New exhibit at AVAM explores the moment of inspiration

They have so much in common, these three long-dead holy women, their corpses dripping with jewels, that it's as though they've been calling back and forth to one another from across the centuries.

Now that their images are in the same room at the American Visionary Art Museum, the murmur of their voices is almost audible.

There's St. Kateri, holding a bouquet of her talisman — lilies — and reciting the Lord's Prayer in the Mohawk language. Embedded in the icon is a vial of water taken from the spring where Kateri lived in the 17th century.

The martyr Munditia, the patron saint of spinsters, is posed in profile so visitors can't see how her voice was silenced when she reputedly was beheaded with an ax in the third century. (Though it's not in Paul Koudounaris' photograph, Munditia, now in St. Peter's Church in Munich, is holding a vial of her dried-up blood.)

Luciana also was a martyr but doesn't seem to have minded much. Her mouth is stretched into a smile as she lounges on a lace bed, and the German nuns who decorated her remains in the 18th century even adorned her skull with golden ringlets.

All three are decked out in precious and semiprecious gems: diamonds, pearls, sapphires and rubies, malachite and lapis lazuli. Kateri's portrait appears on a contemporary icon drenched with gold.

The resonances among these artworks are at the center of "The Visionary Experience: St. Francis to Finster." The museum's 20th original themed show runs through Aug. 30, 2015.

The more than 150 items on display were created by more than 40 visionaries. This is an exhibit that celebrates history's dreamers and doers.

"Something that this museum always has danced with in its 19 years of existence is the intersection between ideas and inspiration," museum founder Rebecca Hoffberger says.

"This is a call to everyone young and old who sees this exhibit to start thinking about where they get their own best ideas, whether it's when they're half-awake or showering or walking alone in the woods."

The show includes a large-scale cartoon by Robert Crumb; four of musician Jimi Hendrix's symbolic drawings; sketches by urban planner Paolo Soleri that seek to merge architecture and ecology; and AVAM's largest exhibit to date of the works of the Rev. Howard Finster, the Southern Baptist preacher who created more than 46,000 numbered works and is said to be the world's most prolific self-taught artist.

As Hoffberger suggests, she and her co-curator, Jodi Wille, are trying to advance a specific point of view in "The Visionary Experience."

The show concludes that "consciousness is truly nonlocal." In other words, a universal pool exists of all the information that humanity has gained throughout the ages.

In theory, any one of us potentially can dip into this underground spring of knowledge and inspiration. Or, as the wall text expresses it, "We all drink from the same ever-flowing well."

In practice, it's the greatest artists and inventors who most easily transcend the limits of time and their bodies. "St. Francis to Finster" attempts to identify some of the common characteristics of these "eureka" moments.

For instance, one wall text traces nudity as an expression of spirituality from St. Francis to the Quakers to India's Kumbh Mela, the Hindu festival that's thought to be the largest religious gathering on earth. (The exhibit includes a photograph by Baltimorean Deepak Chowdhury of participants at a recent festival.)

Another wall looks at the power of the 20-minute nap and the way that it creates a half-awake, half-dreaming state, as practiced by creators as diverse as Finster, Salvador Dali, Napoleon and Thomas Edison.

Still a third suggests that universal symbols exists, and cites examples in everything from the Great Seal of the United States, which contains both a giant eye and a pyramid, to Hendrix's colorful drawings of abstract architectural shapes.

The Baltimore artist Bob Hieronimus says that most people misjudged the musician, whom he met in 1968 when Hieronimus was designing album covers for Elektra Records.

"Jimi and I used to get together and talk about symbols," Hieronimus says. "Most people thought that he was just into psychedelia, but there was a whole hidden side to him that no one knew."

Some viewers will be entirely convinced by the show's premise. Those who are less swayed can still delight in many of the items on display and use them to ask their own questions and forge their own unexpected connections.

They may find themselves, for instance, walking back and forth between the notes written on scrap paper that Finster kept of his visions and Crumb's cartoon, which depicts the religious experience of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick.

Finster supposedly had his first vision at the age of 3, when he saw his dead sister robed in white and walking down a stairway from the sky. Young Abbie Rose told her brother that he would grow up to become a man of visions.

Dick's vision sounds both more ecstatic and more traumatic.

"In March, 1974," Crumb's cartoon reads, "Dick saw what he later described as 'a vision of the apocalypse' and spent the rest of his life trying to understand what he had experienced."

Dick's life changed the day he had a wisdom tooth extracted, took medicine to relieve the pain and came to believe that his body had been taken over by the spirit of the prophet Elijah.

But when he felt Elijah leave in 1976, Dick tried to kill himself.

"There is nothing worse in the world," Crumb's cartoon reads, "no punishment greater than to have known God and no longer to know him. The voices stopped talking to me. I didn't care if I lived or died."

Other visitors may find themselves thinking of both Koudounaris' four photographs (two male martyrs, Konrad and Felix, also appear in the exhibit) and the icon of Kateri by the artist Judy Tallwing.

Together, the artwork can cause viewers to wonder about the impulse to beautify the decaying dead.

In the 17th century, Bavarian nuns hung an amethyst pendant from Felix's rotting tooth. Four hundred years later, Tallwing painted Kateri, not as she had looked in life when she was covered by smallpox scars, but as her body appeared after death, when all disfiguring marks are said to have miraculously disappeared.

The wall texts note that miraculous cures were often attributed to the bejeweled bones.

Kateri herself has been credited by the Roman Catholic Church with having performed three miracles. When Tallwing decided to create an icon in Kateri's honor, she inlaid it with gems, from the pearls that formed the rosary to the glint of diamond making up the turtle's eye. (Kateri belonged to the Turtle clan.)

It wasn't just because Tallwing found the jewels beautiful; she was hoping to extend the saint's healing streak.

"There is energy in stones and in the elements of the earth," Tallwing says.

"Pearls give off sincerity and compassion. Diamonds are amplifiers that either reduce energy or make it bigger. Peridot provides growth and wisdom.

"In making this icon, I was trying to create good medicine."

If you go

"The Visionary Experience: Saint Francis to Finster" runs through Aug. 30, 2015 at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway. Admission costs $9.95-$15.95; free for children 6 and younger and museum members. Call 410-244-1900 or visit

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