Old toothbrushes reincarnated by artist Nadya Volicer as a doormat with the word “smile” in the center are a fitting welcome to Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum.
A few steps inside, Emily Duffy’s “World’s Largest Bra Ball” sculpture comprises more than 18,000 donated bras hooked end to end, and Wayne Kusy’s model of the Lusitania is crafted from 193,000 toothpicks.
At AVAM’s Inner Harbor complex, art is fashioned from paints and clay, but also from bottle caps, unraveled sock threads, yardsticks, and paper plates—what the museum’s founder and director, Rebecca Hoffberger, describes as “uncommon reuse of everyday objects into something extraordinary.”
From the two-story, wind-powered whirligig by Vollis Simpson to Paul Spooner’s miniature wooden man in a spaghetti-filled bathtub, every piece is testament to the museum’s congressional designation as the “national repository and educational center for visionary art.”
A 38-foot-wide metal bird’s nest serves as the balcony of one of the museum’s three buildings; inside another, Fifi, a 15-foot-tall pink poodle, awaits the next springtime outdoor sculpture race. Neon letters outside two of the three museum buildings light up at night, spelling “O Say Can You See” and “Love” (with a red heart for the letter “o”).
A shimmering outdoor mosaic of mirrors and colored glass was constructed by at-risk and incarcerated youth; in the third-floor ballroom of the Jim Rouse Visionary Center, a weave of rich, dark wood comes from whiskey barrels.
“Go ahead, you can scratch and sniff,” Hoffberger says with the twinkle in her eyes that has shaped so much of the quirky museum’s vision.
“I really wanted a place that was based on the way I learn, which is through intuition, rather than sitting in a classroom,” Hoffberger says about the birth of the museum, which officially opened in 1995.
“I realized that all invention, really invention, not just embroidering on the thoughts of others, but truly fresh thought, comes from listening from within and being open to a full spectrum of new thoughts.”
Hoffberger was working for the department of psychiatry at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore to help the mentally ill “be integrated back into society” when she dreamed up the idea of AVAM.
“As human beings, the label of mental illness was such a confining thing and often did not express other aspects of so-called ‘well behavior,’” she says.
“I would see people who played the game of life very well; they may have gone to Harvard and played great tennis and made a lot of money, but that didn’t mean they weren’t toxic to everyone around them.
“My desire was to communally explore a bigger, more generous definition of a worthwhile human life.”
So she wrote the museum’s seven education goals as fast as her pen could move across the page:
1. Expand the definition of a worthwhile life.
2. Engender respect for and delight in the gifts of others.
3. Increase awareness of the wide variety of choices available in life for all, particularly students.
4. Encourage each individual to build upon his or her own special knowledge and inner strengths.
5. Promote the use of innate intelligence, intuition, self-exploration, and creative self-reliance.
6. Confirm the great hunger for finding out just what each of us can do best, in our own voice, at any age.
7. Empower the individual to do that something really, really well.
“When I came up with the idea, I had never run a museum before,” Hoffberger says. “I had been a consultant for nonprofits, so I had an idea of what worked and what didn’t work, in terms of taking a vision to full-blown implementation.”