Western Exhibitions is thrilled to present Gayleen Aiken’s first-ever show in Chicago, Gayleen Aiken: I Have Many Hobbies, organized by Peter Gallo and Sean Horton. Gayleen Aiken (1934 – 2005), a self-taught artist from Barre, Vermont, produced paintings and drawings that combined narrative text and image, cardboard cut-outs, and handmade books, often featuring a cast of recurring characters which she called the Raimbilli Cousins, members of an imaginary extended family that she invented as a child.

I first saw Gayleen Aiken’s paintings at an upstairs gallery and frame shop in Hanover, New Hampshire in the late summer of 1980. I was a college student at the time and had gone to the gallery to attend the opening of a show of etchings by one of my professors. A small exhibition of Gayleen’s work was arranged in a narrow out-of-the-way hall. It was scarcely attended and those few who did wander through from the evening’s main event were not so receptive. The show featured perhaps a dozen small pictures, some of them postcard size, mostly oil on canvas board or window blind fabric glued to cardboard, hanging from a string. The paintings depicted her now-famous Raimbilli Cousins cavorting under the moonlight set in skies more reminiscent of Ensor or Nolde than Grandma Moses.

The display was presided over by a short, sturdy, amiable fellow in Birkenstock’s, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, the artist Don Sunseri. Later I would learn that Gayleen, even after her star had risen, very rarely left her hometown of Barre, Vermont, and its surrounding environs. This was my first acquaintance with Don, and the beginning of our long friendship; Don started the Grass Roots Art and Community Efforts in the mid-1970s after leaving Manhattan for Vermont’s rural Northeast Kingdom, and discovered Gayleen’s paintings at local art shows and county fairs. He eventually became her friend, promoter, and collaborator. This was one of the first solo shows he organized of her work.

Assembling the works for this exhibition has been, in many ways, a second chance for me to experience Gayleen’s work for the first time. It was also bittersweet as I revisited my memories of Gayleen, but also of my great friendship with Don who predeceased Gayleen in 2002. I sorted through hundreds of things many of which have never been publicly exhibited – and which perhaps Don had not even seen. Most of these works were discovered in the artist’s small living space after she died in 2005. These included, among other things, paintings, drawings, signs, cut-out figures, lists, broadsides, scrapbooks, handmade chapbooks, and comics which are still being sorted through and documented at the former G.R.A.C.E. gallery in Hardwick, VT, which currently functions as a sort of makeshift archive for Gayleen’s enormous body of work.

Gayleen was a multi-media performance artist and the endless stream of artifacts she created were the elements of a sprawling but never finished gesamtkunstwerk. Those of us who had the good fortune to visit the artist at her home had to commit, before arrival, entire afternoons which she filled with elaborate and sometimes relentless programs of music, poetry, art, puppet shows, demonstrations of her latest gadgets, samplings of her fabulous record and music roll collections (among the many marvelous things in her tiny living space was an upright player piano…). I remember most fondly one winter afternoon when Don and I arrived for a very short visit. Gayleen had arranged three colored lights – red, blue, and green – on a dresser and spent the time making marvelous observations about the spectrum of light that bathed the wall behind them; it was stunning.

It is highly unlikely that a small selection (no matter how large that small selection might be!) of Aiken’s works could convey the range and beauty of her project; or the degree to which her life and her art were interwoven; there is simply so much material and so many ways to approach it. For example, an entire exhibition could be devoted to the way her work documents the technological transformation of musical experience during the second part of the last century. Beginning in the late 1950 Gayleen even made extensive notations in her scrapbooks on who bought televisions in her neighborhood! Another could map out the ways that modernity during her lifetime had transfigured the countryside between villages and cities from orchards to strip malls and housing developments. What this selection does highlight is the degree Gayleen devoted herself to her subjects and themes and the brilliant maneuvers she pulled off to keep these subjects and themes so alive.

(Peter Gallo)

Gayleen Aiken (1934-2005, Barre, VT) has been featured in exhibitions at the American Visionary Museum, Baltimore; the Fairbanks Museum, St. Johnsbury, VT; the Vermont Granite Museum, Barre, VT; the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, Middlebury; the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, VA; the Gallery at Lincoln Center, New York; Horton Gallery, New York; Luise Ross Gallery, New York; and KS Art, New York; among others.

The artist is in the permanent collection of the American Folk Art Museum, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Museum of American Folk Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, among others. She is the subject of Jay Craven’s award-winning film, Gayleen, and was a recipient of a Vermont Council on the Arts fellowship. In 1997, Harry B. Abrams, Inc. released Moonlight and Music: The Enchanted World of Gayleen Aiken. Her artwork has been featured in The New York Times, Raw Vision, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Boston Globe.

Her work is currently featured in If You Build It, They Will Come: Visionary Artists & Their Environments at the American Visionary Museum, Balt.