Each January, Richard Benaars and Frits Gronert, co-directors of Rotterdam’s Galerie Atelier Herenplaats, set up a booth at the Outsider Art Fair in the Puck Building in New York City. They spend the next four days talking with people about their artists.
Visitors learn that Laan Irodjojo, probably the gallery’s most recognizable artist, wanders Rotterdam with a sketchbook and then returns to his studio to make precise paintings of buildings and bridges. Hein Dingemans is an avid student of native cultures, as is evident in his work. His stylized portraits depict muscular men from around the world, including Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands, Aborigines, Tutsis, Inuits and Sudanese. Johanneke van Nus, a devoted reader of the Bible, illustrates scenes from the life of Jesus in a pared-down, cartoon-like idiom.
When Benaars and Gronert talk about their artists, they give the impression that they know them well. They do. They see them every day. Herenplaats is both a gallery and a studio art program for artists with developmental disabilities. Funded by a Dutch psychiatric foundation, the studio was launched in 1991, with six artists. The 21 artists currently enrolled in the program, most of whom have either autism or Down syndrome, report to the studio at 9 a.m. and work on their disparate projects until the late afternoon. Van Nus, Dingemans, and Irodjojo work within a few feet of each other.
In their 16 years at Herenplaats, Benaars and Gronert have developed a proven method for cultivating artistic talent. When a new artist joins Herenplaats, the co-directors bombard him with images from art books and magazines. They shower him with a range of supplies, from charcoals and oils to metallic paints. They hope that something will spark the new artist’s imagination and, as they say, "a talent will pop out." So far, they’ve had astonishing results.
Talent "popped out" of Jeroen Pomp, a 22-year-old painter, after he joined the studio in 2002. Pomp paints dense cityscapes that look like Rotterdam sucked into a paint factory and spat out again as a scrambled but still quite livable place. This imaginary city has animals, upside-down roads and boxy, pastel-colored cars. Pomp, who has both autism and epilepsy, frustrated his parents when he was a boy. At the zoo, he would throw a tantrum if they took him to see the zebras before the lions or vice versa; he couldn’t manage even minor shifts of routine. At age nine, he left home to live in a clinic for epileptics, and three years later he moved into a group home for people with mental disabilities. Now his life is anchored by a schedule of painting at Herenplaats, to which he commutes by taxi every morning.
Pomp is one of two Herenplaats artists who are the subjects of a documentary film being produced by Gert van’t Hof, a Dutch news anchor and producer. The project brought Pomp and his parents to the Outsider Art Fair in January. During the second day of the show, the crew filmed Pomp’s mother standing in front of one of Pomp’s paintings hanging in Luise Ross Gallery’s booth. Van’t Hof asked her, "How do you feel about seeing your son’s work here?" With a boom mike dangling near her forehead and a camera trained on her face, Mrs. Pomp began to cry.
Dingemans, who has Asperger’s syndrome, is the other subject of the documentary filmed at the fair. A large man who sports saucer-style earrings and a Mohawk haircut, Dingemans worked as a bike messenger before he joined Herenplaats. In his free time, he drew with a ballpoint pen on the backsides of calendar pages. Dingemans was on pace to create thousands of drawings before he died, and he might well have been "discovered" one day – as Henry Darger was when someone cleaned out his room after his death. When he learned about Herenplaats, Dingemans stuffed a load of work into a giant box and carted it to the gallery. It was one of the last deliveries he ever made.
Accustomed to working alone, Dingemans requested a studio in Herenplaats’ basement, away from the other artists. He declared that he would continue drawing in black and white. Benaars and Gronert granted his request for space and left him to draw however he liked. A few years later, Dingemans moved upstairs to work among the others, and about the same time, he began to experiment with colors. A portfolio of Dingemans’ work displayed in the Herenplaats booth at the Outsider Art Fair included incandescent paintings of Herculean men gliding on ice skates and strumming electric guitars.
Dingemans’ artistic transformation poses some inevitable questions related to classifying the work of Herenplaats artists: How does working in a studio, with access to materials and instructional support, affect an artist’s work? Does it make it less raw? Can this really be called outsider art?
These questions are both legitimate and vexing. They seem unimportant, however, when you consider Herenplaats’ success in helping so many people with developmental disabilities find a productive focus and win recognition. Dingemans is one of the few Herenplaats artists who would be making art if the studio didn’t exist.
At the Outsider Art Fair, people flocked to the Herenplaats booth. When they compliment the Herenplaats artists, Gronert sometimes talks with visitors about the rigors of the group's daily schedule, which is nearly equivalent to a full-time job. "They are artists," he says simply.