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Instead of calling myself a woodworker, I am now considering the title “outsider artist.”

Now before you stop reading this entry and resume watching videos of funny monkeys, hear me out for a bit. Whenever I’m at a dinner party with strangers and they find out I’m a woodworker, there is usually one of two reactions.

1. They ask if I could please come over to their house this weekend to build them a new closet, kitchen island, deck or addition to their home.

2. They ask if I enjoy my job at the mall scrollsawing letters all day to make plaques for kids’ rooms.

I have tried to explain how I design and build furniture, but I might as well be telling them that I make scented candles from reclaimed earwax. They don’t understand why anyone would make something (furniture) that is so cheaply available from Ikea.

But on Thursday, I had a revelation.

That’s when our family took a quick trip to New York City and paid a visit to the American Folk Art Museum. Ever since Lucy and I visited Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens in 1990, we’ve filled our house (and basement and attic) with this sort of stuff. The academics call it “outsider art,” and the typical outsider artist is:

1. Completely self-taught
2. Driven by an unchecked passion to make things (Finster made 46,000 pieces in his lifetime)
3. Sometimes reluctant to sell his or her work
4. A little bit nuts

While I was wandering around the American Folk Art Museum, I began to get a very weird feeling in the pit of my stomach. In the museum’s “Folk Art Revealed” exhibit, which runs through Oct. 18, one wall features a number of typical Shaker oval boxes. Two steps away, there is a small chest that is obviously a product of Pennsylvania’s German community that features a couple painted figures on horses.

Then you turn around and there is a chest of drawers that is grain painted to look like it is made out of mahogany. To your right is a stepback cupboard filled with homemade pottery.

Downstairs is an exhibit devoted to Ulysses Davis, a Georgia barber who liked to carve things and then display his works in his shop. He produced an entire collection of carved busts of the presidents. It’s nice work.

It’s then that I realized that most of us qualify as outsider artists. We’re self-taught, driven to make things from wood for ourselves and, yes, a little bit cracked for doing so.

So stop bathing, let your hair grow long and get yourself a beard (or grow out that armpit hair). Speak in circular riddles.

No one will ever ask you to build them a deck again.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 4 comments
  • Charles Davis

    Alex, a circular riddle is more for the novice Outsider Artists such as myself. I believe as you get more hairy and stinkier over the years you reach more of an enigma level and your riddles are difficult for anyone to even find, much less solve… I believe Chris may have reached this level and it’s probably too late to attempt to peel back the layers of the onion that he is…. he’s just too deep an onion at this point.

    Chris, That’s so funny that you work with reclaimed earwax as well. I make earwax sculptures of ears… I’m on my irony layer of my onion.

  • ReyVindiko

    The problem is that the artist must show his creations to be happy and, then, the people think that you try to selling your work.
    Here, in Spain, there is a big difference between ebanista and carpintero: the first is nearer to an artist and the second to a worker (cheaper).

    Sorry for my english

  • Alex Grigoriev

    I see you’ve got at least two items already from your short list. But I didn’t find any circular riddle here.

  • Mike Siemsen

    Thanks Chris, Outsider Artist— I had already done all of the things you describe except the title change. No longer am I a woodworker, I am an outsider artist! No longer will I be asked to do carpenter work!

    "Excuse me sir, You’re an "Outside Artist"? Do you work outside? Do you work naked or what? Oh! You make things from wood outside because you driven with a passion for making things. If you bathed more often I would have some inside work for you building a closet but since you smell so bad could you make me a deck???? I would supply the wood and pay you $40.

    There is no escape!

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