Old coots can make good art.
This is a North American thing, it seems. Venerable Europeans are never called old coots. They’re “senior artists” or “distinguished.” If rich and famous, they’re masters.
But Jim Bishop and M.T. Liggett are just plain old coots and damn proud of it. We discover this quickly enough in the first episode of Vision TV’s neat little art-centric series Driven By Vision (Wed. at 10 p.m.) in its second season.
Bishop, out there with his castle in Pueblo, Colo., “didn’t like school,” he snarls. He “don’t like the system.” Why, that George W. Bush should be tried “for war crimes,” he adds.
But old M.T. makes Bishop sound like Mary Poppins. “If you’re a politician,” Liggett snaps as he drives around one of his spreads in Mullinville, Kan., “if you’re a good friend or not, I’m comin’ to get you.” M.T.’s view of Bush isn’t all that positive, either. George W. sure isn’t “the sharpest knife in the drawer,” says M.T.
This is great fun, of course. Listen long enough to either of the self-made sculptors and builders, you find yourself saying “tarnation” while wanting to hear a little George Jones on the box. But their artistry doesn’t stop with being cranky. There’s more Braque than bite in these codgers.
“Bishop’s Castle,” nearly 50 metres high in parts, was kickstarted in 1959 when Bishop bought a hectare of land with $1,250 he’d saved up. He was only 15 years old but had a vision. The little stone family house he built on the land in 1969 expanded year after year almost entirely through his own sweat and sinew. The death on the site years ago of one of his two sons, Roy, seems to have soured the Castle experience for the rest of the family. Bishop’s wife now stays in Pueblo where he’s in the ornamental iron metal business.
Liggett, a feisty 76 years old at the time his Vision segment was taped last year, travelled the world before settling down in Mullinville. Its entire population – we’re talking some 250 folks – figures he’s out to get each and every one of them. They’re likely right.
Liggett’s crudely charming metal whirligigs, perched like curious cranes alongside local roadways, caricature a lot of the locals and other people Liggett has met over the years, particularly women. He shows off a metal thingee titled “Mary.” “Ran the fanciest bawdy house in all of China,” he remembers fondly.
While working on another female form, he’s asked, “Where are the breasts going to go?”
“Where the hell do you think they’re going to go?” Liggett shoots back.
Both Bishop and Liggett know there’s aesthetic merit in what they’re doing. For all their go-it-alone stubbornness, they realize that attention is increasingly being given to outsider artists, although the idea goes back a ways.
“Art Brut,” the term coined by Jean Dubuffet in the ’20s, helped define a kind of artwork made “outside convention and received ideas,” as the French artist and collector explained.
“British Outsider Art,” a major show at Halle Saint Pierre in Paris this summer, included work by William Kurelek, long considered to be very much part of mainstream Canadian painting. At least three museums devoted to outsider art have appeared in recent years in Texas, Wisconsin and Maryland. The British-based journal Raw Vision has emerged as outsider art’s Rolling Stone.
Indeed, it was an exhibition by American outsider artist Emery Blagdon that prompted Judy Holm and Michael McNamara, the Toronto producing couple behind Markham Street Films, to create the Driven By Vision series.
Some artists interviewed know that their brief moment on Driven By Vision may be the only lasting record of their achievements. “Their environments are often ephemeral and fragile,” McNamara says. “People build with vision, but they’re not always engineers. Their places may not last forever.”
Well, except for Bishop’s castle. In architectural terms, the structure is the American equivalent of the kind of neo-gothic vision of building inflicted on 19th-century France by architect/theorist Eugène Viollet-le Duc. “A little slice of Lord of the Rings” had been a more populist take on Bishop’s Castle.
But it’s not going away anywhere soon. “The heavier it gets,” says Bishop, “the stronger it gets.” So he keeps building away.