The term "Outsider Art" refers to art created by people who are untrained, have a form of disability and are often isolated by society. This description aptly fits William Britt (1935-), a self-taught painter with a developmental disability who was sent as a child to the infamous** Willowbrook School in Staten Island, NY. He remained there for 34 years; during that time a doctor gave him a set of paints and some paper and William taught himself to paint. He is now an internationally known artist, with his works in the collections of Nancy Reagan, Prince Charles and the Emperor of Japan, among many others.
In 1996, Britt received the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation Award for Outstanding Artistic Achievement. Maya Angelou read a poem at the ceremony that she composed for him that reads in part "Greetings to the Special Artist who allows us all to be special at his side." Among numerous other exhibits and shows that span more than 30 years, his work was featured in 1983 at a National Art Show at Rockefeller Center and at New York's Outsider Art Fair and in 2012 in "Pure Folk" at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. He is represented by Pure Vision Art, a gallery for artists with a variety of disabilities; more of his art can be seen on their website. We've included a photograph of him at one of his exhibitions.
This intricately done street scene showcases Britt's use of strong colors and his obsessive attention to details, such as the parking sign on the pole, the fire hydrant and the house number on the brownstone. His brush strokes in the oil paints are evident throughout, giving the artwork a textured, but not thickly impastoed, surface.
As is his custom, he has signed his work in white paint on the bottom right: Mr. William Britt 2004 September Tuesday 28. Britt makes his own frames for each of his paintings at a woodworking studio. This one is 1 inch wide varnished pine, with a prominent knothole on the right side adding to the folk art effect. The painting itself was done on a piece of some type of white pressboard, with a hanging wire on the back.
The framed size measures 25 1/2 inches by 19 1/2 inches and weighs 4 pounds. 6 ounces. It is in excellent condition, with just a few nicks in the soft wood of the frame. Now 86 years old, Mr. Britt has been referred to as "Grandpa Moses" and his artworks are more valued with each passing year.
**From an article on William Britt in The Journal News, Rockland County, NY: "When Sen. Robert Kennedy visited Willowbrook in 1965, 6,000 people were living at the center designed for 4,000. Kennedy said the residents were 'living in filth and dirt, their clothing in rags, in rooms less comfortable and cheerful than the cages in which we put animals in a zoo.' Britt would have been 30 when Kennedy visited."