04. A03.

Media & Society

Outsider Art

Dr Sushie Dobbinson and Andy Lucas are a forensic Speech and Language Therapist and forensic Occupational Therapist respectively. Together they put together Streamlines, now in its 13th edition, a quarterly magazine for their patients at the medium secure psychiatric hospital in Hull where they both work. They work collaboratively with their patients to produce the content. Having a forum for their expressive endeavours helps the patients’ motivation, improves their self-esteem and gives them an incentive to tap into their creativity by giving them an opportunity to develop more functional ways of expressing themselves. The patient contributors include people with learning disabilities, Schizophrenia and personality disorders. Some of them have been in prison or secure care for their whole adult lives. Sushie worked as a lecturer at York St John University in the Language Studies department from 1997-2003, and Andy completed his clinical qualification there, from 1986-1989.


Outsider art first turned up as a term in the 1970s but was really a rediscovery of Art Brut (‘raw art) which appeared around 100 years ago and was used in relation to the work of untutored artists, particularly psychiatric patients or children. The naïve quality of the art was seen as a fresh alternative to the technically proficient but perhaps somewhat tired art that had come to characterise that of the establishment. For a time, outsider art got a firm grip on the collective imagination. Technical expertise was no longer the focus, but rather the concepts or message.

Outsider Art

Outsider art represented a shift of perspective from the conventional themes previously addressed to a whole raft of concepts that no one had thought about exploring before: the everyday preoccupations of the mentally ill and the imaginings of children. The shift into the spotlight made what was to its producers mundane and privately expressed, seem suddenly exotic and interesting. Unfortunately, an inherent contradiction in the movement quickly became apparent. Early victims of the Observer’s Paradox, the non-artist artists were defused by the attention. Once their work found exposure and they started being thought of as artists, they became establishment accepted insiders instead. And the work stopped being interesting to collectors because, somehow in the handling of it, the exotic provenance just simply evaporated.

Outsider Art

The kind of stuff Humber Centre patients produce is rarely like the work that impressed the early outside art collectors. They liked complex detailed drawings often accompanied by skeins of writing that cut a viewing porthole into the mental flights and whirlings of disassociation. What we refer to as systems of belief. For example, a person with schizophrenia often makes odd associations between colours and events. One of my earliest experiences with such a system had me trying to untangle a detailed colour coding of people, who could be light blue, white or yellow depending on who was “on top” and who “had a hook” between their eyes, the entire composite of which was termed “the egg”.

Outsider Art

I still haven’t figured that lot out. But its consistency had a kind of beautiful rhythm, was endlessly intriguing, to my jaded consciousness at least, and had given its owner a way of negotiating the lonesome swamp of unnamed feelings, dangerous thoughts and random experiences that framed his world. He once told me that he had set a fire because he was burning inside. Arson is obviously not a positive thing but I had never before seen it as an act of poetry. I thought that only happened in films.

Just as the art we use in Streamlines isn’t really outsider art, nor are the people who make it anything like last century’s non-artist artists. Today, as we routinely measure our self-worth in Facebook likes, almost everyone has a fantasy of having their talents discovered. Bloggers, tweeters, open mic enthusiasts, it’s almost our favourite story, told a gzillion times a day. But the idea of discovering a hidden gem of anything in the permawash of wholesale personal fantasy building is probably more remote now than ever before. Even our pets are out showcasing their best moves to an audience of however many they can get. Princess the Hypnodog is scooping the love while a million talents wallow undiscovered at the bottom of the hit pile.

The psychiatric patients who make Streamlines may have delusions, odd beliefs and a variety of skewed interpretations of the world and its funny ways, but are not immune to the prevailing fantasy. This is one of the predictable exchanges that pepper my days:

“So – what do you want to write?”

“I want to tell people about my life. What goes on in my head, in places like this. No one’ll believe it! It’ll be a best seller.”

Outsider Art

Nowadays though, psychosis has lost its mystique. Now we know better what it is and how to treat it and medicate more effectively, when it does appear, for the most par it’s brought under control relatively quickly. Modern antipsychotics keep everyone much safer, patients included, with the concomitant cost of reducing the flight of ideas. Nor do we try and bamboozle people with Schizophrenia with promises of recognition and fame so they can take us to the outposts of interior landscapes of strangeness anymore. Instead we paddle around in the shallow end of eccentricity, marvelling, guffawing and emoting to reality TV, Britain’s Got Talent, Kyle et al.

The outsiders I work with create unusually. It’s not their native reflex. An awful lot of them have missed developmental norms, like playing, or talking without needing to shout. Art is about as distant to them as owning the Kardashians’ handbag wardrobe is to me. The patients’ work is more like pre-art – the stuff that emerges when experience mutes into a narrative, using a medium more or less unexplored by its producer up to that point. Often it’s incomplete, half-formed. It’s rare that patients will have the focus to edit or finesse. The ideas can be extraordinary nevertheless. I’ve edited stories about a spaceship made out of bees, a train crash that implicated Cliff Richard, and a nativity where the donkey was the only sympathetic character.

There must be a few things in place before this pre-art can happen.

Outsider Art

Firstly, distance, psychological and temporal, from the dark matter at source – the inspiration, if you like but without the celestial overtone. God is not a big player in the patients’ early days stories. Sometimes crops up later, sometimes actually as the patient (Hello Sushie-mum, I’m Buddha – no you’re not, you’re Desmond – yes I am Sushie-mum I’m Krishna – yes but you’re Desmond as well. And I’m not your mum. Everyone is just one person, no one is a supreme being and none of us are related). Esteem. For yourself. To feel like you have things worth expressing. Expression entails a belief that someone will pay attention, a radical presumption for an outsider, so that can be a journey in itself. And finally, intent. To shape into something new the things that have made you. Twisted your tree, as it were. Circle of life stuff.

I’m not clear where Cliff Richard fits in but I guess he did inspire millions.
Therapeutically you will have made massive strides to maintain all three of those to produce any kind of oeuvre. Most likely, the patients work for a bit, produce some interesting, engaging pieces, then drift off.

Outsider Art

When people with Schizophrenia start to work creatively it can be momentarily amazing; striking, free, utterly unique. As their mental health get better, there’s a contraction and a shrivelling. The metaphors lose resonance, the forms become diffuse, the ideas straitened. Self-consciousness takes over and ruins the wildness. As if there’s no place for beautiful, interesting uniqueness in wellness. The patients’ art is like a difficult third album. Have they run out of things to say? Was it a one-time only message? Are they still in there somewhere, underneath the dopamine inhibitors, those unformed pre-art cracklings?
I don’t pretend to know what any of it means.

So. Here’s some of the non-art art. It’s by people who are outsiders, now stuck inside. We find they can’t really cope with the outside, nor the outside with them. It will probably always be a troubled and troubling relationship.