We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection

July 1, 2022 — March 26, 2023

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW)

Discover Powerful Personal Stories

Explore We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection tracing the rise of forty-three game-changing self-taught artists in the 20th century including Howard Finster, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Nellie Mae Rowe, and Bill Traylor, among others.

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Artists without formal training, who learned from family, community, and personal journeys, have long been a presence in American art. But it was not until the 1980s, with the help of trailblazing advocates, that the collective force of their creative vision and presence irrevocably turned the tide in the mainstream art world. Through drawings, paintings, and sculptures that span the narrative to the abstract, the artworks in We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection convey the humanistic power of art and allow us to see the world through the lens of another.

We Are Made of Stories traces the rise of self-taught artists in the twentieth century and examines how, despite wide-ranging societal, racial, and gender-based obstacles, their creativity and bold self-definition became major forces in American art. The exhibition showcases forty-three artists, including James Castle, Thornton Dial Sr., William Edmondson, Howard Finster, Bessie Harvey, Sister Gertrude Morgan, the Philadelphia Wireman, Nellie Mae Rowe, Judith Scott, Bill Traylor, and others, whose work was admired and collected by Margaret Z. Robson (1932–2014). Margaret valued their artworks and personal stories, believing both offered a truer, more complete portrait of our nation's makers and redefined who could be an artist in America.

Following his mother’s lead, Douglas O. Robson continues to collect the work of self-taught artists and to support an inclusive vision of art: in 2016, he donated ninety-three works from the Margaret Z. Robson Collection to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The exhibition features this original gift, along with thirty-two artworks he has promised to SAAM and a major painting by Dan Miller donated to the museum in 2022.

We Are Made of Stories continues SAAM’s decades long advocacy for a diverse populist and uniquely American voice within the context of what is traditionally considered great art. The exhibition is organized by Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Upcoming Programs

We Are Made of Stories: Selfhood and Experience in Art / The Margaret Z. Robson Symposium Series

This half-day symposium will take place Friday, October 7, 2022 from 1-6 p.m. EDT and addresses recent scholarship centering on the critical role of content and culture in the field of self-taught American art.

Artists Joseph YoakumHenry DargerNellie Mae RoweSam DoyleJudith Scott, and Dan Miller are highlighted for their creative abilities while challenging the notions of invisibility and historical hierarchies. Co-moderated by SAAM Curator Leslie Umberger and Director Emeritus of Creative Growth Art Center Tom di Maria, a five-speaker panel addresses these six artists’ contributions to American art. This program is presented both in-person and online. We Are Made of Stories: Selfhood and Experience in Art is the second program in the Margaret Z. Robson Symposium Series. Support for the series is provided by Douglas O. Robson. Doors open at 12:30 p.m. EDT.

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Exhibition Photography

Introducing We Are Made of Stories

Exhibition Catalogue

An exhibition catalogue, co-published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with Princeton University Press, is available in the online bookstore. Featuring more than 100 works and lavishly illustrated throughout, the accompanying catalogue, with essays by Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Douglas O. Robson, offers an important, and critically expansive, contribution to our understanding of self-taught artists, and how their individual stories have altered and enriched the complex history of American art ($45, Softcover).

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Credit

We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Generous support has been provided by the Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. American Folk Art Fund, Shaun and Andy Block, Steven Czekala, James and Catherine Denny, Sheila Duignan and Mike Wilkins, Travis Marquette and Sean Kosofsky, the Rumsfeld Family Fund, Jeff Rosensweig and Natalie Allen, and the Share Fund.