New Orleans is a city that embraces autodidacts and outsider art. As such, it’s an ideal city to host Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum, which will be on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) throughout May 22.

NOMA has a long history of exhibiting and collecting self-taught art (since 1955),” said Anne Roberts, curatorial assistant to the deputy director at NOMA. “We were one of the first fine arts institutions in the United States to collect self-taught art.”

The collection, consisting of 115 works that date from the American Revolution to modern times, features an enormous variety of art forms, from sculptures to quilts to paintings to models to functional items like pots, chairs, and a clock to a lion from a carousel on Coney Island.

"Rocking Mary"; Sam Doyle

"Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog"; Ammi Philli

Untitled; Bill Traylor

"Phrenological Head"; Asa Ames

"Encyclopedic Palace"; Marino Auriti

"The Peaceable Kingdom"; Edward Hicks

The exhibit tells the story of how the meaning of “self-taught” changed in the United States over time. Through much of early American history, it was common for artists to be self-taught. As time passed and art schools became relatively common, some artists utilized their trade skills to create art.

“A lot of the later artists learned different techniques from professional occupations,” said Roberts.

One such artist was Marino Auriti, who used his skills as a mechanic to create “The Encyclopedic Palace of the World” in the 1950s. It’s a towering model for a theoretical museum that would house every human discovery in every field of knowledge.

[NOLA] was one of the first fine arts institutions in the United States to collect self-taught art. Anne Roberts, curatorial assistant

Auriti spent years painstakingly building this model, which he eventually stored in his garage. His granddaughter discovered the piece and approached various museums, one of which directed her to the American Folk Art Museum.

Many of the other featured works have similarly interesting backstories. “Funeral for Titanic”, by George Widener, was made in ink on a paper napkin. Widener is a calendar savant who, if told a date in the future, can tell you what day of the week it will occur on.

When he was a teenager, he came across a passenger list of the Titanic and saw that one of the victims shared his name. Widener drew the ship. In the background, the date of every Tuesday for seven hundred years starting from April 16, 1912 is included (while the Titanic sank on a Monday, the public learned of the disaster and first mourned it on Tuesday, April 16th).

Henry Darger was a hospital janitor who wrote In the Realms of the Unreal, a 15,145 page book. It spans fifteen volumes and is a combination of densely typed prose and detailed illustrations. It tells the story of seven sisters who lead a revolution against a child slavery regime in a fantastical world.

A.G. Rizzoli’s devotion to his mother lead him to draw “Mother Symbolically Recaptured/The Kathredal.” Rizzoli, an architectural draftsman, drew an image of a cathedral meant to symbolize his mother in honor of her birthday.

The only Louisiana artist featured in the exhibition is Sister Gertrude Morgan. a musician, poet, and preacher who moved to New Orleans in 1939 and lived there until her death in 1980. One of her displayed works is “God’s Greatest Hits.” Morgan took an inspirational book of the same name and added her own drawings. Another is “New Jerusalem,” a painting by Morgan accompanied by her handwritten text.

Other artists include a welder, Thornton Dial, who used wood, carpet scraps, corrugated tin, burlap, nails, and enamel to create his sculpture “Birds Got to Have Somewhere to Roost.” Sam Doyle, a South Carolinian, painted people he knew from his community on corrugated roofing tin in “Rocking Mary/Mr. Fool.”

In 1955, NOMA began its display of self-taught artists when it organized the first solo exhibition of Clementine Hunter’s work. It then started collecting self-taught work in the 1970s. In conjunction with Self-Taught Genius, NOMA will also display Unfiltered Visions: 20th Century Self-Taught American Art in its Helis Foundation Gallery.

All images courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum and the New Orleans Museum of Art. Main image: ‘Flag Gate’, artist unknown.

Our Local Publisher Partners

The Arts Council of New Orleans

The Arts Council of New Orleans is a private, non-profit organization designated as the City’s official arts agency. The Arts Council serves as one of eight regional distributing agencies for state arts funds and administers available municipal arts grants and the Percent For Art program for the City of New Orleans. The Arts Council works in partnership with the City of New Orleans, community groups, local, state, and national governmental agencies, and other nonprofit arts organizations to meet the arts and cultural needs of the New Orleans community through a diversity of initiatives and services.


WWNO, the NPR member station for New Orleans, serves southeast Louisiana and parts of southwest Mississippi by broadcasting balanced news, thought provoking analysis, classical music, jazz and other musical styles, intelligent entertainment, and unique local content. We broadcast on 89.9 FM, and KTLN 90.5 FM in the Houma-Thibodaux area as a public service of the University of New Orleans. All of WWNO’s programs, including its growing local news coverage, are available online at WWNO.org.


WWOZ 90.7 FM is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Station offering listener-supported, volunteer-programmed community radio. WWOZ covers many events live in and around the city and across the United States, and broadcasts live from the famed New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival annually. WWOZ’s mission is to be the worldwide voice, archive, and flag-bearer of New Orleans culture and musical heritage.


Preservation Resource Center (PRC) has been preserving, restoring, and revitalizing New Orleans’ historic architecture and neighborhoods since 1974. Throughout its history, PRC has acted as an advocacy agent on a local, regional, and national scale, spreading the word about the city’s rich architectural heritage and the economic importance of preserving this heritage. PRC also takes a hands-on approach to preservation, with a history of successfully restoring over 1,400 properties. The center strengthens and revitalizes New Orleans in a way that is forward-looking and sustainable, yet sensitive to the city’s past and its heritage.


As a nexus for the arts in New Orleans, NOMA is committed to preserving, interpreting, and enriching its collections and renowned sculpture garden; offering innovative experiences for learning and interpretation; and uniting, inspiring, and engaging diverse communities and cultures.

The Historic New Orleans Collection

The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) is a museum, research center, and publisher dedicated to preserving the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Its holdings comprise more than one million items from more than three centuries, documenting moments both major and minor. Its four exhibition spaces–the Williams Gallery, the Louisiana History Galleries, the Boyd Cruise Gallery, and the Laura Simon Nelson Galleries for Louisiana Art–faithfully depict the multicultural stories of the region, from permanent displays exploring the evolution of Louisiana to rotating exhibitions showcasing history and fine art.

Southern Food

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum is a nonprofit living history organization dedicated to the discovery, understanding and celebration of the food, drink and the related culture of the South. While based in New Orleans, the Museum examines and celebrates all the cultures that have come together through the centuries to create the South’s unique culinary heritage. The Museum is also home to the collections of the Museum of the American Cocktail, the Galerie d’Absinthe, and a demonstration kitchen.

Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities

The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing educational opportunities to all Louisianans.

The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ mission is to provide all Louisianans with access to and an appreciation of their own rich, shared and diverse historical, literary and cultural heritage through grant-supported outreach programs, family literacy and adult reading initiatives, teacher professional development institutes, publications, film and radio documentaries, museum exhibitions, cultural tourism, public lectures, library projects, and other public humanities programming.



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