Last week Jeff and I spent a couple of days in New York. I love the city and always try to save a little time for seeing art or music in out-of-the-way places. If you read my Facebook posts, you know that on this trip I made a point of noticing and trying to connect for a moment or two with folks who were outside the norm—street people and men and women who were acting a little different. Folks on the fringe. Outcasts.

Several times over the past year I’ve asked readers to take a chance and try smiling and maybe chatting with outcasts, just to see what happens. It’s a little scary but can be illuminating and uplifting. I wrote on Facebook about a drunk vet who received help from a kind bystander and also about a young man whose rapping and dancing on the subway made other riders uncomfortable and who seemed stunned when I made a point of catching his eye.

                          Adolf Wolfli drawing detail

                          Adolf Wolfli drawing detail

In one of those odd alignments of the stars, Jeff and I decided to visit an exhibit called “When the Curtain Never Comes Down” at the American Folk Art Museum near Lincoln Center. As we entered the small museum, I didn’t fully realize what we were about to see: gorgeous artworks by people who might be referred to as “characters,” and who lived outside the bounds of social convention by dressing up in outrageous costumes, or trying to fly bicycles, or posing as trolley drivers. In other words, crazies. Outcasts. Their lives were, and are, performances that never cease.

There were colorful, meticulously detailed pencil drawings by Adolf Wolfli, who completed his first piece in a Berlin mental institution. He created thousands of these drawings before his death in 1930 at age 66. Strips of linen fabric had been arranged in beautiful starburst patterns by Marie Lieb, also from Germany but of unknown age. They were originally laid out on the floor of the mental institution where she lived.

A video showed a man named Martial Richoz going about his day in Lausanne, Switzerland, “driving” a shopping cart that he had outfitted to look like the front of a trolley bus. It had a steering wheel and a large panel of electronic buttons. Richoz travels a set route each day and keeps up a steady chatter, admonishing “riders” to not block the nonexistent door, to line up in an orderly fashion, and to have their tickets at the ready.

Each year during Festival in Salvador, Brazil, Raimundo Borges Falcão parades the streets in a new costume he has made from trash, with stunning figures of fishes, crustaceans and sea grasses. Unable to read, he lives in a slum in a plywood hut that’s open to the elements. Euriro Miyana, a man in Yokohama, Japan, wears outrageous hats and costumes—including dangling earrings that hold small bowls of water and goldfish. “His character and appearance are like a little pebble in the shoe of conformity,” writes the show’s curator. In a society that stresses the social good above all else, this is quite a radical gesture.

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    Suit woven from used rags by Giuseppe Versino (1882-1963), who suffered from early dementia and worked as a janitor in Italy. He frequently wore the pieces of clothing he made. Each weighed 70 to 100 pounds .

Suit woven from used rags by Giuseppe Versino (1882-1963), who suffered from early dementia and worked as a janitor in Italy. He frequently wore the pieces of clothing he made. Each weighed 70 to 100 pounds.

As I made my way through the exhibits, I couldn’t help thinking about what these artists must have suffered, with their idiosyncratic approaches to life. If I had encountered one on the streets of New York, would I have taken a moment to react kindly? Or would I have grimaced, put my head down, and kept walking?

At the end of a video that documents the attempts of Gustav Mesmer (1903-1994) to create a flying bicycle in the Swabian Alps of Germany, a commentary appears from the Swiss writer Robert Walser. “Having no mercy for themselves,” it reads in part, “ the Normal have no mercy for the Other.” My prayer is that I may cultivate mercy for all, no matter how odd, no matter where or when we may come face to face.

AuthorJan DeBlieu