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When Outsider Art and Christmas Collide

Kenny Irwin Jr.'s "Robotmas" installation at AVAM (photograph by Dan Meyers/courtesy AVAM)
Kenny Irwin Jr.’s “Robotmas” installation at AVAM (photograph by Dan Meyers/courtesy AVAM)

It’s easy to get obsessive around the holidays, what with the frantic shopping and cheerful imbibing and decorations to be placed. But some take it a long step further.

Outsider art — or folk art or vernacular building if you prefer — with its already obsessive nature with self-taught artists driven to incredible creation, is a particularly potent match. Here are three collisions of this visionary art with the holidays.

Robotmas!

Kenny Irwin Jr. at "Robotmas" (photograph by Shawn Levin/courtesy AVAM)
Kenny Irwin Jr. at “Robotmas” (photograph by Shawn Levin/courtesy AVAM)

Kenny Irwin Jr.’s incredible “Robo Lights” display at his home in Palm Springs in Southern California is visible year round with its giant pink robots and post-apocalyptic reindeer constructed from found materials. But it’s around Christmas when it all really springs to life. This year at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore he’s exhibiting “Have Yourself a Happy Little Robotmas” as part of the Human, Soul and Machine: The Coming Singularity! exhibition on view until August 31, 2014. Irwin is a practicing Muslim himself, but one-eyed snowmen from some Lovecraftian future are pretty nondenominational. The installation also features fanged reindeer emerging from toilets, lines of pink skulls, a tree decorated with microwaved electronics (he already zapped his own copies of the top pricey toys of the season), a cyclops santa, and other trappings of a holiday of futuristic horror.

Kenny Irwin Jr.'s "Robotmas" installation at AVAM (photograph by Dan Meyers/courtesy AVAM)
Kenny Irwin Jr.’s “Robotmas” installation at AVAM (photograph by Dan Meyers/courtesy AVAM)
Kenny Irwin Jr.'s "Robotmas" installation at AVAM (photograph by Dan Meyers/courtesy AVAM)
Kenny Irwin Jr.’s “Robotmas” installation at AVAM (photograph by Dan Meyers/courtesy AVAM)

The Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa

Nativity scene at the Owl House (photograph by  Paul Perton/Flickr user)
Nativity scene at the Owl House (photograph by Paul Perton/Flickr user)

With the religious tone of many vernacular environments, it’s no surprise that there are plenty of outsider art nativity scenes. The Owl House by self-taught creator Helen Martins in Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa, is particularly fascinating. Her small nativity is just a part of the hundreds of sculptures she started building at the age of 50 from concrete and glass. There are camels, owls (her totem animal), and other humans that wander in the tableau. She was reportedly inspired by William Blake, the Bible, and Omar Khayyam’s poetry, as well as a personal enchantment with pilgrimages to the east, which is the direction all the figures face with the nativity at the edge where some stop and others file by.

Bird sculptures at the Owl House (photograph by Kim Stevens, via Wikimedia)
Bird sculptures at the Owl House (photograph by Kim Stevens, via Wikimedia)
Sculptures at the Owl House (photograph by Kim Stevens, via Wikimedia)
Sculptures at the Owl House (photograph by Kim Stevens, via Wikimedia)
Pilgrims at the Owl House (photograph by  Pedro Buccellato/Flickr user)
Pilgrims at the Owl House (photograph by Pedro Buccellato/Flickr user)

The Hill of Lights in Manarola, Italy

Hill of lights in Manarola (photograph by  Stefano Dellepiane/Flickr user)
Hill of lights in Manarola (photograph by Stefano Dellepiane/Flickr user)

Over in Manarola, Italy, each November, Mario Andreoli’s “La collina delle luci” (“Hill of Lights”) returns. The retired railway man started in 1961 transforming a former vineyard into an illuminated nativity scene for the holidays. The environment is built from thousands of lights and recycled materials like signs, old cans, and iron rods. However, his creations embrace the waterfront setting with dolphins flitting among the sheep and shepherds. Some of the hundreds of figures traveled to the Liguria Brut! exhibition in 2011 in the Rizomi Art Brut gallery in Turin, but the easiest way to see them is in their annual temporary environment.

Detail of the hill of lights (photograph by Stefano Dellepiane/Flickr user)
Detail of the hill of lights (photograph by Stefano Dellepiane/Flickr user)
Hill of lights in Manarola (photograph by  Elena Giglia/Flickr user)
Hill of lights in Manarola (photograph by Elena Giglia/Flickr user)
The hill of lights in daylight (photograph by shineon-it/Flickr user)
The hill of lights in daylight (photograph by shineon-it/Flickr user)
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