What Makes Us Smile?

One of my very favorite things about Baltimore is the vibrant art community that holds a huge place in this small city. With a renowned art school (Maryland Institute College of Art) and innumerable museums and art districts, it is quite a haven for the artistically inclined. One of my favorite hallmarks of this venerable art scene is the American Visionary Art Museum, which I lovingly refer to as the AVAM and was lucky enough to visit yesterday for my birthday.

The very premise of this museum is that the art contained therein is the work of untrained artists, people who were compelled to create by some personal vision that may not even have been considered artistic in nature by the creator. Every piece and every artist has a unique story to tell. Some of the most compelling and heartbreaking are those of people who have traveled paths of extreme hardship and turned out a beautiful creative piece in catharsis. The most recent show, which just opened up for a year-long exhibition on October 9th, is a bit of a divergence from the sometimes saddening stories behind great art. Entitled "What Makes Us Smile?" this year's body of work focuses on laughter, tickling, farting, smiling, horror, Christmas, and everything in between.

The first floor of the main museum building contains permanent pieces that rarely are rotated through, as well as the amazing SideShow gift shop which is reason enough on it's own to visit the AVAM. The second floor is where all the real exhibit action occurs. On floor three are the library (available for visit by appointment only), Mr. Rain's Fun House (the museum cafe), and a single gallery exhibit, often devoted to the work of a single visionary artist.

Inside the Jim Rouse Visionary Center

Then there's the Sculpture Barn (where I'll be getting married in just about 8 months!), which hosts events and also contains large-scale sculpture. The final building, the Jim Rouse Visionary Center, holds more large-scale pieces, including a ball of bras 5-feet in diameter! The exterior of the buildings themselves feature mosaic art, a bird-nest balcony, and an 11-foot golden hand, among other fun touches.

Baltimore Oriole Mosaic Sculpture

Bird's Nest Observation Balcony

One of my favorite things about AVAM exhibits are the quotes that cover the walls. For every exhibit, the curators select a variety of quotes relating to the exhibit, I guess in the hopes of furthering their message and helping visitors to connect to the work in another way.  This is usually one of my favorite parts of each exhibit, and this year was no different. My comedian fiance, Mike, is usually not crazy about the AVAM but this year, with wise words from George Carlin adorning the walls and artwork about farting, he felt right at home. And that is why I think this exhibit will be so successful. Co-curated by Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, there is a bit more universality and accessibility to the concept and content of "What Makes Us Smile?" Even the person who isn't quite an art museum junkie can appreciate what all this art celebrates - joy, smiles, laughter.

Detail: What Me Worry? bed by Patty Kuzbida
So now to the meat and potatoes of the exhibit - the art. There were videos of stand up comedians, a section on our human obsession with scaring ourselves, funny secrets revealed to PostSecret via postcard, cartoons (some political, some not), comic embroidery, toy assemblages, a Whoopie-cushion bench, etc. With the exhibits included therein donning names from "Toot Suite" to "Ho-Ho-Ho Ha-Ha-Hanukkah," "What Makes Us Smile?" is a fun and inventive homage to those things that universally make us feel good, leaving no medium untouched. You'll learn some crazy facts about laughter, find yourself inspired by the thoughts and quotations posted throughout, laugh aloud at some of the art, and depart with a childlike sense of fun and a joyous demeanor.

The one thing that struck me as being a bit out of the ordinary was the lack of context on the artists. Often the AVAM includes a paragraph or two of background for each artist since most of them have incredible stories of the twists and turns that brought out their included creation. As I said, many of these stories can be upsetting, which would put a damper on the happy go lucky mood of this exhibit. But this is also, to me, an integral part of the magic of the AVAM. It forces visitors to recognize that you don't need to attend an expensive art school or have formal training to create something of beauty, worth, and meaning.

Nonetheless, the art in this exhibit speaks for itself and impresses upon visitors the whole message of the AVAM, though perhaps not as forcefully as usual. Maybe it won't force you to think as much as some past exhibits, but "What Makes Us Smile?" is definitely in line with the playful and visionary aesthetic unique to the AVAM (and it's Mike's favorite exhibit thus far which is great since it will still be up come wedding time next spring!).

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