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)
Media - 2016.38.43R-V - SAAM-2016.38.43R-V_2 - 126225

Sister Gertrude Morgan, Fan, ca. 1970, paint and ink on card, 9 3⁄4 × 8 1⁄2 in.; irregular, double-sided, Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Margaret Z. Robson Collection, Gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson, 2016.38.43r-v 

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.

Exhibition Catalogue

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

Publisher
Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with Princeton University Press
We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection 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 features recent gifts to the museum from two generations of collectors, Margaret Z. Robson and her son Douglas O. Robson, and will be on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum July 1, 2022 through March 26, 2023.

Installation Images

Video

Date
  • Explore the rise of untrained artists in the 20th century and discover their powerful personal journeys in We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection, on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum from July 1, 2022, to March 26, 2023.  Featuring 43 artists including Judith Scott, Howard Finster, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Bill Traylor, and Nellie Mae Rowe, among others, the exhibition examines how, despite wide-ranging societal, racial and gender-based obstacles, their creativity and bold self-definition became major forces in American art. 

    Watch as Leslie Umberger, curator of the exhibition, discusses the importance of Margaret Z. Robson’s collecting vision and highlights game-changing artists presented in We Are Made of Stories. Hear from Douglas O. Robson on the importance of continuing his mother’s collecting tradition and his gift to SAAM.  

    Media Series
    Date
  • Co-moderated by SAAM curator Leslie Umberger and Tom di Maria, director emeritus of Creative Growth Art Center, this program was presented in-person and online on Oct. 7, 2022.

    “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.

    Media Series

    SAAM Stories

    Credits

    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.