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Artists who lived in institutions

Incredible Artists who lived in Institutions

Sometimes the world is captivated by a wave of awareness that completely takes our breath away. We might discover someone for the first time, or we re-discover someone we should have never forgotten about. This post is about artists who overcome diversity in their lives and became our artistic heroes. Their pieces bring light to the world and hope to everyone who put limitations upon themselves.

The typewriter artist

typewriter artist mona lisa

Yes, this picture is made with a typewriter!

The story of Paul Smith is one that I’ll never forget. Born with CP he was unable to hold a pencil or a brush. Instead he uses a typewriter to create art that can only be described as remarkable. A deeply religious man he says his ability comes from God. As a child Paul taught himself to use 10 symbol keys to create the most remarkable and detailed pieces of art.

Paul Smith died in 2007 after living 40 years in Rose Haven nursing center in Oregon.

What did I learn from watching Paul Smith? I will stop making excuses, and take more time in my life to Create!

Read more about Paul Smith life and art on his foundation page.

The Psychiatric Patient

Adolf Wölfli

Adolf Wölfli was a Swiss artist born in 29 February 1864.  Wölfli had a difficult childhood when he was separatd from his mother. They had financial hardship and were sent to work at different farms for food and lodging. Wölfli’s mother died in 1873. Wölfli continues to live as a hireling with several farmers under hard working conditions and social degradation. He is arrested twice for attempting to molest children. He is committed to the Waldau Mental Asylum, near Bern for evaluation where he is diagnosed as schizophrenic. He remains a patient there until his death in 1930. In 1899 Wölfli begins to draw for the first time. His work evolves quickly, and he also writes and composes music. Wölfli endured sexual and physical abuse as a child. He turns his miserable childhood into a magnificent travelog illustrated by decorative color drawings. You can read more about Adolf Wölfli’s incredible biography here. 

The Mexican Migrant


Martín Ramírez (January 30, 1895 – February 17, 1963) was a self-taught artist who spent most of his adult life in California mental institutions. He was diagnosed with Schizophrenia leaning towards catatonia. Martín Ramírez spent 30 years in institutions.

A visiting professor of psychology and art, Tarmo Pasto, came across Ramírez’s work at the DeWitt state hospital in Auburn. He began to save Ramírez work. Pasto recognised Ramírez’s talent and made him a subject for his research into mental illness and creativity. You can read more about their fascinating story here. 

The Swiss female outsider artist

Aloïse Corbaz

One of the few recognised female outsider artist is the Swiss artist  (28 June 1886 – 5 April 1964). Aloïse Corbaz was committed to a psychiatric hospital after being diagnosed with Schizophrenia. She started drawing and writing poetry in 1920, however most of her early work was destroyed. The director of the hospital Hans Steck and general practitioner Jacqueline Porret-Forel first took an interest in her work in 1936, and she finally got discovered by Dubuffet in 1947. You can read more about Aloïse Corbaz and her contribution to the Art Brut (outsider art) here. 

The Art Brut Movement.

The name Art Brut means Raw Art, and it denotes art derived outside of the conventional art form. Many artists in this genre were self taught, and many lived with disabilities or mental health disorders. Not every Art Brut artist ended up in institutions of course, but they were all living life outside the mainstream of society in some way. The term Art Brut was first used by the painter Jean DeBuffet who assembed a collection of art pieces of graffiti art and art made by children, prisoners, the mentally ill, and self-trained artists. In 1948 he established a society to encourage the study of Art Brut. You can read more about Jean DeBuffet here.  

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