A retrospective of the incredible milieu of outsider artists Heartside Galleries has nourished over the last decade and a half, "A Heartside Art Collector's Preview" is a celebration of rare talent, raw human experience, and the healing properties of art made without ego.
Kenny Cutler never intended to be an art collector. Neither did his mother, Kerri Sue Mowry, a volunteer at Heartside Ministries for over 13 years beginning in the late ‘90s. But during her time as a volunteer, much of which was spent assisting gallery operations, outsider artwork fell into her possession routinely—sometimes by gift, sometimes by purchase, but most often by accident.
For the first time, this collection of over 100 works—by Grand Rapids homeless artists and Heartside residents—will be on display to the public, during Heartside Ministries’ First Friday show, titled “A Heartside Art Collector’s Preview,” this coming Friday, May fourth
. A retrospective of the incredible milieu of outsider artists Heartside Galleries has nourished over the last decade and a half, this show is a celebration of rare talent, raw human experience, and the healing properties of art made without ego.
“She would buy art from the artists whenever she could,” Cutler recalls, “and a lot of it was given to her [by the artists] but honestly, most [of the collection] she pulled out of the trash…An artist would be working on a piece for days, then would suddenly decide it was terrible and throw it away. Mom would find them and be like, ‘this does NOT belong in the trash.’”
By Cutler’s account, the exhibit represents a “bygone era” from Division Avenue, when Avenue for the Arts was just beginning—a time when now prominent outsider artists and business owners like Reb Roberts and Jeff Vandenberg were exploring their talents at the DAAC and Heartside Galleries shoulder to shoulder with formally untrained artists with a breathtakingly diverse range of life experiences.
“Nobody was trying to impress anybody when they made these works,” Cutler recalls. “People weren’t thinking of building their reputation. It was primarily therapeutic.
“This [collection] is what the art scene in GR grew out of."
Mowry never sold or solicited the artwork she collected, but rather used it to adorn the inside of her family’s home, as Cutler recalls. “To this day, I look at pieces of the collection, and I’m like ‘oh—that’s the piece that mom hung in the bathroom, and that piece was hanging by the staircase.’”
When ovarian cancer took Mowry’s life five years ago, she passed the collection into her son’s care. None of the exhibit is for sale, nor will it be anytime soon, asserts Cutler. “I don’t want to take advantage of any of the artists whose work I’ve acquired,” he says. His respect for the artists, like his mother’s, runs deep.
“Mom didn’t see a ‘solution’ [to homelessness], she just liked going down there. Maybe it was charity by definition, but the truth is that they [Mowry and the artists] were friends.”
Some of the artists represented in Mowry’s collection have gone on to become well respected figures in the outsider artist community, and some have also since passed away. One artist—Anthony Harrell, a former resident of Detroit who would often tell Cutler stories of the gang violence he experienced in his childhood—agreed to be interviewed by Cutler for a sophomore high school paper, but only on the condition that Herald be allowed to paint a portrait of Cutler as he answered his questions. He gave Cutler the portrait after the interview. Herald has since passed away. Cutler says this is his favorite piece in the collection.
In partnership with Heartside Ministries, Cutler is opening up Mowry’s collection for public display this Friday, May fourth, as a “Heartside Art Collector’s Preview” for First Fridays, at Cutler’s studio, The Rushouse, at 717 Diamond Northeast.
Cutler will keep the exhibit open through Mother’s Day, in honor of Mowry, hosting a final show entitled “Kick Its Ass” on Sunday May 13th from 2-9pm.
“Mom would always tell us as kids to ‘kick its ass’—whatever ‘it’ was,” Cutler recalls. “She would write it in her art journal. I remember telling her that, when she first told us she had cancer. On my way out the door I turned and said ‘mom—kick its ass.’” It’s a sentiment which speaks to the nature of the collection, and their creators as well, he observes.
Both shows are free, and open to the public.
Marjorie Steele is a poet, journalist, publisher, and boomerang West Michigander. Currently teaching at KCAD of FSU, Marjorie’s works can be found at medium.com/@creativeonion and cosgrrrl.com.
Photos by Marjorie Steele.