Outsider art at the heart of life

Ian Collins Norfolk now has a world-class art “colony” in an old barn at Walcott – where every member is a one-person art movement. Ian Collins pays tribute to Barrington Farm on the eve of a posthumous exhibition for its greatest star.

Ian Collins

Creativity is at the heart of meaningful human existence - and most especially to those on the edge. How very fitting, then, that one of the world centres of “outsider art” should be a barn in Walcott.

Here, at the Barrington Farm Day Services Centre, tutors are merely assistants who give the artists the freedom to express all the dazzling ideas and images in their heads and at their finger-tips. Each striking and startling vision is unique to its owner.

Many who hate innovative art will scoff that “A child could do that!” Well, our world-class art centre is for adults with learning difficulties - they've never cottoned on to the fact that in our society innate creativity can be crushed out of us over time.

They won't have heard of Picasso, let alone of Jean Dubuffet - the great artist who coined the term Art Brut (“outsider art”) in the 1950s for the work of the untrained and intuitive and very often marginalised, for raw art uncooked by bourgeois prejudice.

With conditions such as epilepsy, autism, schizophrenia and Downs Syndrome, they just get on with the job of being artists and of making sense of this peculiar world.

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It all began when the late Janith Bastow adopted an adult with learning problems in the 1970s and then gradually turned a farmhouse on the windswept Norfolk coast into a refuge.

Back from art school, her son, Martin Bastow, started to turn a potato shed into a studio but found his vocation when Martin Smith, one of Janith's adoptees, borrowed some paint and sketched a brilliant cow on a cart. Suddenly he had the idea for an art centre.

The art barn gradually took shape, with kiln and textile room and print workshop added - for the growing number of user artists ranged over every possible medium. Pictures and artefacts poured forth.

Today, alongside a working farm, it is a creative hub for some 50 resident artists referred by Norfolk social services and others.

Then there are the tourists who stay in holiday cottages and the day visitors. All are here in farthest-flung do-different Norfolk because, happily and healthily, art has never ceased to be central to their lives.

Now presented by the Norwich-based RoaR Outsider Art Archive charity - with sterling work by curator Sarah Ballard and fund-raiser Claire Kidman - the art of Barrington Farm has been shown throughout East Anglia, in London and New York and at the Prague Biennale.

Stellar talents include Barbara Symmons, James Gladwell and Ian Partridge. A fine, fiery work by the latter (it looks like a bunch of flowers but isn't) now hangs in the EDP head office in Norwich and some of these folk will be featured in my Salthouse 08 show - SEAhouse, LIGHThouse, SPIRIThouse - in July.

James Colman, who has exhibited some of these artists in Norfolk, London and Zurich, says: “I admire the way in which the farm has consistently produced high-quality work and a friendly climate of encouragement and dedication to all its artists.”

But one name stands out in the Barrington Farm story - that of Leofric Baron. He had an international following, and a big national obituary following his death from a heart attack, aged 43, in 2000. For a fortnight from Saturday, RoaR will stage a thrilling solo show in his memory.

Born in Essex, Leofric (brother of Godwin) was christened in honour of Saxon ancestors. Diagnosed with chronic epilepsy from an early age, he endured bouts of schizophrenia from his teens and by 1979 was based in The Rookery residential centre at Walcott and discovering the adjoining Barrington Farm.

Acutely shy, he was given the confidence and space in which his work could flourish, as it did for two decades. His partner at the centre, the ceramist Maria Wicko, died three weeks before he did - but this tale is not a tragedy: it's a triumph.

As he said: “I paint because I want to show people what I can do. If you say, where does your painting come from, I'll say, from in my head… it's in my brain... it's always been there.

“Once I start a painting, everything that's in my head goes in there. It's like making a movie. You know, with paint I can make a circle then make it any face you like. With paint I can make a violin into a whale.”

Pondering one livid, vivid picture, with a sea of grinning and grimacing faces worthy of Dubuffet, I wonder what on earth is going on. But the title then enlightens me: People Teaching a Dinosaur to Drive a Car. Of course.

A portrait of a horned devil is captioned A Robber Cleans his Teeth with a Toothbrush. Naturally.

Giving us a commentary on one action-packed picture, the artist explained: “There is a clown with many faces, there is an aircraft and a rocket in the clouds.

“A dog is picking up a ball - he has just had blancmange thrown at him because he was cheeky to the man.

“There is a rowing boat, it's raining and there is a boy on his bicycle. The men on the boat have thrown tomato sauce at a bloke walking past. The clown's children are in his hair!

“The man in the corner with the beard is shaving with a razor. There is a balloon coming in to land at the funfair and the clown's wife watches.”

Covering the sides of cardboard boxes, old cork notice boards and canvases, he spilled out the images of a fantastically fertile interior world in acrylic and collage. Then came etchings, monoprints, drawings and ceramics.

There were to be many cartoon-like sequences and shortly before his death he completed a surreal hand-made stream-of-consciousness illustrated book called A Strong Wind in Broadway Tennessee.

His mind wandered far from Walcott - being engrossed with war, religion, circuses and pop stars. There was a singular fixation on Sir Cliff Richard, though several pet themes seemed to merge in the work Sporty Spice Versus Boyzone.

It all looks like the art of disturbance but for me at any rate such valiant, unfettered and nerve-exposed imagery generates a profound sense of calm - or else a surge of exhilaration. What amazing things can be carried in one human head and then set before us.

Back in 1995 for a show at the King of Hearts in Norwich Leofric Baron produced an artist's statement which should stand as his epitaph - and an ongoing challenge to the rest of us.

“I've got something to learn,” he wrote. “My ideas come from concentrating and learning.

“I think people should learn every day because this world was made for learning. Each day people can learn how to mend bikes, find planning permission and all about art. You can learn art from drawing and mending things and everything really.

“Nobody taught me to paint, I just decided to one day. But I learn a lot from other people around me.

“I did painting for a change, to make up situations with words from my head. A flash came in my mind that made me do this that had never come before.

“I love thinking of things in my mind that can become objects. I see objects that may come in the future so we might be able to learn how to do things.

“That's everything I can tell you.”

Leofric Baron: A Retrospective Exhibition is at RoaR Outsider Art Archive, 9-10 Redwell Street, Norwich (01603 766200; www.RoaRart.com) January 12-27. Open Tuesday-Sunday 11am-4pm. Selected works are for sale.