By: Naomi Simone Edmondson
My dad, Arnold, can be seen here in front of our painted home in Ravenel, SC (2001).
In 2001, when I was seven, my dad covered the vinyl siding of our house with oversized spray-painted faces and figures that looked out into the wooded land we lived on. He’d begun this transformative project two years earlier when we had relocated to a 9-acre plot in the woods, 35 minutes from downtown Charleston, SC. In 1999, almost right after we moved in, he had covered the originally white linoleum floors of our kitchen with a galactic world of spray-painted dots and transformed the rest of the kitchen—cabinets, walls, and doors—into a living canvas. He had done similar work to our first home, filling the walls with murals of more lighthearted scenes: under the sea for the room my sister and I shared, a jungle for my parent’s bathroom, and a seaside dock in the kitchen.
His compulsion to make surfaces more colorful and texturally interesting began decades earlier—he'd been painting since age five. During the first few years of my life, he painted daily on an easel outside and would spray paint anything: straw hats, a large toolbox we kept in the backyard, the concrete patio off of my parent's bedroom, our telephone pole, our garage door, and so on.
The interior of our kitchen in Ravenel, SC (2001)
Before we moved to the house in the woods of Ravenel in 1999 when I was five, my dad focused his energy on painting coastal murals in our home, painting on wooden panels/canvases, and carving charming wooden sculptures of birds and fish from tree trunks with a chainsaw (which were often scattered throughout our front yard, always on display for the neighborhood). After relocating to our secluded wooded nine-acre plot, however, he quickly got to work tearing down walls, ripping up floor tiling, and painting everything in sight.
(ca. 1997) The interior of the kitchen at the home we lived at prior to moving to Ravenel, SC.
In addition to his transformation of our home into an installation piece, my dad kept a sketchbook in front of him at all times. I remember him sitting at the head of our dining table—a massive slab of thick wood, which featured pages he’d torn from a Russian book on mechanical engineering underneath a few layers of shellac—an ultra-fine Sharpie in hand, sketching and writing obsessively beneath track lighting. The pages of the sketchbooks that remain are filled with sketches; purposeful coffee stains; old receipts; rejection letters from art galleries; candy wrappers and the like; and profoundly intellectual, whimsical, and satirical diary-like texts. It was during this time that he began making assemblage work with found material and quite frankly: junk. His work caught the attention of a few journalists and art galleries in Charleston between 1999 and 2001, but within a few years of moving "to the woods" as we called it, his creative mania had spiraled into severe depression and his art production halted.
Two pages from Arnold's sketchbook titled Swamp Juice (Jan. 1998)
Two pages from Arnold's sketchbook titled Black & White (early 1998)
However, he also had a comprehensive knowledge of art history and his oeuvre shows it. Looking at his art production on a loose timeline reveals an early interest in Raphael and realism. By the 1990s, his works recall the Cubism of Pablo Picasso, the abstract figuration of Willem de Kooning, the combines and assemblage of Robert Rauschenberg, the expressive linework of Egon Schiele, and the reproduced source imagery of Andy Warhol. Likewise, the text and drawings within his sketchbooks often reference celebrated artists such as Henri Matisse, Alexander Calder, and Edgar Degas, or express resentment about the little formal training he was able to receive. The common denominator in most of his works? Faces...or at least eyes. Of all shapes and sizes.
When he was riding productive highs, my dad also collaborated with local and regional artists, poets, and photographers, professionally photographed his works, submitted portfolios to several galleries, and had work featured in a handful of exhibitions in Charleston and Kentucky. For these reasons—and because his work often offers commentary on politics, popular culture, and celebrated artists—I would argue against the categorization of "outsider artist." The combination of obsessive creativity as an outlet for a mentally ill man, the nuanced art historical references, and the intellectual yet stream of consciousness introspection found in his writings and works merit a less evasive interpretation. The hundreds of works he left behind have been preserved and showcased on this site as a first step into a much larger project exploring his work.
A realistic black & white painting from Arnold's early career titled The Smoker (1973)
He was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder the year I was born (1993). I remember him mentioning his mental illness often, almost as if an extension of his name. He was quick to identify his vices and struggles for anyone who would listen. As a young child, my mom explained that he simply felt things—the good and the bad—on a deeper level than other people did. This was certainly true. While his rapid cycling and obsessions could make him difficult to be around, he was truly compassionate, incredibly empathetic, wildly eccentric, and unapologetically unfiltered.
We art historians might be tempted to call my dad an "outsider artist." The controversially defined term generally refers to an artist who is mentally ill, operates outside of the mainstream art world, and is often self-taught. My dad was indeed all of these things and eventually strategically embraced the term “outsider artist,” defining himself as such to the journalists and reporters who caught wind of his name, his painted house, and his wooded, secluded property littered with yard art of all kinds.