The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore Changed My Life Today

Timothy Kiefer
6 min readFeb 4, 2019

I just returned from my first visit to Baltimore. This was a short, 36 hour trip for a wedding, with limited time to enjoy another city. A St. Louis friend native to Baltimore emphatically recommended I make it to the American Visionary Art Museum. My Airbnb was close, so there was no good reason not to check this place out.

Located at the bottom of Federal Hill, on 1.1 acres gifted by the City of Baltimore in exchange for good stewardship.

If you are ever in Baltimore, do yourself a favor and carve out a solid chunk of an afternoon to visit this gem.

From their Welcome Board:

The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM), designated by unanimous vote of the U.S, Congress, is America’s official national museum for visionary, self-taught and intuitive art. AVAM celebrates the power of everyday people who, armed only with their tuition, do things that inspire us all…

“Inspire” it did! I poured over every single artifact in the museum, read every description, and took 118 pictures. I stayed at AVAM for nearly 4 hours on this singular day I had to explore Baltimore. It would have been a longer visit if there was anything left to see.

What enthralled me most about the exhibits is they were as much or more dedicated to the artist as to their art. I was actually raving about my visit to the “American Visionary Artists Museum” until realizing later I had the name wrong.

Aside each collection, a short biography of the artist’s life is presented. You meet the creator, get to know their motivations, passions, challenges, and neurosis. Intimately acquainted, you then experience what was most important for them to present to the world. I am not a seasoned art aficionado, visiting art galleries is not a weekly or even monthly habit of mine, but I’ve seen enough to conclude: I’ve never been this personally affected by a museum. I feel it is the intention of artists to touch their patrons — at AVAM you are touched both by their medium, of which there is an unprecedented variety (toothpicks, tar, pennies, thread from prison socks…) — and their very lives. The combination resulted in a sum effect more profound than the parts, it was truly special and unique.

Reading every single red plaque, I saw the innermost parts of people and their work I otherwise would have likely never had a chance to know of — my life is richer because of it. Two big themes kept rising to the surface as I made my way through the three floors of the main museum and three buildings total.

First, it’s apparent these “intuitive artists” experienced a lot of pain.

I try to remind myself that everyone I interact with day to day has their own battles they’re fighting. Many of the hardships I learned about today were heartbreaking. Unfortunate or even wrongful imprisonment, debilitating drug addiction, devastatingly sad cases of child abuse and neglect. Overwhelmingly, these artists suffered from severe and manic depression, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses.

As I took in these stories, I kept thinking of a dear friend currently crippled by waves of bipolar episodes. John happens to be a staggeringly gifted literary artist who — in between periods of debilitating self-condemnation and scrambling fury to catch up from the downtime — does magical things with words. MIA at the moment, I was recently blessed for several weeks with a steady stream of personal emails, short stories, and drafts of the first chapters of his novel. The other take-away for me today affirmed a hope I’ve been feeling in light of his latest season of creativity.

Many of the suffering individuals I became familiar with today found healing in their art.

Linda St. John grew up poverty stricken with a terribly abusive, alcoholic father. Despite this she went to law school and passed the bar, only to take a detour and open a vintage clothing shop with her husband. When her father was diagnosed with cancer, she began painting and writing, no doubt working out her pain of childhood and beyond. I spent at least 30 minutes on each of her 30 or so paintings coupled with excerpts from her memoir, “Even Dogs Go Home to Die”.
Elizabeth Layton’s experience as alcoholic collateral damage came later in life, the result of her husband’s disease. After several separations, she went back home for good, working for the family business, and eventually fell into deep depression. At the age of 68, on the verge of suicide, she took a class on “blind” contour drawing, where you focus on the subject rather than your paper. She focused on her self in the mirror, sometimes drawing for 12 hours. She claimed, at nearly 70, drawing cured her depression and saved her life within 6 months. She went on to produce more than 1000 drawings — focusing on social issues such as mental health, capital punishment, aging, homelessness and more — featured in Life and exhibited in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Modern Art.
The third floor is dedicated to Reverend Albert Lee Wagner, whose “Midnight Miracle” at age 50 was God revealing himself through a paint smudge. Through this divine intervention, he was saved from his sins, called to a life of intense art production, and founded a church. Along with many biblical stories, his paintings also expressed growing up in Arkasas in extreme poverty and familiarity with prejudice and racial violence. Later in life, he was grieved by increasing black on black crime. His final words, whispered to his hospital nurse, were, “I see the face of Jesus.”

These topics of pain and healing, and healing as a fruit of following their artistic calling, spoke to me today. I am better for having met these extraordinary people through their works of art, and plan to visit again the next chance I have. Maybe, hopefully, my close friend will find an antidote of his own through artistic expression. I know I’ve experienced mending in my life through acts of creation.

Be sure to read the excerpts.

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Timothy Kiefer

bootstrapper, soil farmer, urban agriculture professional || perennial.city