Oakton’s Koehnline Museum features works by self-taught artists

Fifty works by self-taught artists put together over 30 years by a Naperville couple will be on display for three months at the Koehnline Museum of Art at Oakton Community College, 1600 E. Golf Road, Des Plaines.

The exhibit, “Arient Family Collection: Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century,” features sculptures, paintings, drawings, textiles, metal works, and ceramics by artists without any formal training. The “folk” and “outsider” works were collected from across the United States — north and south, urban and rural, black and white neighborhoods — by Jim and Beth Arient.

They avoided dealers and other collectors, preferring to visit and purchase directly from the artists.

The free exhibit opens with a reception, 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday, May 5, and closes Aug. 18. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. (847) 635-2633 or

“I found out about this collection through Dr. David Sokol from the University of Illinois at Chicago,” said Nathan Harpaz, manager and curator of the museum and instructor of art history and museum studies. “It is one of the largest collections of self-taught artists and many of these artists turned recently into ‘museum artists.’”

Sokol, who is familiar with the collection, served as guest curator of the exhibit.

Jim Arient wrote up how the collection was created for the museum. After their wedding in 1971, he and Beth became lifetime members of the Art Institute, spent time in museums and galleries and with auction catalogs and dealers, focusing initially on 20th century art, then Inuit and Canadian art.

Their collecting was transformed in 1977, however, by what Jim calls “the book” — Beth’s discovery at the local library of “Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists” by Bert Hemphill and Julia Weissman.

“Filled with wondrous images, we were both taken by the power and creativity these works possessed,” he wrote. “The Bicentennial the year before had raised interest in things American and perhaps we were looking for something new to collect.”

Jim tracked down some of the artists and scheduled visits.

“We started spending our vacations visiting folk artists. Our son, Matthew, started joining us on our trips; his first at age 3 months.

“These journeys were repeated many times over the next 30 years, and we visited over 60 artists in their homes. Sitting on their front porch or living room and discussing their work was an exhilarating experience that quickly became addictive.”

So where does their collection fit in the “real” art world?

“Three decades ago, interest was minimal with little museum involvement and only a few dealers promoting it,” Arient wrote. “Visit after visit with artists reinforced our belief that it was only a matter of time before self-taught art would explode on the national scene, and we were right!”

A major exhibit in 1982, “Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980” at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., was a major breakthrough that was followed by group and solo shows, and scholarship in the field, he wrote.

“We marvel at the acceptance self-taught art has earned in a relatively short time span,” Arient wrote. “Its place as an important component of 20th American art history is complete and irreversible.”

For Beth, Matt and him, “it has been a journey of a lifetime!”

Lee Godie, “Prince Charming,” c. 1980s, paint and ballpoint pen on canvas Courtesy of Koehnline Museum of Art
Howard Finster, “Floating in Power #2101,” 1981, enamel on wood Courtesy of Koehnline Museum of Art