All that is new and strange at Lehigh

They bear enticing names such as the “Throne of Regeneration,” the “Concrete Tree of Sacred Debris,” or the “Glass-Shard Shrine of Elvis the Divine.”
They are actually the fruits of a semester’s worth of work for a group of Lehigh students in a class titled “Raw Vision: Creativity and Ecstasy in the Work of Shamans, Mystics and Outsider Artists” that is taught by Norman J. Girardot, Distinguished University Professor of Religion Studies and expert in outsider art.
The works will be unveiled and consecrated in a special ritual at 2:42 p.m. Thursday at the Outsider Arch Site, which is positioned halfway up the wooded hillside of South Mountain. The ceremony is open to the public.
Guests are invited to gather at the “Outsider Enclave Megalith” at the entrance to the “Plateau of Dreams” to view what Girardot calls “all that is new and strange at Lehigh.” (See bottom of article for directions.)
“The genius of outsider art is to take what the world has thrown away and give it life, give it spirit again,” says Girardot. “It shows us that, as the famous shaman artist Joseph Beuys said, ‘All people are artists. They just have to rediscover their human and artistic souls.’”
”Creative masters of visionary experience”
In the course, Girardot and students celebrated the lives and works of exceptionally creative individuals—shamans, mystics, and artists—whom he identifies as “technicians of spirit.”
“They’re the creative entrepreneurs of human culture who expressively create and produce something new in the world as a revitalization of forgotten aspects of our world,” he says. “They are the creative masters of visionary experience who journeyed to other worlds for their own sake, and for the sake of the larger community and environment. They’ve often been considered insane, or at least bizarrely eccentric, but they can function as productive, therapeutic and reforming agents for larger society.”
Throughout the study of the works of these non-traditional artists, students were aided by internationally famous outsider artist Mr. Imagination, as well as two other local artists: Sue Small of the Banana Factory and Loly Kinney, a mosaic artist from Bethlehem’s South Side.
Girardot says the experience of working with such artists was inspirational and revelatory for the students and, in some cases, led to a creative transformation.
One student who expanded her personal horizons is Sandy Cho ’04, a pre-med student carrying a double major in religion and biology who says she gained a greater sense of awareness of the world around her as a result of the class.
“I definitely have an appreciation for things outside of my realm of knowledge,” she says. “Professor Girardot is really a one-of-a-kind teacher who has great excitement for outsider art. His enthusiasm for outsider art, for the class, for life, is contagious. He definitely challenges his students by taking them on an intellectual journey.”
A well-kept secret
Girardot says the Outsider Arch Site is perhaps better known internationally than it is in Bethlehem. The Arch has been written about and featured in international art journals such as Raw Vision, which is published in England, and in at least two sourcebooks on outsider art.
Girardot’s “Raw Vision” class has only been taught three times at Lehigh. The first course, offered in 1999, resulted in what Girardot calls the “grandly strange” Lehigh Millennium Folk Arch, and the creation of the Outsider Art Enclave. In the fall of 2000, a second offering produced a major exhibition at the Zoellner Art Center titled “Four Outsider Artists: The End is a New Beginning,” which was identified in The Morning Call as one of the 10 best visual arts exhibitions in the Lehigh Valley.
A third offering during the spring of 2002 involved further work with visiting artists who included Mr. Imagination, Jimothy the Fool from Reading, and outsider artist Ben Wilson of England.
This semester’s work focused primarily on the maintenance and regeneration of the existing works, as well as planning for the future.
“The artworks already created at the site have suffered the slings and arrows of surreptitious vandalism and inevitable decay,” Girardot says. “This site was rather forlorn and needed regeneration. We saw it as our job to act as artistic midwives for the rebirth and renewal of the enclave project.”
Most of the outdoor work was done during October, following a month of academic study. Throughout November, Girardot’s class concentrated on the work of contemporary outsider-visionary artists and environmental world builders.
The rich and varied course menu is not only challenging and inspiring to students, but unique as well.
“It is quite probable that no similar course is being taught on the North American continent at the present time,” Girardot says. “What that means is that we are constantly finding our way and inventing the content and methods of this course as we work our way through it. That’s what makes this whole enterprise both exciting and daunting. This is a course that is constantly changing, subject only to the forces of creative transformation.”
Directions: On the Asa Packer Campus, follow Upper Sayre Drive halfway up South Mountain. Park off the side of the road by the entrance to the dirt road, which is marked by a large concrete megalith. A procession leading back to the site will commence at 2:42 p.m. Thursday. Sensible footwear is suggested. Girardot also suggests that participants bring a drum, if possible.
For more information, e-mail Girardot or call him at (610) 758-3353.
--Linda Harbrecht