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The art of spiritual vision.

Looking Carefully

Artists can receive inspiration from a variety of sources--many look to the world around them for ideas and images; some look to myths, stories or events of the past; still others look within themselves to their inner thoughts and feelings, their imagination and their dreams. Some artists are inspired by visions that come from the realm of the spirit. These artists, often self-taught, describe their art as motivated by spiritual forces that guide them in their use of imagery, media and style.

Simon Sparrow is a self-taught visionary artist. He describes his artmaking as a process in which "the Spirit" works through him in the creation of his images and the selection of his materials. Sparrow's drawings and mixed-media assemblages look like visionary images. I Have Seen Many Things (centerspread) is an example. His pastel drawings, like Untitled (this page), are full of otherworldly human and animal figures and abstract forms rendered in glowing colors. More complex in their imagery, his assemblages are constructed of layers of shiny, brightly colored found objects glued to panel backing.

The visual richness of mixed-media assemblages such as I Have Seen Many Things comes from the imagery as well as from the materials used. The composition is symmetrical, with a variety of forms arranged around a large central figure. The symmetry is enlivened by the variety of forms that surround the figure. There is no empty space in this ornate composition; even the border is highly decorated. I Have Seen Many Things is made of beads and parts of old jewelry, shells, glitter, buttons and other objects the artist has collected. Nearly all of these objects reflect light. The combination of materials gives this piece a glittering radiance, while the use of recognizable objects bring a sense of their own earthly past to the work. By using these objects to bring a spiritual vision into the realm of the material, the artist suggests that what he calls "holiness" pervades the realm of everyday life.

Simon Sparrow cannot explain the meaning of his assemblages; their meaning is suggested by the forms and media he uses. Although he is moved to creation by a force outside himself, the imagery Simon Sparrow uses seems to reveal something of his heritage. The rigid frontality of the central figure is reminiscent of the icons of Christian tradition. The accumulation of objects recalls the tradition of African-American grave-site adornment using shells, mirrors, glass, ceramic vessels and other objects that reflect light. Prevalent in the rural cemeteries of the American South, this practice is derived from West African religious traditions. Some of the vessels that decorate these graves are embedded with coins, beads and jewelry--objects that were used by the deceased.

In their richness and complexity, Sparrow's works express the ways his spirituality has been shaped by and infused with his own heritage and experience. The layering of objects and materials in I Have Seen Many Things reminds us of the accumulation of components that make up the artist's cultural heritage and religious beliefs. The title of the piece reinforces the importance of accumulation for the artist, suggesting experiences in both earthly and spiritual realms. It also reminds us that the work is a material record of some of the many things this artist has seen in his visionary experiences.

Key Concepts

* Rather than looking at the world around them for inspiration, visionary artists are motivated by spiritual visions and experiences. * Artists can use everyday objects, often objects that have been used and discarded, in their artmaking. While such objects bring their own associations to the work, combining them in a new way can transform them and suggest new meanings. * The materials as well as the images used in a work of art can give the work visual complexity and richness. * Visionary artists are moved to creation by forces outside themselves, and often cannot explain the meaning of their art. At the same time, the style, media and imagery used by these artists can be shaped by their particular cultural heritage and religious beliefs.


Simon Sparrow was born in 1925, and raised on a farm in Bern, North Carolina, where his Cherokee mother and West-African father were sharecroppers. At the age of seven, he began to make art and to preach: the two activities that he says have guided his life. In his own words: "God led me to art just like he led me to preaching." He began by drawing on the ground with a stick, and later drew on paper with pencils, crayons and pastels.

At the age of twelve, Sparrow decided to leave home, and with money given to him by his mother, he went to Philadelphia. He later joined the army, then worked as a prizefighter; he says he never lost a fight.

Simon Sparrow lived in New York until the late 1960s, when he moved to Madison, Wisconsin. Although he never received formal art training, he continued to draw and paint throughout this time. All of his early work was destroyed by a fire in his New York studio with the exception of one painting still in his possession. Simon Sparrow began to make his assemblages in the mid-1970s. When he feels called by the spiritual force that motivates him, he works on his drawings and assemblages, and preaches outdoors on the University of Wisconsin campus. Known as both an artist and a street preacher in Madison since the 1970s, he began exhibiting his work nationally during the 1980s. His work has been collected by major museums including the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Smithsonian Institution. Despite this recognition, Simon Sparrow is generous in sharing stories of his life and telling what he can about the spiritual visions embodied in his art.

Suggested Activities


* In the construction of assemblages, many artists use objects that may have been previously used or intended for a different purpose. Show students examples of this type of construction. Ask them to identify objects that have been used in unexpected ways. Have students collect small items such as buttons, beads, and other previously used objects, or provide these for the class to work with. Students can work alone or in groups to create assemblages using glue and a wood or tagboard backing. Encourage them to use their objects and materials to create forms or images that are not usually associated with these objects. * Artists who work with mixed media must think about properties such as color and texture in the materials they use. Simon Sparrow, for example, uses many materials that reflect light. Ask students to bring in materials with a variety of surface textures and colors. Have them group these materials by similar properties, and work in small groups, each with a different set of materials, to make a mixed-media construction. Discuss the ways that different types of materials result in different effects. * Many artists derive their imagery from their imagination or their dreams, and the images they create often do not correspond to forms we see in the world around us. Show students examples of art motivated by dreams, imagination or visionary experience, and discuss how this art is different from art inspired by an artist's physical surroundings. Have students draw, paint or work in other media to create imagery that comes from their imagination or from a dream.

While they are working, ask them to consider how working in this way feels different from making a picture of something they can see in the world around them.


* Artists throughout the world work with mixed media, and with objects that have other associations. Show students examples of assemblages from diverse traditions, and ask them to consider the variety of materials used. Discuss ways that color, texture and form are used to achieve particular effects. Ask students to note how objects are used in unexpected ways, and how the meanings or functions associated with particular objects might create additional layers of meaning. Have them collect objects and materials not usually associated with artmaking, and use these to create assemblages. Ask them to consider how the objects they use contribute to their assemblages visually and in the meanings they suggest. * Much of the art made throughout the world is religious in nature, with imagery and stylistic characteristics that reflect a cultural consensus about what this art should look like. Visionary art tends to be more individual, while at the same time, it can have similarities to more widely recognized forms of religious art. Have students research the tradition of visionary art in relation to other forms of religious art. What are some of the similarities and differences? In what ways do the similarities tell us something about the spiritual beliefs and cultural heritages of these visionary artists? * Students may be familiar with myths or stories from their cultural heritage, or they may have studied stories from other cultures. Ask them to think about the visual images suggested by a myth, a dream image or an imagined place, and to consider what media would be most appropriate to bring these images into the material realm. Have students work with available materials to create art that incorporates these visual images. Discuss the ways that the materials bring added meaning to these works.


Black Art--Ancestral Legacy: The African

Impulse in African-American Art.

Dallas: The Dallas Museum of Art, 1989. Livingston, Jane and John Beardsley. Black

Folk Art in America 1930-1980.

University Press of Mississippi, 1982. Religious Visionaries. Sheboygan, WI:

John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 1991. Structure and Surface: Beads in Contemporary

American Art. Washington, DC:

The Renwick Gallery, The National

Museum of American Art, 1990. Vlach, John Michael. The Afro-American

Tradition in Decorative Arts. Athens,

GA: The University of Georgia Press,

1990. (Cleveland, OH: The Cleveland

Museum of Art, 1978.)

Melanie Herzog is a Ph.D candidate in Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Davis Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Herzog, Melanie
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Biography
Date:May 1, 1993
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