Ever wonder where great ideas — truly inspired ideas that transport and transform the people who have them and their worlds — come from? Great ideas and the unusual visionaries who dream them up are the subject of a new exhibition that opened Oct. 4 at the American Visionary Art Museum.
Described by AVAM’s founder and director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger as a show about life’s “Aha!” and “Eureka!” moments, “The Visionary Experience, Saint Francis to Finster,” includes the work of self-taught artists, inventors, architects, scientists, saints and spiritual leaders of different races, ethnicities, socioeconomic levels and faith traditions who all share the experience of being struck by “some lightning bolt of greater understanding, insight, grace and muse” that inspired their uncommon and majestic creations.
The exhibition, curated by Hoffberger with filmmaker and publisher Jodi Wille, also explores why some human beings are blessed with supernatural capacities for insight and understanding, unusual powers of intuition and the ability to access a degree of spiritual connectedness that for most people remains out of reach.
A tour of “The Visionary Experience” begins before one crosses the threshold of the museum. The building itself, adorned with a 1,920-square-foot mirror-and-glass mosaic, is a work of art designed and installed with the help of at-risk and incarcerated youth trained by community artists. The project began in 2000, and its third phase, supervised by artist Mari Gardner, was completed just in time for the exhibition opening.
Hoffberger said the museum campus, which also includes two sculpture plazas, a wildflower garden, the Leroy E. Hoffberger Speaker’s Corner, the LOVE Sculpture Barn, and an outdoor movie theater, was conceived as a place that should always be open to the public.
“If you come at 3 a.m., you can still hug an egg,” she said, referring to Andrew Logan’s “Cosmic Galaxy Egg” installed outside. As part of the new exhibition, visitors who arrive after closing time can also see visionary artist and classic car collector Steve Heller’s “Stargate,” made entirely of automobile parts.
Upon entering the museum, visitors will see local artist, author, radio host, political activist and one of America’s foremost symbolic muralists, Robert Richard Hieronimus’ painting, “Historic Views of Baltimore, 1752-1858,” a 24-by-4-foot, three-paneled panoramic view of the Baltimore Harbor. The work explores what inspired the founding fathers to conceive of their new country.
The exhibit also focuses on the phenomena of near-death and out-of-body experiences.
“Close encounters with death are often life-changing experiences, common to visionaries,” noted Hoffberger. For example, “Visionary Experience” artist Jason Padgett became a gifted mathematician, physicist and illustrator after a mugging in which he was repeatedly kicked in the head. Artist Maja D’Aoust had her first supernatural experience when she was extremely ill as a 2-year-old, and painter Norbert Kox had his life-changing spiritual awakening after a drug overdose.
The Rev. Howard Finster, a Baptist minister and jack of all trades, was born in Alabama in 1915 (or 1916.) Recognized as America’s most prolific artist, Finster is said to have experienced his first vision at the age of 3, when he saw his late sister, Abbie Rose, descend a staircase from the heavens. She said, “Howard, you’re going to be a man of visions.”
“The Visionary Experience,” said Hoffberger, is dedicated to the centennial celebration of Finster’s birth.
Although his visions began early in life, Finster did not begin painting until age 60, when he heard God speak to him. Before his death in 2001, Finster created 46,000 numbered works; was the creator of Paradise Garden, a folk art sculpture garden in Georgia; illustrated album covers for rock groups REM and Talking Heads and even appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.
Astral Eyes, born James Weigel, whose piece “Mumbojumbo” appears in the show, heard voices and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was fortunate to be homeschooled by his mother, who also heard voices and was able to provide guidance for her son as he learned to manage, and to flourish artistically, despite (or possibly because of) his psychiatric symptoms. Born in 1976, Astral Eyes has enjoyed a successful career as an artist of record album covers and as a clothing designer.
Several paintings by visionary artist and psychic Ingo Swann, a “pioneer in the field of remote viewing” and co-creator of Stanford Research Institute of Remote Viewing and the CIA Stargate Project, is also on display. Swann said his first out-of-body experience occurred during a tonsillectomy at age 3. His work has been shown in the Pan Am Building in New York City and is on permanent display at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
The stories of these artists raise one of the exhibition’s most interesting questions: Are some visionaries mentally ill, or are they instead just more in touch with alternate states of consciousness? The curators conclude that there are no boundaries to what the mind can access, if the thinker is receptive.
For additional information, visit avam.org.