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  • Jasper Woods

Boxing People: On Henry Darger and Outsider Art

"The alternate realities of all oppressed humans is something I consider often. What might they achieve, become, voice, unveil if only they were seen, heard, and accepted? What cages hold humans—adult and child—who might bring some light into the growing darkness?"

  • Excerpt from Emria's Our Journey to Pasha’s Planet. Unpublished due to the onset of the Sorrowful Times, original copy housed in the Lawrence Enclave’s Learning Center, Quartet of Honor Section.

There are more excerpts from Emria’s book featured in my upcoming speculative fiction novel. As I was thinking through how I might get ya’ll pumped for it, I wandered into the idea of putting descriptions from the book into Dall-E’s AI art generator. And then I thought of Henry Darger.

The documentary “In the Realms of the Unreal” first introduced me to Henry, his work, and outsider art.

Henry was born in 1892 in Chicago to Henry Sr. and Rosa. The ghost of his birth home appears to be apart of the Chicago L in what is now China Town. His mother passed to the dream that is next in 1896 from puerperal fever after she gave birth to Henry’s sister. Henry was 4-years old.

His sister was given up for adoption. They never knew each other.

Because of a disability his father couldn’t continue to care for Henry. At 8, he was placed in a Roman Catholic Orphanage. At 12 they transferred him to (and I’m definitely quoting here) “The Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children” in Lincoln, Illinois. (We’ve come a long way and still have a ways to go. More on that when I riff on writing about trauma.)

He tried to escape three times. The third time was the charm. He made it back to Chicago in 1909. He was 17.

And here we come to it. When he was somewhere between 18 and 20 years-old, he started in on his first novel:

The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion

Henry's novel is 15,000 pages. A typical novel is somewhere between 250 to 350 pages, or 70,000 to 100,000 words. Henry’s novel contains millions of words. Millions. My novel is 115,000 words, down from 140,000, and surely will go down further as it undergoes a line edit, currently in progress. It took me a year to write all those words. Henry worked on his for 25.

If I were to title my novel in the style of Henry:

Trajectories: The Time Nomad’s Tale of the Fractured Dream, Pieced Back Together––in Some Ways Too Late, in Other Ways Just in Time––by a Symphony of Synchrony

Trajectories: The Time Nomad’s Tale ..., in the style of outsider art

Its current working title is: Trajectories. We’ll see.

In addition to all the words Henry penned, the novel also includes hundreds of images he created.

Never formally educated or trained, Henry taught himself to write and make art. He did not seek fame or money. He only wanted to express himself and (my guess) process. That is a definition of outsider art.

Given that definition, I meet the following criteria: fame is unnecessary, money’d be all right ("This is where we live, Shelly!"). My chief goal is to express some processing I’ve been doing about our current state of affairs, climate change, and other matters. Plus write a really cool sci-fi thriller!

Henry’s work was discovered and valued at the very end of his life as he retreated inside himself at St. Augustine’s Home—where his father was placed. He lived another year and passed to the dream that is next one day after his 81st birthday.

David Berglund, a fellow tenant, emptied Henry’s apartment and came across his art and manuscripts (there is a 2nd novel, a mere 8,500 pages long). David alerted their landlord, also an artist. (More of an insider artist.)

Shortly before Henry died, David visited him. He praised his art. Henry said this:

“It’s too late now.”

Fortunately, for us it’s not too late to experience Henry's work despite him being labeled.

There are many ways to cage people. Some are caged by labels and check boxes. Here are the labels placed on Henry:

  • Crazy—Mission of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Orphanage

  • Feeble minded––Lincoln, IL Asylum

  • Peculiar—his father

  • Shell-shocked war veteran—a previous landlord (Henry was drafted and served briefly before being honorably discharged)

  • Emotionally arrested—his bio on

  • Self-abuser—on his admission to the Lincoln asylum. A term used for “excessive masturbation”. At the age of 12, likely a symptom of sexual abuse.

  • Pauper—buried in a “pauper’s” grave per his bio.

  • Hoarder––most everyone

How might we characterize Henry as of this writing? Neurodivergent. (More on that in an upcoming blog.)

What Henry survived:

  • the death of his parents

  • loss of his sister

  • poverty

  • bullying

  • emotional, physical and likely sexual abuse as a child

Here’s what Henry achieved:

  • a steady string of employment

  • self-reliance

  • financial independence

  • over 25,000 pages of words strung together in novels and an autobiography

  • hundreds of paintings

Henry was a janitor and dishwasher. A tenant. Friend. Son. Brother. Veteran. Artist. Writer. An advocate for abused children and a staunch critic of the system intended to serve them.

Henry is an influence on artists and art creation.

There are many more outsider artists. I’ll feature them in subsequent posts.

The images you see on this site, unless otherwise noted, will be DALL-E AI generated in the style of outsider art. The prompts will come from Trajectories. In addition to generating intrigue for my book, my intention is to bring awareness to outsider art and artists. AI is here and expanding. My use of AI is an exploration, an experiment. How can we engage with AI to support and lift up those who might otherwise be unseen, unheard. Their power and insights unfelt.

If there are any outsider artists who wish to create images for this site, hit me up.

Every time I encounter a janitor, learn of an abused child, encounter someone whose brain works uniquely from my own, I wonder––another Henry Darger?

Sitting with Henry’s journey and others who have been and are dismissed as disposable, I wonder, aren’t we all outsiders until we’re an insider? When an insider, who are we keeping out? Who are we boxing ourself off from? Here's what I believe––when I put someone else in a box, I put me in one too.

I invite you to learn more about Henry and other outsider artists. There may be more of us than we know.

For now, if you are making art—painting, sculpting, drawing, writing, acting, music-ing, dancing, and on––maybe give yourself a dance break to this diddy by someone who was likely an outsider that made it inside. (click the pic:)

Resources + References:

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