The Best Documentaries about Outsider Art and Non-Conforming Artists

The greatest list of all-time of just a few of the must-watch docs, in no particular order, that I’ve seen on Outsider Art and Non-Conforming artists over the years.

Beyond The Visible: Hilma af Klint (2019)

The first abstract artist was a woman, misjudged and concealed, Hilma Klint rocks the art world with her mind-blowing oeuvre. – IMDb

While discussion and debate about whether or not Hilma af Klint is an outsider artist can rage on for days, there’s no argument about how visionary af Klint was and how truly powerful her artwork leaves viewers. Possibly the first abstract artist ever, well before Kandinsky, af Klint was unlike most outsider artists coming from a well-to-do family and going to art school to become a classically trained artist. This documentary does a fantastic job showing how and why af Klint left that world behind her and eventually wound up in a cabin in Sweden, leaving behind one of the more complex and spiritual artworks to come out of the early 20th century. Outsider or not, af Klint would participate in seances and create larger-than-life artworks trance-like state leaving behind an incredible collection and more fascinating story of a woman who was way ahead of her time.

Watch for free on YouTube, free with a library subscription on Kanopy, or on Criterion.

Turning The Art World Inside Out (2013)

Alan Yentob travels the world to discover why so-called “Outsider Art” has gone from being one of the most overlooked art-forms of the late 20th century, to one of the most essential of the 21st century. – BBC

A tremendous look at how outsider art has traveled throughout in the Europe in the 1900s and into the hearts and minds of the entire world in the 2000s. While outsider art is more inside than it has ever been, it most certainly wasn’t always the case. An honest look and discussion with artists, collectors, gallerists, and more on how and why outsider art has finally started resonating with more people on the ‘inside’ of the art world.

Watch for free on YouTube.

¿Qué tienes debajo del sombrero? (2006)

Documentary about Judith Scott, an internationally renowned outsider artist, who was born with Down’s Syndrome and diagnosed as “severely mentally retarded” at the age of seven. – IMDb

Judith Scott is one of the greatest outsider artists of all-time. Creative Growth is one of the greatest institutions around doing so much fantastic work. So bring them together and what do you have, a must-watch documentary called “What’s Under My Hat?”. This is possibly the best inside look at the inner workings of Creative Growth and Judith Scott’s time there. Told by her sister who helped introduce Judith Scott to Creative Growth and helped garner her creative genius. Everyone should know about Judith Scott and watch this documentary. Come for Judith Scott, stay for Chocolate City. Or her stealing a shoe! Or her looking so incredibly happy celebrating her birthday! Oh this film is so good. Please enjoy!

Watch for free on YouTube.

Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts (2021)

An inventive feature documentary capturing the vivid life of Bill Traylor, who in his late 80s, living homeless on the street in the thriving segregated black neighborhood of Montgomery, produced a body of extraordinary art. – IMDb

Imagine this, a Black child born into slavery that grew up to witness the Civil War, Emancipation, Jim Crow, the rise of African American culture in the South, and then one day became one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Meet Bill Traylor. A story that must be told with artwork that must be seen. This documentary perfectly contextualizes Bill Traylor and why his artwork is so important. This documentary also does an incredible job of showing off a treasure trove of beautiful artwork by Bill Traylor. When you think you’ve seen them all, your screen will flash a never before seen work that will make your jaw hit the floor.

Watch for free with a library subscription on Kanopy or buy/rent on YouTube.

Possum Trot: The Life and Work of Calvin Black (1977)

Calvin Black was a folk artist who lived in California’s Mojave Desert and created more than 80 life-size female dolls, each with its own personality, function, and costume. He also built the “Bird Cage Theater,” where the dolls perform and sing in voices recorded by the artist. – FolkStreams

There’s no chance you can watch the first two minutes of “Possom Trot” and turn it off. This buried treasure of a film was put together a handful of years after Calvin Black died in 1972, following wife Ruby in and around “Possum Trot” as you meet Calvin’s cast of characters. As you take in one talking doll after the next — oh, that one is riding a stationary bike that is powering a windmill — you also feel as if you’re breathing the sand and dust kicked up from tourists looking to get a front-row seat to the next show. Then, as you continue to wind in and out of these structures, you notice yet another tremendous homemade sign you can imagine and hear Calvin sternly but politely asking you to keep your voices down as the show begins. The imagery and story told by filmmakers Allie Light and Irving Saraf make me truly happy and I can almost guarantee it will also make you happy. 

Read more about The Life and Work of Calvin and Ruby Black

Watch for free on YouTube or FolkStreams.

Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

A documentary on the late Vivian Maier, a nanny whose previously unknown cache of 100,000 photographs earned her a posthumous reputation as one of the most accomplished street photographers. – IMDb

Finding Vivian Maier is an absolutely perfect example of art for art’s sake. A woman who picked up a camera and never put it down, taking thousands and thousands of photos over the course of decades, never being taught how to take photos, no composition lessons, no sense of the elements of art or principles of design, yet Vivian Maier took some of the most striking and telling photos of a world that no longer exists. There was no rhyme or reason. She didn’t tell anyone. She didn’t make any money from these and seemingly meant for anyone to ever see them. Enter John Maloof and a mission to make Vivian Maier a household name and show the brilliant storyteller that was Vivian Maier.

Watch on streaming on AMC+, buying or renting on AppleTV and buying YouTube.

In The Realms of The Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger (2004)

Henry Darger worked all his life in menial jobs in Chicago. Living alone and in poverty, he had no friends or close family. Spending all his off hours alone, he whiled away the hours working on a 15,000 page illustrated novel called The Realms of the Unreal. – IMDb

A story about a quiet man who, on the surface, lived an average, some might say very dull life. Henry Darger passed away and it was uncovered that he was living anything but a dull life. An inside look at the man who for decades created his own world, perhaps a better world, a more fair world, or one that made more sense to the man who, in the early 1900s was orphaned and cast aside. The world, “The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glodeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Cased by the Child Slave Rebellion”. Right? If that seems complicated to fathom, try the 15,000 page manuscript that tells the story or the hundreds of incredibly drawn and painted artworks depicting the tale. It’s best to start here with his documentary.

Watch for free on YouTube.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)

Daniel Johnston, manic-depressive genius singer/songwriter/artist is revealed in this portrait of madness, creativity and love. – IMDb

An in-depth look at Daniel Johnston, a singer/songwriter and incredible visual artist who wrote some of the most powerful, heartbreaking, and beautiful songs you’ve probably never heard. His songs have been covered by Kurt Cobain, Wilco, Elizabeth Moen, and more, yet his struggles with bipolar disorder and numerous manic episodes kept him in and out of hospitals and mainly out of the spotlight. This documentary goes back to the beginning to trace Daniel’s love for creating, always, and never ceasing to stop. All the while, he seemingly had to continue to battle the devil for survival.

Watch for free with ads on Tubi and buy/rent on YouTube.

Wesley Willis: The Daddy of Rock ‘n’ Roll (2003)

Documentary about the late Chicago artist and musician Wesley Willis. Filmmaker Daniel Bitton follows Willis throughout the Chicago area, riding the bus, talking to friends and strangers alike, selling his CDs to record shops and going about his day. – IMDb

What a beautifully tragic story. Everything about Wesley Willis is raw. His art is raw. His songs are raw. This documentary is raw. Everything is so raw, yet still so magnetic and moving. It is easy to see why even strangers, often with their kids, couldn’t help but be pulled toward Wesley, even if he was talking about whupping Batman’s ass and bending over, asking for a headbutt. This documentary made me both sad and happy. It was sad to see what was the last few months of his life, walking from the bus stop to CD store, huffing and puffing his large frame down the Chicago streets as he went on numerous “hellrides”. It made me happy because they touched on the struggles and trauma in Wesley’s life, but it wasn’t until this documentary that I knew the support system that he had as he managed the day-to-day struggle with schizophrenia. Enjoy the hell out of the brilliance Wesley Willis left behind.

Watch for free on Youtube.

There Are No Fakes (2019)

A painting, apparently the work of an iconic Native artist, leads the rockstar who buys it into the tragic, brutal world of an art forgery ring in Canada’s far north. – IMDb

Watch for free with ads on Tubi or The Roku Channel, and buy/rent on YouTube.

Honorable Mention

The following list are documentaries I personally have not n but I would have to imagine are must-see.

Non-Outsider Art Art Docs

Beautiful Losers and Black Art: In The Absence of Light go without saying. For a fuller list of Art Documentaries check out my Letterboxd list here.

Any good suggestions for art documentaries? Drop a line in the comments below or reach out to me on Instagram at @folkartwork.

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Published by marv

An artist/curator of outsider art and folk artwork, specializing in the marketing, buying and selling, promoting, educating, and storytelling of non-conforming artists.

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