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Last Updated: Friday, 26 October 2007, 14:51 GMT 15:51 UK
Life on the outside
Three decades in the making: Kevin Duffy's extraordinary labour of love

By Dan Bell
BBC News

For many in the art world their creations are little more than the daubings of madmen. Their work has been bulldozed and vandalised, and one artist had bricks thrown through his window. Mostly they are completely ignored. This is the lot of the UK's outsider artists.

Outsider art is art that sits outside any known idiom. It is art created from an entirely new language. It is not for sale. And it is marked by obsession.

To some who are weary of the increasing commercialisation of art, outsider works are unpolished jewels, and the people who make them are the purest artists of all.

And hidden away on an old allotment near Wigan, a vast new creation has recently come to light. Former Lancashire cotton mill worker Kevin Duffy, 62, has poured his life's energy into creating a magical alternative reality.

Kevin Duffy showing off his work
Kevin Duffy, with a mannequin which, like most of his material, is donated
For over three decades he has used reclaimed building materials to transform his allotment-turned-garden centre into a labyrinth of three-quarter-size Tudor-style cottages, rendered pillars and curved walls.

On Boxing Day 13 years ago, his wife fell dead beneath the Christmas tree, and Duffy's work took on a dramatic new urgency. Since then the site has erupted with more than 80 buildings and sculptures.

He doesn't use scaffolding because it slows him down. He says he will never stop building and he expects to die with the work still in progress.

Those who think outsider artworks are the daubings of the insane have a point - outsider art was first recognised in the early 19th Century among the inmates of asylums.

In 1948, the artist Jean Dubuffet began to collect these obsessive, surreal and powerful works made by people who not only had never been to an art gallery, but barely knew what one was.

Dubuffet coined the term Art Brut to describe his collection. It translates as raw art - as in uncooked by culture or aesthetics, and like a nerve. This is outsider art.

But is it art?

No-one knows how many of these pockets of creative obsession are scattered across the country, but there are at least a dozen, and they have often evolved over decades.

Details from Duffy's work

• In Guernsey, a French monk built a miniature chapel and encrusted its entire surface with brightly coloured broken glass, shells and pottery
• In Northumberland, a strange menagerie sprung up out of concrete
• The setting for the TV series The Prisoner in Portmeirion, Wales, is an artwork
• And in Suffolk there is a garden made of hub caps

But is it art? According to Iain Jackson, an architecture student who has written about Duffy for Raw Vision magazine, the country's only publication devoted to outsider art, Duffy's environment has both the deliberation and ambiguity of a work of art.

"Like a lot of outsider environments, it's like a narrative or story," he says.

"Kevin thinks about the perspectives and axis that are created by his installations. He explained to me how he thinks of the foreground, middle and distance, being careful to place structures at key moments to create a scene and carefully composed arrangement."

Duffy says he wants his world to offer people an escape. Visitors to his garden centre are encouraged to explore the artwork it is built around. "We're trying to illusionise people, so it knocks them a bit dizzy because they don't know where they are," he says.

Sudden death

"All I want them to do is to take them out of themselves. To come on, to forget that they've got a mortgage, and they've got wife trouble, and the car's broken down, and they go off in a different mood."

Outsider art in India

He knows all about the need to escape. When his wife died unexpectedly he was devastated and he and his son Carl, 41, ploughed all their energy into the work.

"Rather than just brood and stop in on a rainy day and put on the cricket, we put on the dirty clothes," he says.

"It takes your mind off it, because you become obsessed when somebody dies. You can't think of anything else because of the grief. Keep going till you drop, that's the best way."

The Tudor era is his muse - the stately homes and gardens of nearby Yorkshire helping fire his inspiration.

There is no organisation devoted to preserving these works and many have been lost. One man spent 15 years encrusting his entire garden with sculptures and sea shells, only to have it pulled down by his son with a JCB when he died.

Duffy, who was known locally, only came to the attention of Raw Vision a few months ago when he asked the council mark his creation as a place of local interest. They refused but told him to contact the magazine.

Not for sale

John Maizels, editor of Raw Vision, is heartbroken when they are destroyed. "It's really upsetting because it's gone forever," he says.

LA outsider artist Simon Rodia

From a small clapperboard house near Watford, the magazine traces outsider artists from across the world. Its walls are lined with brightly-coloured books and magazines, each one a window into an alternative reality.

"It is not affected in any way," says Maizels. "It's not for sale and most of it isn't even done to be exhibited."

"When I came across it I was just so amazed by it, it was so powerful and it had such strong personal meaning... people are revealing themselves, their demons, their own aspirations, their own inner feelings.

"When you get to go into them and walk around, you're right inside someone's creative world and it's an extraordinary experience.

"They don't go to exhibitions or private views, they just work. They've got an inner compulsion."

Duffy says he has created 15 "sculptures" in the last year alone. "I can't help it," he says. "I do it all the time, every day, even when I'm ill."

Will it ever be done?

"No, no. I'll die and there'll be a building half done. It'll never be finished. It can't be finished."

Below is a selection of your comments.

The work he created is simply brilliant, I take my hat off to the determination of the work and to the fullness of the achievement.
Rob Wilson , Chingford E4

Baltimore has a very fine museum dedicated to this sort of thing - but called Visionary Art.
Noel Schively, Baltimore, MD, USA

I think it's brilliant. Tudor-style is my favorite to begin with. I would love to see it in person and if that can't be done, then a book about it.
Karen Jules-Louis, NYC, US

As someone who deals with mental health issues I applaud this man for dealing with pressure in this imaginative way. By his actions, he is providing inspiration for others who aspire to get away from a world than can often be cruel and judgemental. Long may he continue his wonderful work which brings pleasure to him and hopefully, many others.
Suzanne Leach, Harrow - Middlesex

It looks very good and is far better than some of the rubbish that is served up as art today. ie: a crack in the floor of an art gallery, or a single light bulb in a white room.
Pat, Worcestershire

Just wait till the Tudor period re-enactment people get hold of could have a sudden population boom.
Glaucus Osborne, Swansea

These are works of art the same as any painting or sculpture, only in a different medium. The artist may not be famous at present, but then again nor were most famous artists in their lifetimes. It is only when the creation, in whatever medium, is seen by others that it is appreciated and hailed a work of art.
Clifford Cheesman, Taunton Somerset England

No matter how cute and whimsical this construction might be, the suggestion of being Art is surely overstated. The sad thing is that it probably should have been subject to Planning Consent, especially on an allotment. At three quarter size, the buildings could conceivably be habitable. What if we all indulged our obsessions to put up an edifice on our allotments or even our gardens (over and above what may be allowed under Permitted Development) in the name of 'Art'. Not impressed by his lack of scaffolding either, HSE would have something to say, and maybe there's even a CDM implication for such a project, especially as the builder wishes it to be a visitor attraction.
Phil Sears, Dorking UK

The pictures look lovely and if I was in the area I would love to visit the 'village'. In general, if the structures do not cause a safety hazard, intrude on someone else's privacy or dominate public spaces then they should be allowed to develop. The artists obviously get a great deal of satisfaction from them and harm no-one. 'Art' is in the eye of the beholder, just look round some of the 'Modern Art' galleries.
Ros, Renfrewshire

What is art? Art is in the Eye of the beholder. I may not call it art, but then the next person may do. Personally half the Tate modern's art is a load of rubbish but then there'll be a lot of people who would disagree and berate my comments. Art is a broad term that covers an even broader spectrum.
James Langridge, Addlestone

Just how long will it be before a man from the council turns up wanting to talk about planning permission?
Stephen, Northallerton, England.

There's a guy in Chandigarh, India named Nek Chand who built a beautiful 'rock garden', which is now a tourist spot in its own right. Google it up.
Dev, London, UK

It is magnificent and should be subsidised by the Council so that it becomes an attraction for that area. Mr Duffy is a very talented man far better than anything in the Tate Modern!
Angie, Milton Keynes

Thank God for inspiring people like Kevin Duffy - with all the bad news in the world, it's heartening to hear of such dedicated creativity that doesn't cause anyone any harm.
Rev. Akasha Lonsdale, Calne, Wiltshire

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