New England Visionary Artists Museum a Unique Marvel

New England Visionary Artists Museum/Anchor House of Artists
518 Pleasant Street
Northampton, MA
 {Click on image for full size} 

I've driven by it a million times. So have you if ever gotten on or off Exit 8 of I-91. Maybe we shouldn't have rolled our eyes when our mothers told us not to judge a book by its cover. One of the coolest and most unique art museums in all of New England sits in an old factory building hard by a car wash and gas station and across from a bowling alley and rotary. I'm talking about the New England Visionary Artists Museum (NEVAM).

From the outside it looks like it might be little more than an artist's atelier with pretensions of grandeur. That's another book/cover scenario; NEVAM is capacious–more than 4,000 square feet–and stocked with namesake visionary art. Call it art with a mission. NEVAM director Michael Tillyer, a superb artist in his own right, started NEVAM in a 500 square foot space that quadrupled in size when it transitioned to the Anchor House of Artists in 1997. NEVAM not only displays Tillyer's art and that of guest artists, it's also an art therapy safe space for artists struggling with mental illness. Think art in its most inclusive definition. Tillyer greets guests and tells of three individuals who are no longer with us: Genevieve Mae Burnett (1945-2015), Mary Dunn (1956-2005), and Deborah Sklar (1964-2013). Each was (among other things) a painter, a poet, and journal writer; each also battled demons ranging from schizophrenia to hallucinations and hearing voices. 

You've no doubt heard that there is a thin line between genius and madness. Tillyer realized that most treatment modalities for those with mental illness emphasize manual and vocational skills. These don't address the need for creative people to express their need to make art. Anchor House is a subsidized safe space for artists wrestling with their inner demons–a sort of hands-on art therapy workshop. NEVAM features their work and also serves as a gallery and performing arts venue for artists whose work is offbeat and quirky. (Note: There are other Anchor Houses across the nation and most are associated with religious groups. I don't know if NEVAM is linked to these or not.) 

A stroll through NEVAM will expose you to marvels you won't see in many other galleries. If you get there before July 27, you can see the work of guest artist Amy Johnquest, who bears the nickname "The Banner Queen" for her retro carnival-style posters. These are evocative, clever, and often screamingly funny. A dancing pachyderm in a living room is titled "There is No Elephant." (Get it?) It graces the wall with other "attractions" such as Art Monkey and Dancing Disco Dan the Accordion Man.

Johnquest also displays works from her "Altered Ancestors" series. These are essentially collages in which old photos are shot through with painted-on electricity. It's as if a bunch of staid Victorians were hooked up to electrostatic generators. She also has some works that explore her fascination with faith and belief.

She's not the only artist at NEVAM with a slanted view on things. Tillyer and his friend Mark Brown have numerous paintings and masks, though it's their wooden sculptures that truly catch the eye: broom-headed figures, a flame-haired wooden figure with a hula hoop, assemblages made from castoff tools, and an adorable wooden pooch. 

NEVAM is filled with objects and creations that are at once familiar, yet exotic and offbeat: a pet nut and bolt, a painting that unabashedly tells us it's covering a hole in the wall, an old metal lawn chair fashioned into an alien, mixed media collages that skirt the border between humorous and grotesque, and postcards designed to merge two things that are harmonious in design yet incongruous in reality (like the sweep of old Yankee Stadium flowing into a curved bridge or John Singleton Copley's famed Watson and the Shark with Watson about to fall into Monet's water lily pond at Giverny rather than becoming a shark's lunch.

Much of what you see at NEVAM is surreal and perhaps vaguely unsettling, but its allure and magic is undeniable. Get thee to NEVAM. The experience is akin to grabbing hold of Alice's hand the moment she slipped down the rabbit hole and emerged in Wonderland.

Rob Weir  

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