Outsider: The loss and lost work of Dwayne Pigee (1974 – 2016)


Humans are complicated, flawed, and nuanced beings. Artists are no exception, and oftentimes  personal struggles, even mental illnesses, are central to our fascination with them and their creations. We make sense out of the world through narratives, and artists are our cultural alchemists, transforming emotion and thought into physical form, which are beautiful, and often emotionally evocative. To know their stories is to better understand how and why they create.


This fascination was especially sated in the mid-1990s to early 2000s, when “Outsider Art” was the rage in the echelons of art museums and galleries. Cleveland was home to Headfooters Gallery, aptly named after the kind of child-like “primitive” torso-less-figure with a large head atop two stick limbs that children and untrained artists frequently draw. Headfooters aptly defines the genre on their website, which is still accessible. Gallery owners Bill and Dallas Schubert explain:


The field of Outsider Art is a complex and hotly debated one. The term is a… catch-all that includes contemporary folk art, third world art, visionary, naive, and self-taught art. It includes the art of the insane and prison inmates as well as the art of children. It can be primitive or obsessive. What it is not, is part of the artistic mainstream. What it will be in the future is uncertain. (“What is Outsider Art,” headfooters.com, accessed October 9, 2016)


The Schuberts were right in asserting that the field was hotly debated. Many of us working in the arts at the time grappled with the idea that elite institutions (led but mostly white educated people, primarily serving the tastes and interests of a mostly white, affluent audience) were capitalizing on objects made by people with mental illnesses, people labeled “third world” citizens, or those who were untrained, choosing simply to create for the love of it, not for the sake of money or notoriety. Compared with art created by academically trained artists of the 1990 and early 2000s, which was theory-laden (often with formal issues or identity-politics and/or political concerns), there was a captivating aspect of art made by people who didn’t care or know about the hierarchical trappings of art-world politics.


Moreover, the genre was replete with stories of gallerists and curators finding – often by chance – hundreds of works by artist-savants. Henry Darger, one of the most renowned of the Outsiders, was a Chicago custodial worker who spent decades writing and illustrating a 15,145 page, 13-volume mythic manuscript featuring the Vivian Girls, seven heroic children who rescued kidnapped children abducted by the evil Glandelinian people. The largest collection of his work is in the American Folk Art Museum, in New York. Darger’s tome is not only grand in scope it is also beautiful, featuring thousands of detailed renderings of girls and children that Darger modelled on the now vintage Campbell’s Soup kids.


Air Heads Out of Control, by Dwayne Pigee. Image courtesy of Lyz Bly.

While the art world’s fascination with Outsider Art has waned in the last ten years, “outsiders” are still among us, and how their works are discovered and by whom remains based on chance, even luck. In February of this year, Dwayne Pigee (a.k.a. G.O.R.K. / Gork, a.k.a. Francois Fissi Bissi Okrakongo) was murdered in broad daylight in the Detroit-Shoreway Neighborhood. Pigee was a prolific creator in his lifetime, making beats, music, video-documenting hundreds of shows, and painting, sewing, and sculpting, often out of scraps of materials that most artists would eschew as garbage. After the community buried him, his family missed the opportunity to take his belongings from his apartment. According to his life-long friend Ra Washington, the landlord discarded Pigee’s belongings into a dumpster. While some of his visual artwork remains in the collections of friends, most of it is gone.


Pigee’s story is compelling, his life complicated by orphan-hood, foster families, and a circle of highly creative people who he came of age with at Cleveland Heights High School. His most supportive artistic collaborator was Ra Washington, and when Ra and I got the keys to the space what would become Guide to Kulchur Bookstore on West 65th Street, Gork was there around the clock, painting walls and building and stocking book shelves. After the store was open for business, he would work in the basement studio, always creating with whatever tools and supplies were there. It was clear that he had to create. Despite the art world’s waning fascination with people making art outside of the establishment, people create in the face of enormous economic and cultural obstacles. Gork was an unemployed couch surfer for much of the last ten years of his life, yet he always had his iPad with him, recording shows and documenting crowds. And while a museum curator missed the dumpster dive that might have revealed a large body of his work, what remains among us is compelling.

Dwayne Pigee, preparing for an exhibit at Loop in Tremont. Photo by and courtesy of Amanda Lee.

Unlike traditionally-trained artists, much of Pigee’s work was not documented, titled, and organized; he didn’t will his work to friends or families. Yet his body of drawings, paintings, and fiber works are stylistically cohesive with a consistent personal iconography. Often rendered in Sharpie marker, spray paint, and on materials including Styrofoam, broken pottery, and repurposed canvas, his works are whimsically dark, imbued with humor. Most are untitled, but share an energy and urgency for making. There is almost always a face or body in the work, and they are often self-portraits. I chuckle inside every time I turn the corner into my dining room, where a small Pop Art-like work hangs. Gork made it for my daughter for her tenth birthday; it is a rendition of an Air Heads candy wrapper. It was something that she loved, and a dig at her often oblivious behavior, which he knew well, as he surfed on our couch for a few awkward, and sometimes joyful, months. The exaggerated face on the wrapper laughs is ecstatic, yet taunting; the text below “Air Heads” reads: “Out of control.”


While the art world’s fascination with Outsider Art has waned in recent years, the work of “outsiders” is among us. People need to create and art is one way that many of us leave our mark on the world. While Dwayne Pigee was by no means a saint, I am grateful that some of his friends saved his art, as it reminds us of his talents, struggles, and brilliant sense of humor.