press release

We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists
July 1, 2022–March 26, 2023

Artists without formal training, who learned from family, community, and personal journeys, have long been a presence in American art. But it was not until the 1980s, with the help of trailblazing advocates, that the collective force of their creative vision and presence irrevocably turned the tide in the mainstream art world. Through drawings, paintings, and sculptures that span the narrative to the abstract, the artworks in We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection convey the humanistic power of art and allow us to see the world through the lens of another. We Are Made of Stories traces the rise of self-taught artists in the 20th century and examines how, despite wide-ranging societal, racial, and gender-based obstacles, their creativity and bold self-definition became major forces in American art. The exhibition showcases 43 artists, including James Castle, Thornton Dial Sr., William Edmondson, Howard Finster, Bessie Harvey, Sister Gertrude Morgan, the Philadelphia Wireman, Nellie Mae Rowe, Judith Scott, Bill Traylor, and others, whose work was admired and collected by Margaret Z. Robson (1932–2014). Margaret valued their artworks and personal stories, believing both offered a truer, more complete portrait of our nation's makers and redefined who could be an artist in America.

Douglas O. Robson, following his mother’s lead, continues to collect the work of self-taught artists and to support an inclusive vision of art: in 2016, he donated 93 works from the Margaret Z. Robson Collection to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The exhibition features selections from this original gift, along with thirty-two artworks he has promised to SAAM and a major painting by Dan Miller donated to the museum in 2022. We Are Made of Stories continues SAAM’s decades-long advocacy for a diverse populist and uniquely American voice within the context of what is traditionally considered great art. The exhibition is organized by Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Generous support has been provided by the Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. American Folk Art Fund, Shaun and Andy Block, Steven Czekala, James and Catherine Denny, Sheila Duignan and Mike Wilkins, Travis Marquette and Sean Kosofsky, the Rumsfeld Family Fund, Jeff Rosensweig and Natalie Allen, and the Share Fund.

“We Are Made of Stories: Selfhood and Experience in Art,” the second program in the Margaret Z. Robson Symposium Series, will take place on October 7, 2022. This half-day symposium addresses recent scholarship centering on the critical role of content and culture in the field of self-taught American art. Artists Joseph E. Yoakum, Henry Darger, Nellie Mae Rowe, Sam Doyle, Judith Scott, and Dan Miller are highlighted for their creative abilities while challenging the notions of invisibility and historical hierarchies. Co-moderated by SAAM curator Leslie Umberger and Tom di Maria, director emeritus of Creative Growth Art Center, a five-speaker panel addresses these six artists’ contributions to American art. This free program is presented both in person at the museum's McEvoy Auditorium and livestreamed on YouTube.