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10 Contemporary Outsider Artists Everyone Should Know

When one thinks of outsider art, the work of Henry Darger, Martin Ramirez, and Bill Traylor immediately comes to mind. Celebrated masters of medium, they are, however, all long dead. With the Outsider Art Fair returning to New York for its 21st year — under the new ownership of Andrew Edlin, and in a new location in the heart of Chelsea — we decided to comb the fair for self-taught artists who are still kicking. From former pot washers, cotton pickers, and gravediggers to protégés and political activists, the growing number of active outsider artists continues to keep this fragile art form vital today.

Aurie Ramirez, Untitled, n.d. Courtesy Creative Growth Art Center, Oakland

Inspired by the offbeat characters on the 1960s TV series The Addams Family and the costumed rock band KISS, self-taught artist Aurie Ramirez makes colorful watercolors that capture a fantasy world inhabited by eccentric people in theatrical getups. Born in the Philippines in 1962, Ramirez is one of many standout artists working with the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, CA.

Gregory Blackstock, Mosquitoes, 2013. Courtesy Garde-Rail Gallery, Austin

An autistic savant, Gregory Blackstock spent more than 25 years washing pots at the Washington Athletic Club (WAC) in Seattle. In 1986, he started making drawings for the WAC monthly newsletter and when he retired 15 years later a relative helped him find a gallery to show his growing body of work. Obsessed with manmade objects and all sorts of living things, Blackstock makes categorical drawings that confidently organize his varied interests in meticulous yet charming ways.

Tomoyuki Shinki, Untitled, n.d. Courtesy Yukiko Koide Presents, Tokyo

Fascinated with combat sports, Japanese outsider artist Tomoyuki Shinki makes paintings and drawings portraying the muscular movement of wrestlers, boxers, and judo masters. A member of Osaka’s Atelier Incurve — a creative center for artists with intellectual impairment — Shinki uses line and color to abstract his subjects and then distorts them further with computer technologies before realizing his twisted athletes in their final form.

JJ Cromer, Justice of the Peace, 2012. Courtesy American Primitive Gallery, New York

A former librarian, JJ Cromer only starting drawing after he got married, but it soon became an obsession. Raised on a farm in rural Virginia in the 1970s to parents that were both science teachers, Cromer grew up around the family’s collection of rocks, bugs, plants, and animals — all subjects that have since found their way into his detailed drawings and expressive paintings.

Vahakn Arslanian, Classic Russian Airlines, 2007-2010. Courtesy the artist and Vito Schnabel, New York

The Belgium-born and New York-based self-taught artist Vahakn Arslanian is best known for his work with found windows, which become frames for his poetic drawings of airplanes, candles, products, and birds. A protégé of Julian Schnabel — whom he met at age five and proceeded to help smash plates for the elder artist’s most notable paintings — Arslanian has exhibited worldwide and is now represented by Schnabel’s gregarious son Vito.

John Byam, Untitled, Man in Bed on Wheels, n.d. Courtesy Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York

John Byam grew up in upstate New York, where he worked as a water boy for the railroad, served in the Korean War, worked in a trailer park, and was a grave digger at a nearby cemetery. Rarely exhibited, Byam has been making drawings and funky wooden sculptures of such everyday objects as cameras, bicycles, rocking chairs, cars, and helicopters for more than 50 years.

Winfred Rembert, Cotton Rows #3, 2004. Courtesy Kinz + Tillou Fine Art, New York

A cotton and peanut picker as a child and young adult in Georgia, Winfred Rembert was arrested during Civil Rights protests, nearly lynched, and jailed for seven years before escaping the oppressive South by moving to Connecticut in 1975. At age 52, he started making colorful tooled and dyed leather works that visualize his memories and recall his youth.

Michael Patterson-Carver, The Grim Reaper, 2007. Courtesy Laurel Gitlen, New York and Sorry We’re Closed, Brussels

Born in Chicago in 1958, Michael Patterson-Carver was given to adoptive parents by his mother, who was a heroin addict, when he was five years old. One of his earliest childhood memories was attending an African-American church during the Civil Rights struggles. When the self-taught artist started making work, he drew upon that experience and has made art about social injustices and political activism ever since. His colorful drawings have been exhibited worldwide and in 2008 he was the recipient of the Altoids Award and an exhibition at the New Museum in New York.

Roger Ballen, Blindness, n.d. Courtesy Galerie Bourbon-Lally, Haiti

Working as a geologist and mining prospector in South Africa in the 1970s and ’80s, Roger Ballen started making black-and-white photographs of the rural inhabitants that he encountered on the fringes of society. Capturing the dark side of life, the self-taught photographer stages his pictures to reflect the social unconscious. The subject of numerous international exhibitions and several books, Ballen recently directed the music video for “I Fink U Freeky” by South African hip-hop trio Die Antwoord.

Timothy Wehrle, Guitar Manifestations, 2011. Courtesy Cavin-Morris Gallery, New York

Born in Iowa in 1978, Timothy Wehrle chose not to pursue artistic training for fear of it corrupting his pure creative vision. Patterned and intricate, his colorful drawings are influenced by Persian miniatures, Tibetan mandalas, and folk art quilting and patchwork. Exhibiting since 2003, the self-taught artist has a growing group of followers, including the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, WI, which recently showed 35 of his works in a solo exhibition.