or perhaps any easier. It can help you see beyond one issue or perhaps reframe a problem as well.

AVAM mouth

The AVAM is a great museum, one that both kids and adults enjoy. It embraces weird and types of art that don’t fit neatly into other museums. Pieces can be experiential, or just feel like a mess that came out of someone’s thrift store. But that weirdness is key.

So often, we’re worried about fitting in. Is this piece good by society standards? Am I creative in the way I see other people being creative? We’re social creatures and need to belong. However, AVAM is a place that shows there’s a place for weirdness. There’s something amazing about being outside the box. And it can have powerful effects not only for the artist but also anyone else that gets to witness it.

Is there something that has shaped/defined your views on creativity? Share in a comment below!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *