Visionary Arts Museum Shows "Wind in My Hair"

by Sindhu Tharayil

We are all familiar with the works of Van Gogh, Michelangelo and Monet. These great artists are thought to be the great visionaries of their time. But what is a true visionary? Could people such as Vollis Simpson, Leslie Payne and Ron Colt Snow be the true visionaries of our time?
According to Rebecca Hoffberger, president of the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM), "Visionary art follows no school. It is the best of self- taught artistry that is driven by a deep personal need. Many visionary artists may not even think of what they do as art."
Ms. Hoffberger feels that it is important to give a broader definition to "worthwhile art." She considers her museum to be "pretty un-museumy" and more of a spiritually healing place.
AVAM is filled with approximately 400 exhibits, but more importantly it is filled with the stories of people whose lives may have gone unnoticed had their art not been showcased for the world to see. When walking through the museum, visitors can see the detailed embroidery of a convict casually hanging next to the sculpture of a school teacher or mechanic, as if the two were somehow connected. In reading the artists' biographies, visitors can understand why these artists are driven to create their art.
The theme for the current exhibit, "Wind in My Hair," "is a metaphor for the liberties that people feel," says Ms. Hoffberger.
"Wind in My Hair" is only the second exhibition since the opening of AVAM on November 24, 1996, yet it has easily served over l00,000 visitors in its modest 35,000-square-foot space. The building, which also houses the "Joy America Cafe," was originally the site of the Baltimore Copper Paint Company.
Moving into their new home was not so easy for Ms. Hoffberger and her staff. The property had been plowed over, leaving a 3000- gallon tank of varsol, a derivative of paint remover, buried deep within the ground. At high tide, small quantities of varsol had been slowly seeping into Inner Harbor waters. Cleanup efforts provided a much-needed service for AVAM and the environment.
Colorful, whimsical and imaginative are just a few of the words that describe AVAM's exhibits. Vollis Simpson's "Whirligigs," metal and wooden wind-powered, animated sculptures, instantly provide comic relief as visitors enter the museum. Originally an auto repairman, Mr. Simpson began building his renowned "Whirligigs" on his brother's farm in the mid 1960's.
Leslie Payne, also known as Airplane Payne, dreamed of having the wind in his hair after seeing an air show at age eleven. After failing to qualify for the military, Mr. Payne began creating his own airplanes and flight-related equipment. He often asked attractive local women to pose as stewardesses next to his aircraft, which he eventually attempted to fly. AVAM offers some of his creations on public view.
You have never seen a custom-detailed car until you have seen Ron Colt Snow's "Coltmobile." Mr. Snow's art surfaced during his battle with alcoholism. When craving a drink, he would force himself to roam around California flea markets in search of horse figurines to glue onto his car.
He realized he had conquered his drinking problem after attaching 1,045 "colts" to his automobile. Mr. Snow's "Coltmobile" may be seen in the Tall Sculpture Barn at AVAM.
Many of the exhibit themes resulted from reviewing raw art collections from around the world. According to Ms. Hoffberger, "What is interesting is that the themes came to me after looking at all this work almost as fast as I could write them. Later I realized that they were almost in the order of the elements." Exhibits will change every seven to eleven months, depending on the content of the show. Opening in May, the next major exhibition, entitled "Error & Eros: Love Profane & Divine," will focus on the positives and negatives of love. During the new exhibit's installation, part of AVAM's permanent 4,000-piece collection will be shown to the public in the first floor gallery.
Rebecca Hoffberger is as interesting as the artists she exhibits. She was the first American to study with French performance artist Marcel Marceau, almost 30 years ago. Her love affair with art caused her to leave her position as development director in Sinai Hospital's Department of Psychiatry to pursue her dream of "trumpeting the wonders of raw human creativity." For years, while negotiating and fundraising for AVAM, Ms. Hoffberger worked strictly on an unpaid basis.
Much of the funding for AVAM comes from individual and corporate donations. The museum depends heavily on admission fees. According to Ms. Hoffberger, AVAM earned 65 percent at its total income last year, compared to other area museums, which earn approximately l 0 percent.
Ms. Hoffberger has purposely avoided pursuing traditional museum grants and loans so as not to compete with neighboring institutions for dwindling funding sources. AVAM's special projects are far from being fully funded.
The museum is currently seeking corporate sponsors to support their ceramic wall project geared towards youths at risk. This would be Maryland's largest community arts project and would allow students from Southern High School and Living Classrooms to take on an apprenticeship which would provide them with a source of pride, education and, quite possibly, a career. The more "sweat equity" the student contribute to the project, the more benefits they will reap.
Ms. Hoffberger hopes each participant contributes 1,200 hours to earn the students a group trip to see the famous mosaics of Gaudi in Spain.
As if the museum were not enough, Ms. Hoffberger once again waved her magic wand and brought to Baltimore 4-star chef Peter Zimmer. He is now head chef at Joy America Café, which is tucked inside AVAM. Mr. Zimmer is known for his finely crafted entrées which are in themselves works of art. Being dyslexic, he struggled through high school and taught himself his craft. Ms. Hoffberger thought his presence would add to the museum's mission of promoting self-taught artistry. The Joy America Café is so successful that plans are being made to open another in London. One and a half percent of the second café's gross income will help support the museum's efforts.
Ms. Hoffberger would like everyone to come and experience her heaven on earth. "These people in their art are really bearing their souls, so we like it [the museum] to feel like a joyous but really holy place."

Museum hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tues.-Sun. Closed Mondays. Admission is $6 adults, $4 students/seniors/children, $3 for groups of 10 or more. For more information on AVAM, call 244-1900. To reach Joy America Café, call (410) 244-6500.

Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on February 6, 1997.