An Irresistible Urge to Create: The Monroe Family Collection

Last updated on May 10, 2022

Jack Mr B Beverland, Untitled (2).jpg

An Irresistible Urge to Create: The Monroe Family Collection of Florida Outsider Art Opens at the Mennello Museum of American Art June 10, 2022

ORLANDO, FLORIDA [May 10, 2022] — AN IRRESISTIBLE URGE TO CREATE: THE MONROE FAMILY COLLECTION OF FLORIDA OUTSIDER ART is the most comprehensive exhibition of Florida Outsider Art brought together for the first time into one travelling exhibition. The passion for Outsider Art runs deep in Florida, where self-taught artists have forged an indelible mark of special attention on the creative landscape of the state. The most comprehensive exhibition of its kind, organized by Boca Raton Museum of Art and traveled to Tampa Museum of Art, the Mennello Museum’s presentation is the final stop through October 16, 2022. This is the first time the three museums have presented this definitive group of artists with an exhibition of this size and scope. Against the odds, many of these artists created obsessively to escape from their worlds that were often full of deep conflict and personal struggles

“This exhibition brings to the forefront the importance, really the essentiality, of visual creation as a means of candid expression – open and available to everyone to use no matter their background or supplies,” says Katherine Page, Curator of Art and Education, Mennello Museum of American Art. She continues, “The curatorial selection and essays by Kathy Goncharov (Senior Curator, Boca Raton Museum of Art:) and Joanna Robatham (Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Tampa Museum of Art), respectively, celebrates artists whose work and life experiences offer viewers an intimate look into amazing expressions of spirituality, environment, and private reality.”

Shannon Fitzgerald, Executive Director, Mennello Museum of American Art states:

The Monroe Collection of Florida Outsider Art reflects a deep connection to the origins of our museum with our pursuit, preservation, scholarship, and stewardship of the work of Florida Folk artist Earl Cunningham and the many folk artists and self-taught artists in our collection. We are proud to present the narrative of wonder, perseverance, and creativity located from a distinctly Florida perspective of some of its most vulnerable, yet immensely creative figures. The lineage that unfolds in the Monroe Family collection urges the viewer a compassionate consideration.

Starting in the early 1990s, the photographer Gary Monroe drove throughout the state of Florida for more than ten years ― from Key West to Jacksonville to Pensacola ― on a mission to find what he calls “Florida’s renegade artists.” Thirty years later, after collecting, protecting, and archiving more than 1,000 works by outsider artists, the result is an exhibition that leaves viewers spellbound. Monroe amassed an expansive collection, which includes the over 80 objects by 44 self-taught artists whose work is on display, many for the first time, in this exhibition. Against the odds, these artists obsessively painted or sculpted with an urgency to escape the conflict and struggle of daily life.

” When I made these journeys across Florida to seek out and connect with these outlier artists, it was before the internet and it was quite laborious,” says Monroe. During his decade-long quest across the state, Monroe personally met nearly all these artists one by one and became part of their lives. At the time this required a major personal commitment: he had to earn their trust to be allowed into their reclusive worlds. “It was an adventure,” adds Monroe. “Especially since there were no cell phones or GPS. Just good old road maps and phone booths.” Monroe’s odyssey culminated in 2003, when his book Extraordinary Interpretations: Florida's Self-Taught Artists was published by the University Press of Florida. “This new project opens a welcome window into another world. The world of wonders that lies outside the artistic establishment, this confounds our understanding of contemporary art, in a good way” says Irvin Lippman, the Executive Director of the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

Outliers, boundary- crossers, pilgrims, exiles, An Irresistible Urge to Create presents 86 works, many never seen before, by 44 Florida artists including: Purvis Young, George Voronovsky, Aurelia “Mama” Johnson, Frank Ritchie, Ruby “Miss Ruby” Williams, Gene Beecher, Kathy d’Adesky, Brian Dowdall, Floryan (Florian) Ludwig, Reva Freedman, Ozzie Lee “OL” Samuels, Sybil Gibson, Joey Smollon, Polly Bernard, Milton Ellis, Janice Kennedy, John Gerdes, Susanne Blankemeier, Morgan Steele, Alyne Harris, and Ed Ott. “For these artists, making art was as essential as breathing,” says Irvin Lippman. “Their artistic freedom was a pure, sincere and intimate means of communication.”

The artists in this exhibition were not interested in monetary gain or acclaim, they just wanted to create. “People who admire the independent spirit that unites these artists are awed by their sense of urgency. Their art is genuine. They let it flow from deep within their interior selves, they did not promote their work,” says Monroe.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully Illustrated catalogue with foreword by Irvin M. Lippman, Director of Boca Raton Museum of Art and Michael A. Tomor, PhD., Director of Tampa Museum of Art, and includes a special commissioned poem entitled Florida Primitives by Campbell McGrath, and essays by Joanna Robotham and Gary Monroe.

All Florida artists are primitives, so feral in their soil, so lush, endemic and elemental . . . All Florida artists are outsiders, outliers, highwaymen, boundary-crossers, pilgrims, exiles . . .,” and ends with: “art is an urge as irresistible as Florida.
– Campbell McGrath

A Brief History of Outsider Art
The interest in what is frequently called Outsider Art began in the early 20th-century with psychiatrists who studied artists who were institutionalized. In 1922, the book Artistry of the Mentally Ill became influential to the Surrealists. Later, in 1948, Jean Dubuffet and others founded the Compagnie de l’Art Brut, a collection of what they called “raw art” – art made outside the traditions of fine art. According to Kathleen Goncharov, the Senior Curator of the Boca Raton Museum of Art: “This interest has recently increased exponentially, as more mainstream institutions celebrate these kinds of artists. ‘Outsider’ artists are now most definitely ‘In.’ Many controversial terms have been bandied about to describe them, such as self-taught (in addition to ‘outsider’), but no truly definitive name yet. I suggest we call all creative works that are arresting, intriguing, and interesting conceptually, as simply ‘art’ and leave it at that. Jean Dubuffet said it best when he declared that art’s best moments are when it forgets what its own name is,” says Goncharov. “Artists create – that’s what they do.”

About Gary Monroe
Gary Monroe is a Florida photographer and author. He received a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Monroe has photographed people and culture in numerous countries and throughout Florida, including the endings of the old-world Jewry that once characterized Miami’s South Beach, with extensive travels throughout Haiti, tourists on their “rite of passage” at Disney World, and corporate effects on the landscape. In addition, Mr. Monroe has written ten books about Florida art, including the seminal book, The Highwaymen: Florida’s African-American Landscape Painters, which explore uncharted cultural territories and constitute a meaningful part of our social history.

Mennello Museum of American Art and its exhibitions are generously supported by the City of Orlando and the Friends of the Mennello Museum of American Art. Orange County Government provides additional funding through the Arts & Cultural Affairs Program and United Arts of Central Florida. Sponsored in part by the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs and the Florida Council on Arts and Culture, and Visit Orlando. The exhibition is funded in part by the generous donors to the Frank Holt Fund, Strengthen Orlando and the City of Orlando.

Mennello Museum of American Art is owned and operated by the City of Orlando.

Opening Reception
Friday, June 10, 2022
Members Only Preview | 5:30 – 6:30pm
Public Reception | 6:30 – 8:00pm
Free for Members
$12 for Future Members
Purchase Tickets at

Gallery Talk with Gary Monroe
Saturday, June 11, 2022 | 1pm
Free for Members or with Paid Admission


Image credit: Jack “Mr. B” Beverland, Untitled, n.d., paints on board. Courtesy of the Monroe Family Collection

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