The New York Comics and Picture Story Symposium: Pure Vision Arts and the Outsider Artist

The New York Comics & Picture-Story Symposium is a weekly forum for discussing the tradition and future of text/image work. Open to the public, it meets Tuesday nights 7-9 p.m. EST in New York City. Presentations vary weekly and include everything from historical topics and technical demonstrations to creators presenting their work. Check out upcoming meetings here.

The 106th meeting of the NY Comics & Picture-Story Symposium was held on Tuesday, November 11, 2014. Pamela Rogers, the director of Pure Vision Arts, an organization dedicated to autistic and outsider artists, discussed her work and organization.

Pamela Rogers is unique. She is the director of Pure Vision Arts, a division of the Shield Institute, a studio and gallery for autistic, outsider, self-taught, and off-mainstream artists. An artist, educator, and licensed psychoanalyst, Rogers works In partnership with MoMA and the Whitney Museum to study and direct artists with neurodevelopmental challenges. Pure Vision Arts offers outsider artists large, open, and well-equipped studio space in Chelsea, to which some artists come with fully developed art styles while others have never studied art formally. Some are nonverbal; some are savants. PVA artists have exhibited all over the world, including the Fountain Gallery, and H.A.I..

Founded in 2002, the Pure Vision Arts studio is the only art studio dedicated to autistic artists, and is emblematic of a general trend in the way society treats the autistic. For generations, autistic men and women tended to be institutionalized upon diagnosis. Today’s more enlightened attitude is to integrate them into daily life as much as possible. PVA artists are provided with space, materials (about which they can be very exacting), museum quality framing and a supportive environment. Applicants to Pure Vision Artists must have a demonstrable disability, be over 21, and present a portfolio in order to be accepted. Artists are required to be present at least three days a week; some artists work there five. Once you’ve been accepted, you have continued enrollment forever. PVA is open to visitors by appointment and there exists a vibrant community of hundreds of people who come in and out.

What is outsider art? Generally, in addition to autism, PVA caters to untutored artists and art “outside the box.” An important figure in the history of outsider art is Jean Dubuffet, whose “art brut” focused on the Isolated and the marginalized. The discussion is now more inclusive rather than exclusive, including folk-art and the great outsider paradigm, Henry Darger. Outsider art has always been autodidactic, that is, made by artists for themselves out of obsession, not particularly meant to be seen by others. More than once has an artist’s work only been discovered after he dies, bringing the astonishment of those who discover it. The work of autodidactic artists is often discarded with the trash. Darger’s work was almost lost forever.

Image 1The mission is to find such artists, provide them with support, and share their work with the public. Artists at Pure Vision Arts pursue their own projects at their own pace (“They are very independent,” says Rogers). The operational attitude is, “What do you want to do and we’ll help you with it.” The faculty is one of facilitators rather than teachers. The level of proficiency and sophistication of their artists is remarkable among outsider artists. Some work is autobiographical, some work is fanciful, and at least one artist is inspired by Greco-Roman culture. Media range from traditional colored pencils to post-modern installation. (Transportation, for some reason, figures prominently as a theme in outsider art.) Some artists integrate text and images, resulting in that most cherished of arts: comics.

Rogers describes a “savant-garde” culture among outsider artists. Single-mindedness and solitude are major traits. Most of these artists know nothing about the art world because autistic and outsider artists tend not to socialize, let alone attend galleries or museum events. So they know about music, cartoons, TV shows, and the stuff for stay-at-home types. They are isolated. One PVA artist recalls: “Art was my sanctuary, not a lot of friends.” Report cards that read “daydreams and doodles all the time” might be describing someone on what Pam Rogers calls the “autism spectrum.” Rogers had our symposium re-thinking these phenomena by observing that Andy Warlhol was fixated and obsessed. He showed peculiarities and sensitivities, was socially awkward, and hid behind a camera. Perhaps there is a place for him on the autism spectrum.

Success stories at Pure Vision Arts abound. Here are just a few:

Lisa Huber, a woman in her twenties, has Asperger’s Syndrome. She’s recently completed a sequential narrative inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s story of the Ugy Duckling, which she calls the Odd Duckling, nothing less than an allegory of the autistic experience. A duckling hatches that is big, blue, and fluffier than normal. Like an autistic person, Huber’s character is bothered by loud noises, doesn’t always like the same food as others, enjoys imitating animals, and likes to paint and draw. Drawing gives him a calm feeling. At first unjustly punishing him for getting paint all over everything in sight, the other ducklings, like the reindeer to Rudolph, eventually all come over to his side and accept him.

The product of an artistic and musical family, Leon McCutcheon‘s drawings and paintings are afrocentric and heavily political. McCutcheon presents President Obama as a Black Uncle Sam, and Michelle Obama on an Ebony magazine cover, and he vents his outrage at former President George W. Bush in picture after picture, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. With text and contemporary imagery painted on the canvas, though created by an outsider artist, these paintings fit smartly into in the category of contemporary post-modern art and comics.

Matthew Warkenthien  is Korean, adopted, and talks in multiple languages while he works on his anime-inspired art with a deluxe set of Prismacolor pencils on bristol board. (He is insistent on the certain colors and certain paper.) He watches cartoons, animals, and video all the time. He is highly anxious, and drawing keeps him calm and happy. With dialogue in speech balloons, his pictures reflect a private narrative world. Image 2His “Comic Page 16” boasts the iconography of science fiction: ray guns, computers, Pokemon, and Digimon.

Oscar Azmitia: Home-schooled by an exceptionally religious mother, Asmatia places Biblical subjects into a distinct comic format. His work has been compared to folk artist Howard Finster. “The Se7en Deadlies,” comes in panels with a generous smattering of humor. In pieces like his award-winning “Galactic Truths,” also in panels and on paper, sins like debauchery and prostitution stand in opposition to the fruits of the spirit. His work is highly sophisticated. “Jammin’ w James” recounts the Book of James, and he even depicts the Energizer Bunny as victim of an object lesson (“Faith without works is dead”). He also paints found objects, usually popular culture characters like Muppets, super-heroes, and saints in enamel paint on metal coins. Thoroughly contemporary, Asmatia puts his email address right down on the work of art itself.


Pure Vision Arts, a subsidiary of The Shield Institute, is a licensed service for development disabilities, and can be reached at


Image credits:

Image 1: Matthew Warkenthien, “Comic Book Page,” 40″ x 30″ pencil on paper.

Image 2: Oscar Oscar Azmitia, “The Se7en Deadlies,” 9 3/4″ x 8″ oil and mixed media.


About the author: Mark Lerer holds a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and an M.F.A. from the New York Academy of Art. His cartoon drawings have been published in the New York Post, have appeared at New Century Artists and Nexus galleries, and are regularly featured on Facebook.

The New York Comics & Picture-Story Symposium is a weekly forum for discussing the tradition and future of text/image work. Open to the public, it meets Tuesday nights 7-9pm EST in New York City. Presentations vary weekly and include everything from historical topics and technical demonstrations to creators presenting their work. Check out upcoming meetings here. More from this author →