The most respected website on the subject of Outsider Art and Poetry describes it as art created by those who create with mental illness, are self-trained, or create art and poetry that challenges cultural and academic norms. In the past it used to be referred to by more demeaning terms such as art brut, naive art, or primitive art. The term “Outsider ” was coined in 1972 by Roger Cardinal in in his book “Outsider Art.” It has been hoped that the development of more enlightened attitudes towards the mentally ill and marginalized among us would lead to better treatment in institutions and society at large, but there has, however, been an unfortunate trend to simply exploit outsider artists without addressing the larger issue of mental illness in our culture.
Thomas L. Vaultonburg is a poet who was diagnosed with Schizoid Personality Disorder at the age of sixteen. It is likely with modern diagnostic standards that he would now be diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, but at the time these still relatively rarely diagnosed. Using poetry as his mechanism to translate his inscrutable interior world to those around him, he created a language of metaphor and analogy to describe what it is like to have part of oneself become virtually inaccessible or untranslatable to others. In 2102 Vaultonburg published a book of poetry titled Submerged Structure that is a poetic memoir of what it is like to struggle with Schizoid Personality Disorder.
The title, Submerged Structure has a dual meaning, one, typically, is completely solipsistic. On Route 72 between the cities of Byron and Oregon, Illinois, there existed for many years a street sign that read Submerged Structure. The poet drove that stretch of road on occasion, and every time he saw that sign it occurred to him that having Schizoid Personality Disorder was very much like have a very integral part of one’s personality that had broken off, sunk to the bottom of a body of water, and was now inaccessible without taking extraordinary means. Every day was an effort to try and relate to others while having no immediate, innate, or instinctual (so to speak) native language or shared set of understood cues, facial and bodily expressions, and general sense of belonging to the same species. That is what personality disorders such as being on the Autism Spectrum feel like. Vaultonburg relates a story of how he would practice “being human” late at night in his room, mimicking the gestures, facial expressions, and postures of others, going so far as to go out late at night and practice walking.
The word “Outsider” rings true and holds meaning for many others besides the mentally ill. Those who did not have the luxury of formal art training. Those ostracized and marginalized by the culture, and those excluded from academic and professional inner circles all know what it is like to create in the shadow of the ivory tower.
The Gifted Program At Byron
Was two isolated makeshift cubicles
Shoved into one corner
Under a map of Antarctica where me
And Michael Robinson
Antarctica is the place where
Special people go,
Ms. Stieglitz said
We spent the year alternately
Being President, Vice President
Ultimately declaring anarchy
Though the mordent precision
Of our isolated orbit
Assured nothing would ever be
Out of place
They fed us Animal Farm,
Rice crispy treats,
All the loneliness the “special”
Among us deserve as they learned
To make more and more elaborate
Dunce caps out of papier mache
You designed something I can’t
Even pronounce, died last week
Maybe you’ve gone back to Antarctica
I hear they need an Ambassador
-Thomas L. Vaultonburg
While it is certainly true that schools and most teachers were not prepared to deal with students on the Autism spectrum in the early 1970’s, one wonders if things have gotten much better these days.
Submerged Structure is a book of Outsider Poetry published by Zombie Logic Press in 2012. The cover photograph was taken by Ryan Davis. The book deals with the complex issue of trying to communicate with others who do not suffer from a personality disorder.