Art liberates humans. Through art, the artist can find himself despite poor health or education or status. That is, one keeps his spirit alive, and perhaps can give something to other people.

Frank Calloway, 112-year-old artist from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is a case in point. This man has suffered from schizophrenia for 57 years. Despite this illness, he is appreciated as the oldest artist working in America.

In an exhibition of his work entitled “The Marriage of Art, Science, and Philosophy” in the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) in Baltimore recent now, we can see his long mural——about 10 meters——hangs at the center of a big room. In this work, Calloway used ballpoint pen, crayon, and marker on butcher-block paper.

In the mural, he draws some trucks, houses, buses, trains, and people. He uses a decorative style with a straight line basis. Clear strokes, shapes, colors are bright.

At first sight, it seems that Calloway just painted, without too much thinking what he really formed. The objects of his works do not form any clear life. His style of painting is rather unique, showing simple, clear, colorful, and sometimes naive figures.

To illustrate, he paints a mostly orange house with a yellow terrace, purple wall, and green roof. There are two smoking chimneys. In a similar way, he draws trucks, trains, or buses with many colors.

When those paintings were displayed as a long mural, the objects of Calloways tell us a narrative story about a never ending human journey. In other perpective, the naive style and the repetition in his papers perhaps tell us about an interesting game that we never want to leave it.

Yet, how does a mere paper can liberate humans? The answer comes from Calloway’s life. He was born in Montgomery, July 2, 1896. His family was poor, and fatherless. His mother died when he was a child. Calloway was black. In 1952, he was diagnosed as schizophrenic and has been treated continuously since then. He is currently living in the Alice M. Kidd Nursing Facility in Tuscaloosa.

After staying in a patient mental hospital for long time, Calloway wanted to put his imagination in a work of art. The objects in his painting—such as trucks, buses, trains, and people—keep his awareness of his environment and help him to find optimism.

He enjoys these art activities, at least keeping him busy. He goes to bed at eight or nine o’clock. He wakes up at six o’clock every day. Then he starts drawing on the table of his own.

Calloway’s works–may be also those of other artists in this exhibition–show that mental health trouble is not a problem for them to be creative in art. For them, art is not merely for ‘normal’ people. Nor is it limited only to educated people. Art is open widely to anyone, including the poor, the unhealthy, or the uneducated.

Perhaps, the people with problems like Calloway can offer a unique perspective for the art world. His original approach breaks the ordinary exhibitions. Art becomes dynamic. Don’t we remember some famous artist also had mental health problem, such as Vincent van Gogh or Jackson Pollock?

Unfortunately, this exhibition does not display Calloway’s life story completely. It would be better if the committee gives video, biography book, or any documentations of his life. Common people will think that it is too late to start producing art when you are 80 years old. Calloway, 112 years old, breaks this rule.

We never know, how long Calloway will live. It is secret. Yet art makes Calloway’s life perennial. For sure, art has liberated him from his mental problem. Through art, he finds his own self.

By Ilham Khoiri
(2009)