Hans-Jörg Georgi squats on a swivel chair and holds a thick piece of cardboard in front of his face to cut out a strip. “I like to glue cardboard,” he says, without looking up.
Mr. Georgi is a heavy-set man of about 65 with dyed black hair, wearing red leather pants. “I had them custom made after a project,” he says.
In front of him in his atelier in Frankfurt is a half-finished model of a fantastical airplane that resembles a shark with a precipitous six-story tail. “Ninety-meter wingspan,” he says. “You can’t compare it with an Airbus.”
All his working life, mentally and physically disabled Mr. Georgi folded things for catalogs or glued labels in the Schober workshop for the disabled. Now that he must take retirement – something he’s not happy about – he has turned his attention to building airplanes from pieces of leftover cardboard.
Sixty of his models are currently on display at La Maison Rouge, a museum in Paris, in a room devoted to his work. The newspapers Le Monde and Le Figaro have printed photos of his air fleet.
Mr. Georgi was discovered by Christiane Cuticchio at the opening of his exhibition. The elegant woman with long, gray hair is a professional stage designer, who decided fifteen years ago to dedicate herself to what had always excited her in her art studies.
“Insane art,” she said. That’s what one called back then.
Someone showed her Mr. Georgi’s sketches and, because workers in the home where the artist lived said he was a bit of a loose cannon, Ms. Cuticchio took two female students with her, to meet Mr. Georgi amid his countless, bizarre airplanes.
“'Insane art.' That's what one called it back then.”
She offered Mr. Georgi a place in her Atelier Goldstein, a workshop she founded especially for disabled artists.
Ms. Cuttichio was not the first to develop an appreciation for artwork by people with mental disabilities. As early as the 1920s, German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn put together the first collection of such works. His book “Artwork of the Mentally Ill” is based on that collection, parts of which are currently on display in the Scharf-Gerstenberg Museum in Berlin.
In the 1940s, the artist Jean Debuffet coined the term “art brut” for works by autodidacts and people with psychoses. He demanded the inclusion of this art genre into the official canon because there was “no more an art of the mentally ill than there was an art of those ill in the stomach or knees.”
Now, the term “outsider art” has prevailed, and such artists are drawing lots of interest. In contrast to the often self-referential and theory-heavy contemporary art, outsider art is considered especially authentic. New York’s Outsider Art Fair had an offshoot in Paris last year, and Cologne’s Zander gallery, which specializes in this kind of art, opened a branch in Berlin in September.
Mr. Georgi is well aware of what is happening. “I am famous,” he says, while applying glue to a cardboard strip.
“Me too,”adds Birgit Ziegert, a small woman in her late 40s, embroidering a cushion with colorful wool threads. “This is a dinosaur-tortoise,” she explains. Ms. Ziegert has painted a stairwell for an exhibition in the Schirn Museum in Frankfurt.
Mr. Georgi is not the only artist from Atelier Goldstein who has had success in the art world. Christa Sauer’s abstract images have been purchased by nuts-and-bolts supplier Würth, a German company that has an art collection.
Ms. Sauer works behind Mr. Georgi. Both are about the same age. Ms. Sauer has Downs syndrome. When she was a child, a doctor predicted she would not live to be 10 years old, and no one made an effort to nurture her. Because hardly anyone spoke to her, her vocal cords deteriorated.
Mr. Georgi has been lame since he was a child. His legs were broken as part of the treatment, a painful procedure. In the atelier, he stays mostly seated on his wheeled swivel chair.
Only through their work can the artists get access to state-financed medical insurance and other welfare benefits. Most of the money the artists earn from their work goes toward paying for the expense of their assisted-living lodging.
Ms. Cuticchio finds that reasonable. For her, disabled art is not about business.
She wants to get her artists the professional due and respect they deserve, not to make them rich. She wants to keep Mr. Georgi’s airplanes together in large quantities and sell the collection to a museum. Only copies of his models are for sale, she said. Each model is worth about €1,000. Mr. Georgi’s money is managed by a legal representative.
Mr. Georgi knows what his next purchase will be. “A leather T-shirt, I’d like that sewn for me. With a stand up collar. I’m saving up for that.”
The article first appeared in Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: email@example.com