Honest and Unrefined: Art Outside the Academy

Haas Center for Performing Arts Gallery, Allendale Campus
August 27, 2021 - November 5, 2021
Opening Reception: September 30th, 2021, 5:00 PM - 8:00 PM

Monday - 10am-5pm
Tuesday - 10am-5pm
Wednesday - 10am-5pm
Thursday - 10am-7pm
Friday - 10am-5pm

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Artists that live on the margins and reject the constraints of the art world have always been difficult to categorize. Their appeal resides in how they ignore convention and experiment with materials to produce authentic, challenging, and inspiring works of art. In 2005, the Grand Valley State University Art Gallery hosted Raw Art: Division Avenue Artists. The exhibition took a candid look at a local group of mostly self-taught artists who lived and worked in the Heartside neighborhood of downtown Grand Rapids. Since then, Grand Valley has committed to acquire art from outside the mainstream and incorporate it into its collection.

Sixteen years later, Honest and Unrefined: Art Outside the Academy dives deeper into the realm of art that includes self-taught, folk, outsider, raw, visionary, and naïve artists. Drawn from GVSU’s collection, as well as collectors from around West Michigan, this exhibition brings together significant and compelling works of art from across the country. This work often includes bright colors, repetitive patterns, and found materials crafted in unconventional ways. And these artists are driven by a desire to create or communicate a deeply personal and sometimes provocative message.



reb roberts interview

Guest Curator, Reb Roberts, discusses self-taught art in West Michigan. For the full-length video visit our YouTube channel.

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no dumpinp

Photograph of Handmade Sign, 2021




From the curator...

“no impression without expression” – William James

Growing up in New Orleans I was constantly impressed. The streets were full of handmade signs proclaiming the reddest tomatoes, the only savior, the freshest shrimp, and on and on. There were parades and handmade costumes and music on the corners. Everyday people making everyday excitement. Expressing themselves through the language of the streets and putting it on the streets.

As I began to travel to other parts of the country and the world I recognized those expressions throughout communities. There were disneylands made in front yards and houses made from kitchen sinks and beer cans. There were paintings on the sides of rural highways that looked like some kind of cow, dog, alien love child. There were grottos dedicated to the sacred and the sacrilegious.

I realized that the tribe that created things in New Orleans had tribal members everywhere. They are the folk artists they are impressive.

by Reb

Reb Roberts

(American, 1954-)

Reb Roberts is an artist, educator, and collaborator who remains active and involved in the Grand Rapids community and local art scene. Born and raised in New Orleans, Reb arrived in West Michigan in 1972 and enrolled at Grand Valley’s William James College. He spent over 20 years working in early childhood education, a passion that continues to this day through partnerships and artist residencies. In the mid-1990’s Reb began to intentionally focus on creating art, and increasingly, works in public spaces. Then, in 1999 he and his wife, Carmella Loftis opened The Sanctuary Folk Art Gallery in the Heartside neighborhood of downtown Grand Rapids. For 18 years, their space was a hub for artists and art that embraced authenticity, inspiration, and collaboration.

“My paintings and sculptures are both complimentary and contrary to nature. They are not always within the realm of being normal. We should be suspicious of anything that is normal.”

Passionate about art and its power, Reb’s distinctive painting style is found in many public and private collections as well as in various urban settings. He spontaneously creates a style of visual and verbal graffiti using any combination of house paint, cardboard, paper, wood, metal, and other found materials.

Reb Roberts in front of Sanctuary Art Gallery

Reb Roberts outside The Sanctuary Folk Art Gallery, ca. 2010

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A quick-reference guide to the exhibition themes as well as discussion prompts for educators to incorporate into their teaching.

A list of books, articles, and other media related to the exhibition available from the GVSU Libraries in a variety of formats including print and digital.


Events, both in-person and virtual, related to this exhibition and others.

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What is Outsider Art?

Outsider Art has become a catchall phrase for everything that appears to be raw, irrational, and unschooled in the art world. Historically it is tied to the term Art Brut or Raw Art, coined by the French critic and artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) in the mid-20th century. Dubuffet became interested in art primarily created by patients in psychiatric hospitals and prisons, as well as those on the fringes of society. He believed this work emerged from “solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses,” immune to the influences of mainstream culture.

In 1972, art historian Roger Cardinal created the term Outsider Art as an English equivalent to Dubuffet’s term and as a more flexible and comprehensive way to describe this growing field of study. Since then, appreciation for this work and artists has grown, as the terminology has increasingly become more complex. Additional terms such as self-taught, folk, naïve, and visionary have been added and exchanged, primarily by art institutions and individuals in power. Art fairs, galleries, and publications have also become dedicated to this field, yet the terminology remains cast in ways that can often marginalize and exclude. As interest continues to grow, how can we engage, support, and collect Outsider Art?

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gallery view of Honest and Unrefined exhibition
gallery view of Honest and Unrefined exhibition
gallery view of Honest and Unrefined exhibition
gallery view of Honest and Unrefined exhibition
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Beyond Boundaries – Storytelling & Materials

Artists whose work falls outside the academy fascinate us with their expressive nature and creative use of materials. Perhaps unconsciously it reminds us of a time when we were young and created art with minimal constraints and direction, and with inexpensive and household materials. Through creative narratives and construction, their work moves beyond the boundaries of traditional art.

The style of these artist’s work often issues out of deep necessity in their life. It can relay personal trauma, expression of identity, religious zeal, or the inspiration of the everyday. Some create work with an audience in mind and aesthetic inclinations, while others create primarily for themselves and with little stylistic or cultural influence. Regardless of approach, one central element to their art is the way each artist communicates their story, often through a very personal and sometimes provocative message.

Many of these artists also live or have lived on the margins of society. The high cost of traditional art materials can be prohibitive, and as a result, they often choose to work with found materials. Others are attracted to the lack of constraints governing materials, which further cements unusual material use as a common thread amongst artists outside the academy. It presents itself as a solution to those who cannot afford traditional art supplies, and the lack of constraint beckons to others.

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Interview with art collectors Judy Hayner and Char Romanosky

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For special accommodation, please call:
(616) 331-3638

For exhibition details and media inquires, please email:
Joel Zwart, Curator of Exhibitions
[email protected]

For learning and engagement opportunities, please email [email protected].

Proud Participant

August 27, 2021 - November 5, 2021

Haas Center for Performing Arts Gallery
Haas Center for Performing Arts, Allendale Campus
1 Campus Dr.
Allendale, MI 49401

Page last modified January 30, 2024