Willem Volkersz, a Dutch-born artist who's lived in Bozeman since 1986, and his wife Diane, also an artist, began buying American folk and outsider art in the 1970s.

Since then, they have amassed 500 to 600 pieces in a world-class collection that's been exhibited in museums far and wide.

Earlier this week at the Missoula Art Museum, where an exhibition of his drawings are on view, the MAM announced that he was donating 38 pieces to the museum's Permanent Collection.

Volkersz said he and his wife had begun to wonder about the future of the holdings, as he's now 77.

"The museum has always had a commitment to showing folk and outsider art," he said. The MAM has displayed pieces from his collection twice, mostly recently in a 2013 exhibition titled "Strange and Wonderful."

"Folk art and contemporary art often have the same impulses and often the same origins and some of the same expressions, so it seems like a very natural fit for our collection," said Brandon Reintjes, MAM's senior curator.

The MAM surveyed the works and sent a list, not knowing which ones they'd be lucky enough to receive. Volkersz gave them each and every one. The rest of the works in the collection will likely go to a foundation and then be distributed to museums around the United States.

The donation to MAM includes two works by Howard Finster, a Georgia preacher who began making art for his home that blossomed into Paradise Gardens, a massive environment of sculptures and paintings on his property.

There is one sculpture by Lonnie Holley, a self-taught Alabama artist who's recently found a wider audience for his music. Other figures include Mark Negus, Nellie Mae Rowe, Robert E. Smith and Jesse Howard.

Volkersz, whose family moved to Seattle when he was 14, said he's always been fascinated by American popular culture. Initially, that meant things like billboards, neon signs (a later medium of choice for him), or even yard decorations. When he was in art school, he saw slides of the Watts Towers, sculptures Simon Rodia built from metal and decorated with shards of broken pottery. Volkersz was so taken by them that he drove to Los Angeles to see them himself and take pictures.

After he finished art school, he moved to the Midwest to teach at the Kansas City Art Institute, he discovered regional strains of the genre.

He heard about people in the area who built "what we started to call folk art environments," he said. Some, like Finster, filled acreages with their work, and others made paintings, drawings, signs or sculptures with found or recycled materials. He was fascinated by their desire to make art for art's sake, not to show in a gallery or sell.

"They have an innate need for some reason to express themselves or to yell at the world. Some of them are literally saying 'up yours' to the world," he said, referring to the political signs of artists like Howard.

He traveled to the areas in the South where they were prevalent to take pictures of the environments and build contacts. Eventually, he began to befriend curators who were also interested, and over the course of 18 years in Kansas, befriended many of the artists and began to collect pieces himself.


The trove of folk art is only the most recent donation to the MAM from the longtime Montana State University professor.

Currently on display is an exhibition called "Willem Volkersz: On Paper," which includes 50-some drawings dating from 1954 to the present, all of which he's given to the Permanent Collection.

Seeing all the pieces on the wall together was something of a revelation, he said in an artist talk on Tuesday night.

"It made me aware that this is the story of my life. Each one of these works on paper is connected to a moment in my life or a place in my life," he said.

The earliest pieces were done when he was a teenager at Seattle's Garfield High School, where Jimi Hendrix was a member of his sister's class. Quincy Jones was an alum who'd graduated a few years earlier.

Already, the pieces show his interest in modernism over figurative work. While still in Amsterdam, his parents bought him an annual pass to the Stedelijk Museum, and he immersed himself in Kandinsky and Malevich and De Stijl.

Several of the figure studies, with his wife as a model, were drawn during his time studying art at the University of Washington. Van Gogh, one his artistic spiritual guides, appears multiple times in stencil studies of the fellow Dutchman's portraits. Volkersz's fascination with Van Gogh's wide-brimmed hats was later translated into his works with neon, for which he's best known.

He said drawing often functions as refresher between major bodies of work. He finds works on paper to be immediate and intense. "There's something about that process," he said.

In the corner of the MAM exhibition is an example of his neon work titled "Run!" from 2004. A woman built from neon sign tubing in mid-stride is on a background of homemade suitcases. Behind her is a chair, held up in mid-tilt. He took a turn from nonrepresentational work to narratives like these, which he said drew viewers in and led them to ask questions.

During the Q&A, someone asked about Volkersz sculpture, "In Memoriam," which was installed at the National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam last month. About a decade ago, a teacher at Volkersz's elementary school contacted him about a book project on the history of the school. In his research, he'd learned that 172 students and former students of the school had died during the Holocaust. Volkersez was floored. He started school in 1944. The Nazis had developed the separate school system for Jewish children in 1941, and began sending Jewish families to concentration camps in 1943.

He made an initial sculpture reflecting on that, and then broadened it. He built a suitcase for each of the students. Each case bore the the name of the child, their age, the camp they were sent to and the date they died.

The school wanted to participate, and he traveled to Amsterdam, where he gave a talk at the school, and then the children and parents brought the suitcases to museum.

The students asked lots of questions and knew their history. And someone asked why he chose suitcases.

Volkersz had imagined a child being told they had a half-hour to pack and run.

"How do you choose what to pack as a child?" he asked.

The suitcases are empty except for notes the children at the school wrote to the victims.

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment editor for the Missoulian.