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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

Ramirez's drawings are intricate and of great visual depth.

MAM a natural venue for "Martin Ramirez"


The work of Martin Ramirez is by no means unknown, especially in folk art and outsider art circles, but don't be surprised if you don't know him. His is certainly not a household name.

Look at the work and you'll wonder why. It's rich with storytelling, alive with explosive depth despite its two-dimensional format and full of allusive imagery that conjures Mexican Madonnas and Hollywood westerns and at times seems lucidly autobiographical.

So, how did the Milwaukee Art Museum come to host the eponymous exhibition of his work in its high profile Baker/Rowland Galleries Oct. 6 through Jan. 13?

Well, thanks in large part to former MAM Director Russell Bowman, the Milwaukee institution has one of the country's deepest and most respected collections of folk and outsider art.

But, says exhibition curator Brooke Davis Anderson of the American Folk Art Museum in New York, MAM was a natural in other ways, too. MAM and Folk Art Museum have collaborated in the past.

"Milwaukee has a lot to do with ... the birthing of this project," she says, as an introduction to two major ways in which the show is linked to Milwaukee and MAM. "This is another great reunion of two fabulous collections and institutions."

"In 2000 I met for the first time Victor Espinoza and Kristin Espinoza at the Milwaukee airport. We sat in some courtyard and had coffee and I heard this marvelous tale of all of the research the Espinozas had conducted since the 1980s on Martin Ramirez and it basically just exploded my mind and expanded my vision about the artist.

"I went back to New York completely abuzz and went to our former director Gerard Wertkin and said now's our time to do the Ramirez show. We have all this new research and we've got to make this happen."

Davis Anderson says a more concrete connection with MAM came via a chance encounter with museum director David Gordon.

"Years later in about 2004, it must have been, or 2005, I was in the heat of picking all of the work for the exhibition. I was looking at as many Martin Ramirez drawings as I could find so that I could make the right selection for the exhibition and I flew to Houston for a day to look at all of the Ramirezes at collections in Houston and I rushed in to go see at the MFA Houston an exhibition of the artist Thornton Dial.

"When I rushed into the MFA in Houston I ran into David Gordon and we happened to be in the city by chance and we had met before and so we had a lovely reunion. David politely asked me what I was up to and I mentioned that I was developing a Martin Ramirez exhibition and all this new research and we were hoping it would be the biggest exhibition to date of the Ramirez's work and David say, 'hmm, reach out to me about that show.' So, in fact, the seeds were planted for a Milwaukee venue for quite a time now."

The result is that Milwaukee can now be properly introduced to the work of Mexican native Martin Ramirez, whose own story is as compelling as his detailed, imaginative and resourceful artwork.

Born in the Jalisco region of Mexico in 1895, Ramirez emigrated to northern California in 1925 where he worked in mines and on the railroad. Not long after, drawings began to appear in the letters he sent back home.

In 1931, Ramirez was picked up by police for erratic behavior and was diagnosed as manic depressive and committed to Stockton State Hospital. His family, it seems, had no idea where he was. Despite a number of escapes and a visit by a nephew who asked if he'd like to return to Mexico, Ramirez remained at Stockton and later at DeWitt State Hospital until his death in 1963.

During those years, on the floor between beds in the ward, Ramirez cobbled together large paper "canvases" from found paper cups, pages from books and other sources and begins to make his elaborate drawings. He made his own glues with saliva and mashed potatoes, creates his own inks and hung his work in the ward.

Tarmo Pasto, a professor of art and psychology, met Ramirez and championed his work, helping to make Ramirez one of the first "stars" of the then-new "outsider" art world. Ramirez's work was exhibited and young artists like Wayne Thiebaud visited DeWitt to watch him work.

But much of what was known about was lost or misconstrued through the years until the Espinozas became fascinated by his life and work and began researching Ramirez.

"We have been partners in this project from the very beginning," says Davis Anderson of the Espinozas, "and their research was the catalyst for the exhibition."

Davis Anderson's passion for the artist and for his oeuvre and for the hard work of researchers like the Espinozas is clear as she leads a tour of the exhibition on a sunny autumn afternoon. She looks pleased as punch, in fact, when she looks over at David Gordon and says, "I can't thank you enough for your encouragement to bring the project here.


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