When Andrew Safran, A76, F77, and his wife, Linda, first came across a work of art by William Hawkins in 1989, they were struck by its vibrant colors and powerful images, which were unlike anything in any artwork they had previously seen in galleries or museums. “We really admired the simplicity as well as the visual impact of this painting,” Linda recalled. “It was compelling and it drew us in. We immediately wanted to know more about the artist and his work.”
Born in rural Kentucky, Hawkins drew pictures of horses and copied illustrations from horse-auction announcements as a young boy. By the time he was eleven, his family had settled in Columbus, Ohio. For the next fifty years, he worked at many trades, including truck driving, house painting, and scrap metal dealing. He continued to draw, sometimes selling his work, which was informed by his life experiences. In the 1970s, he began to work in what is now his familiar painting style.
“American outsider artists are, for the most part, making art without any formal art education,” Linda said. “However, as artists, they have the passion and desire to create. They very often make use of available materials, draw upon their own life experiences and recollections, comment on their environments, and make personal statements through their art.”
The Safrans built their collection of American outsider art for more than a decade, from 1989 to 2000. It consists of sculptures, paintings, and drawings. As the Safrans’ collection grew, so did recognition for American outsider art, examples of which are included in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, among others.
Now, after years of enjoying this artwork with family and friends, the Safrans have gifted Tufts thirty-eight paintings, drawings, and sculptures from their collection. They will be displayed in an exhibition titled Expressions Unbound: American Outsider Art from the Andrew and Linda Safran Collection, from August 29 to December 16 at the Tisch Family Gallery in the Aidekman Arts Center; a public reception was held the evening of September 6.
The Safrans made the decision to let this important collection continue to live and thrive at Tufts because “we realize the dedicated commitment of Tufts to continuing the development of quality arts education, especially with the addition of the School of the Museum of Fine Art.” Linda continued, “It was not an easy decision, because the art has meant so much to us over the years, but we’re thrilled that these works are now a part of the Tufts permanent collection to be studied and enjoyed by the Tufts community and so many others.”
Dina Deitsch, director and chief curator of Tufts University Art Galleries, called the gift groundbreaking. “There is nothing like it in the university collection to date, nor in academic collections in the area,” Deitsch said. “They have gifted us an entire coursework of artwork to teach, allowing this and future generations of art students to appreciate self-taught artists’ passion and ability.”
The Safrans have a close association with Tufts—Andrew is a member of the Fletcher School Board of Advisors and an emeritus trustee, and one of their daughters graduated from Tufts. James Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, said the gift is a wonderful way to commemorate Andrew’s service to Tufts.
“This addition to the permanent collection will allow Tufts students across disciplines, faculty, and all other members of our community who are art lovers to study and enjoy these artists’ works,” Glaser said. “We are delighted that the Safrans chose Tufts as the home for their collection, especially considering the personal resonance that these works hold for their family.”
Artists featured in the exhibit include Bessie Harvey, a Georgia-born artist who created sculptures from found objects; Purvis Young, a Miami painter and collagist whose uncle introduced him to drawing as a child, and who reconnected with art while briefly incarcerated as a teenager; and Mary T. Smith, who experienced hearing loss and drew comfort and release from painting on plywood and corrugated tin. Their achievements reflect the philosophy at the heart of Tufts, Glaser said.
“At Tufts, we believe that anyone with passion and engagement can make a difference and contribute to or change the conversation—in society, in science, or in scholarship—regardless of background or opportunity,” Glaser said. “Outsider art embodies that inclusive and democratic spirit.”
Linda said she hopes the exhibition inspires the same curiosity and desire to learn more as it did for her and Andrew when they acquired their first painting by William Hawkins. “We’re really excited about sharing this with people who are experiencing this art and these artists for the first time,” Linda said. “I hope that viewers are curious about what they see—and can appreciate that although sometimes simple in image and form, this artwork speaks volumes about the complexity of these artists’ talents and passions.”