Outsider art finds unconventional exhibition space in Nebraska

Chad Graff and Joann Falkenburg have opened the 6th Floor Gallery in a prominent building in McCook, Nebraska to showcase what might be the largest collection of outsider art in the state. Pictured is ‘Goose’ by Howard Finster, a renowned American outsider artist whose work is representative of the form. Image courtesy of Slotin Folk Art and LiveAuctioneers.

Chad Graff and Joann Falkenburg have opened the 6th Floor Gallery in a prominent building in McCook, Nebraska to showcase what might be the largest collection of outsider art in the state. Pictured here: ‘Goose’ by Howard Finster, a renowned American outsider artist whose work is representative of the genre. Image courtesy of Slotin Folk Art and LiveAuctioneers.

MCCOOK, Neb. (AP) – What may be the largest collection in Nebraska of outsider art is now on display in McCook at a new art space.

But don’t expect the hushed conversations and pristine white walls of a typical art gallery. Instead, Chad Graff and his wife, Joann Falkenburg, want the top floor of the historic Keystone Business Center to also be used as an art workspace and networking hub for the McCook community.

“If you talk about art, you don’t have to talk about politics or religion,” Falkenburg said, who worked as a family doctor in Oakland, Calif., before moving to McCook. “We want to promote artistic creativity in McCook and create a conversation with the community to bridge some gaps.”

The massive setting of the “6th Floor” gallery is an art statement in itself. The entire floor is gutted of interior walls, leaving exposed beams, concrete columns, red brick, metal and plastic pipes. Windows original to the 99-year-old building and now with UV protection flood the space with natural light and give a unique, panoramic view of McCook. Hundreds of pieces of art are displayed on every available space, the surroundings as raw and unconventional as the art itself.

The McCook Gazette reports that many pieces in the collection are outsider art, or art brut, pieces made by self-taught artists with little or no contact with the mainstream art world. It includes Navajo and Hopi artists and those from Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, Calif., a non-profit that encourages people with developmental disabilities to express themselves through art. Several artists in the collection have gone on to worldwide renown, with their pieces in permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and now, in McCook, too.

The collection in McCook includes artwork from Creative Growth artists Dan Miller, a non-verbal artist who has autism and creates pieces of layered words and symbols, with permanent pieces at the MOMA in New York and other galleries and Monica Valentine, who is blind and “feels” the temperature of colors and creates sequin sculptures.

“We’re inspired by artists who come from places and experiences that aren’t well known and who find beautiful and intriguing ways to tell their stories,” Graff said of their collection that includes paintings, drawings, ceramics, wood sculptures, clothing, furniture and textiles. “We love these artists and their works and we’re sharing them with a community we love by bringing them here.”

A 1985 McCook High School graduate, Graff worked for Sen. Bob Kerrey in Washington, D.C. for a couple of years after graduating from Harvard in 1989. In 1991, he moved to the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona and became a high school teacher.

In 1997, he and Joann, of Harrison, Neb., moved to Oakland, Calif., and since 2001, armed with a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley, he’s worked as a lawyer representing public schools on a variety of legal issues.

It was while living on the Navajo reservation that Graff said he realized that art could be a connective force, when he saw how the Navajo culture used art as a way of life with weaving, pottery, painting and dancing. He started collecting art pieces as a way to support artists and over the years, the collection grew.

With art spaces shrinking in the Oakland area, it was Graff’s nephew, Jared Muehlenkamp of McCook, who showed them the empty top floor at the Keystone.

“We were blown away by the views and the space,” Graff said.

For now, Graff and Falkenburg are cultivating relationships within the community so the space can be fully-utilized, like working with elementary art teachers and developing an art program with Southwest Area Training Services. Exhibits of local artwork is planned, along with collaborative partnerships with other art galleries, such as the Maple Street Construct in Omaha, Neb. Art is a powerful way to bring people together, they believe.

“We all can benefit from the opportunity to create, the opportunity to express ourselves and see beyond ourselves,” Graff said. “That’s what art is about for us. We can’t imagine our lives without it.”

Graff and Falkenburg live nearby, so appointments are easy to arrange. Beginning on Sunday, Oct. 24, regular hours will be Thursdays from 4-9 p.m. and Sundays, 1-6 p.m. A community open house is planned for Saturday, Nov. 20, from 4-8 p.m.

By LORRI SUGHROUE, McCook Gazette

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