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Willem Volkersz speaks Jan. 19 about folk art exhibition at SDAM

SDAM gallery - "Compelling Vision" and "Willem Volkersz: The View from Here | 25-Year Retrospective"
Foreground: Folk art works in "Compelling Vision: Selections from the Willem and Diane Volkersz Contemporary Folk Art Collection at the Missoula Art Museum." On the right: a glimpse into the gallery displaying "Willem Volkersz: The View from Here | 25-Year Retrospective."

Artist and contemporary folk art collector, Willem Volkersz, will speak from Bozeman, Montana, during a free Lunch & Learn hosted by the South Dakota Art Museum 11:45 a.m. – 1 p.m. Central time, Jan. 19. The public is invited to bring a lunch to the museum at 11:45 a.m. or participate via Zoom at 12:15 – 1 p.m. as Volkersz shares about the artists and their works in "Compelling Visions: Selections from the Willem and Diane Volkersz Contemporary Folk Art Collection at the Missoula Art Museum," on view at the South Dakota Art Museum through March 12.

Registration for the Zoom link is available at Participants who come to the museum may bring a sack lunch for dining and viewing the presentation in the gallery. The museum will supply beverages, plates and cutlery.

Compelling Visions: The Willem and Diane Volkersz Contemporary Folk Art Collection at the Missoula Art Museum

The Willem and Diane Volkersz Contemporary Folk Art Collection at the Missoula Art Museum is considered to be one of the most important folk and outsider art collections in the country. The works selected for this special exhibition at the South Dakota Art Museum each tell a unique story.

It is the storytelling or narrative aspects of the artwork that particularly appeal to the Volkersz. “Folk art is the development of these artists’ own unique format and imagery, and they have to tell a story,” Willem said. “It’s something in their lives that they’ve negatively experienced, such as a divorce or death. It gives them emphasis to start telling their story, and that is what we’ve really been interested in.”

Contemporary folk art, sometimes called “outsider” art, refers to artwork created by self-taught artists who work outside the mainstream art scene. The term was coined by the British art scholar Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for “art brut” (from a French phrase that translates as “raw art”), a term originated by the French painter Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the boundaries of official culture. While Dubuffet’s “art brut” referred specifically to artwork created by psychiatric hospital patients or children, Cardinal’s term applied generally to art created by self-taught artists who may never have been institutionalized but who nevertheless felt compelled, called, divinely inspired by God, or driven by inner voices to create artwork.

The history of folk or outsider art dates back to the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in the United States, when itinerant and self-taught painters travelled from town to town to paint portraits or “likenesses” of their early American sitters. By the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, however, there was a clear distinction between “folk” portraits and “fine art” portraits, the former being produced by self-taught artists and the latter being created by classically trained painters. In addition, there were other self-taught artists in the nineteenth century who carved scrimshaw, made weathervanes and whirligigs, carved and painted signs and figureheads, and who stitched samplers and pieced quilts.

Folk or outsider art continued to flourish in the rural parts of the United States during the first few decades of the twentieth century. In the 1930s, however, a number of exhibitions began to showcase the work of self-taught and outsider artists. Holger Cahill, interim director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the early 1930s, organized one of the first major exhibitions of American folk art in the United States. It was during this time that art collectors and wealthy patrons, such as Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and others, began to amass large collections of folk art that would eventually form the basis for some of the most significant folk art collections in this country, including the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

From the 1940s on, there emerged a large, identifiable group of self-taught artists who became notable and collectable outsider artists in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. They tended to live in rural parts of the United States and lacked formal education. Many were the sons and daughters of sharecroppers and former slaves. Most started their artistic careers late in life and often used inexpensive and ordinary material—whatever was available and handy—to create their artwork. Some of these artists experienced visions in which God or the angels told them to make art, while others carved, painted, or sewed to keep active or busy in retirement. Still others used their artwork to rail against the government or their neighbors. Artists like Rev. Howard Finster, Dilmus Hall, Nellie Mae Rowe, and Mary T. Smith would emerge at this time as important figures in the folk art movement and would eventually form some of the cornerstones of the Willem and Diane Volkersz Contemporary American Folk Art collection.

Willem and Diane Volkersz, live in Bozeman, Montana. They began to collect folk and outside art in the 1970s. The Volkersz’ met at the University of Washington in the 1960s where Willem was working on his B.A. degree in studio art. He became fascinated with Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles, and after he and Diane moved to Kansas City when he accepted a teaching position at the Kansas City Art Institute, they began to collect folk and outside art. From the late 1970s to the present, they have amassed one of the most important folk and outsider art collections in the country.

Willem Volkersz: The View from Here | A 25-Year Retrospective

Willem Volkersz’s own work is also on display through March 12 in Willem Volkersz: The View from Here | A 25-Year Retrospective. Volkersz’s work is deeply autobiographical, “idiosyncratic and unforgettable.” Volkersz spent his early life under Nazi occupation in the Netherlands and immigrated with his family to the U.S. in 1953. He was a pioneer in the use of neon in art and developed early and sustaining loves for photography, travel, American roadside culture, Pop Art, and Folk and Visionary Art. His life and practice are steeped in “a graceful joy in human complexity” that relishes directness, innovation, and wonder.

The museum will host a public reception on Feb. 25 for “The View from Here” including an in-person artist talk by Volkersz.

Details for the Jan. 19 and Feb. 25 events and the associated exhibitions are available on the museum’s website:

About the South Dakota Art Museum

South Dakota Art Museum is located at 1036 Medary Avenue in Brookings and is open Monday through Saturday except for upcoming holiday closures: Martin Luther King Day (Jan. 17) and Presidents’ Day (Feb. 21). Admission to the museum is free. Parking is also free in the museum’s reserved lot just west of the museum on Harvey Dunn Street. For more information, call 605-688-5423, email or visit