Rebecca Alban Hoffberger is the visionary behind the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. (André Chung/For The Washington Post)

It is 8 p.m. on an October Friday and 63-year-old American Visionary Art Museum director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger is hugging her way around the second floor of the museum she founded, past the giant metallic-on-the-outside, furry-on-the-inside head, past the stunning life-size drawing of a child whose hair is draped in butterflies, past the house dreamed up by a man trapped for 41 years in solitary confinement.

Hug. Step, step. Hug. She doesn’t get far before another friend appears, though to be honest, even total strangers are likely to get an embrace, which might end with Hoffberger holding the hug-ee’s hand as she listens intently to their questions and ruminations on the art all around.

She has just opened “The Big Hope Show,” which she curated and which the museum calls an “unabashedly idealistic art exhibition that champions the radiant and transformative power of hope.”

You could probably say something similar about Hoffberger. After all, who other than the unabashedly idealistic and hopeful would have built this delightfully funky monument to self-taught artists — home to “intuitive creative invention and grass-roots genius,” in AVAM speak. She has discovered — and helped give legacy to — artists from the eccentric to the mad, from the spiritual to the comical. Exhibit themes have ranged from love to water to doomsday to all things round. To smiling.

Though the museum opened in November 1995 — it celebrates its 20th anniversary this month — the seed was planted a decade before, when Hoffberger (then Puharich) was development director for a hospital program that assisted the mentally ill. Intrigued by the wisdom she encountered in people with chronic mental illness and spurred by a desire to “transcend narrow labeling of human beings,” Hoffberger set out to create an institution that would champion the creative works of the self-taught artist.

She had landed in the hospital job on a path that had taken a few unconventional hops. Growing up in a middle-class Baltimore County neighborhood, Hoffberger was accepted to college at 15, but at 17 moved to Paris to become the first American apprentice to mime Marcel Marceau. By 19 she’d married a ballet dancer and co-founded a dance studio. The marriage didn’t last but produced Hoffberger’s first child, a daughter. Back in the United States, she consulted for nonprofits, helped establish hospitals in Nigeria, then studied folk medicine in Mexico, where she remarried and had another daughter before the marriage ended.

As she took the first steps toward her future museum, she was only in her early 30s, but “she had a vision for this museum and she never took her eye off it,” says Fred Lazarus, an early board member who for 36 years was president of Maryland Institute College of Art.

Though there were a dozen or so museums in the world devoted to “art brut” (sometimes called “outsider art”; Hoffberger prefers “visionary”), such art was only beginning to be widely embraced. Still, Hoffberger persuaded the city to donate land with a few aging buildings in South Baltimore, then lined up an impressive array of supporters, including U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who in 1992 secured a congressional resolution naming AVAM the country’s official museum of self-taught artistry.

By then Hoffberger had married local philanthropist and art collector LeRoy Hoffberger, who she says not only helped “paint a vision” for donors but also auctioned his expressionist collection to fund the final dollars needed to break ground. (Though he’s now her ex-husband, Hoffberger considers him a “dear, dear friend.”)

Hoffberger now presides over an operation that runs on a nearly $2.9 million annual budget and employs 61 people, attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year and is debt-free.

Visitors have told her they consider the museum “a healing place,” music to the ears of someone who says she wove “good at every turn into the DNA of the museum,” starting with hiring employees who might otherwise not find work (three of the homeless employees originally hired are still at work today, though Hoffberger says “you’d never know who they are”).

For the city, “the museum has been terrific,” drawing in die-hard art enthusiasts as well as “people who would not necessarily go to a traditional museum,” Lazarus says.

AVAM has distinguished itself through its anthropological approach, says Valérie Rousseau, curator of 20th-century and contemporary art for the American Folk Art Museum in New York, who notes that AVAM’s exhibitions often tackle social or political issues.

“This is really refreshing, to see this material through that angle,” Rousseau says.

For Hoffberger it has been an exhilarating, exhausting two decades. She has had a hand in every exhibition and in procuring the 4,000 works in AVAM’s permanent collection (plus 3,500 more in its libraries and archives).

“It’s like being pregnant with a magnificent baby that never stops nursing,” says Hoffberger.

“If I died tonight I have great faith that it would only go from all the beauty of the foundation of these 20 years to greater strength.”

On the following pages are the stories of four artists whose lives and works have intersected with Hoffberger.

The late Gerald Hawkes, who worked with matchsticks, turned his anger at the world into art. (André Chung/For The Washington Post)

Gerald Hawkes

When AVAM opened, it was only fitting that artist Gerald Hawkes would be the first person to walk through its doors. He’d been with Hoffberger when she headed to Annapolis to secure funding from state legislators: Hoffberger trailing a Radio Flyer wagon with the architectural model for the museum; Hawkes toting an impressively pretty briefcase made of matchsticks glossed in a polyurethane coat. “He would show the legislators how it came apart and became a backgammon board,” Hoffberger says, still marveling at the ingenuity. “They would be amazed.”

She had met him a decade before, when he was homeless, battling a heroin addiction and “branded,” as Hoffberger says, with diagnoses of psychiatric illness and brain damage. He had grown up middle class in Baltimore County, a popular athlete known for his humor. He had trained as a printer, served a stint in the military and was gaining recognition for his matchstick creations when in 1984 a violent mugging left him unable to work, taste or smell.

Spiraling into a heroin addiction, Hawkes found out he had HIV. He was angry at the world until he “decided he didn’t want to hate for the rest of his life,” says Hoffberger. His matchstick work “became less utilitarian and really flourished symbolically,” infused with messages of love of family, country and God.

Hoffberger calls him “one of the most exquisitely unforgettable people I ever knew,” but like his intricate designs, Hawkes was complicated. In tributes, Hoffberger has described him as “at times a rascal, manipulative, unreliable, but always a very original thinker” who could be generous to a fault.

Hawkes married and divorced three times, had a child and died in 1998 at 55. He’d asked that his ashes be scattered in AVAM’s sculpture garden and so they were, on a windy spring day. “I joke that we all swallowed a quarter cup of Gerald,” says Hoffberger.

His briefcase is still on display.

Artist Brian Dowdall at home in his studio. As a child he had an obsessive fear of hell. (André Chung/For The Washington Post)

Brian Dowdall

You don’t have to spend long with 67-year-old Brian Dowdall or the thousands of exuberant, brightly colored animal spirits he paints on discarded cardboard to realize his works “arise from an innate personal vision,” as the museum defines visionary art.

His artistic roots trace back to a childhood in Anaconda, Mont., where rugged wilderness bred in him a deep love of nature and a strict Catholic schooling led him to an obsessive fear of hell. By 9 he had suffered a nervous breakdown, which he says opened him to a new way of viewing the world. “When you’re boxed in, then the wall cracks, that’s when the light comes in,” Dowdall explains. “That’s when you see the vision, when you see the art.”

After decades of living in the South and selling art at AVAM’s annual holiday marketplace, Bazaart, Dowdall moved to Baltimore in 2011 with artist Alison Spiesman, at Hoffberger’s urging. Through Hoffberger they landed jobs with the city, painting “bright, happy murals” in city parks, Dowdall says. They hope their home — once derelict but now “recycled, just like his art,” says Spiesman — will one day become a museum showcasing the 6,000 or so works Dowdall has created or collected.

Being recognized as a visionary artist by Hoffberger is an honor Dowdall likens to “being knighted by the queen.” Give yourself such a title and “people will be like, ‘Aw, yeah, you’re a looney,’ ” he says. “But if someone like Rebecca says it, it really means something.”

Bobby Adams’s photography and shrines to his deceased dog are in the museum’s current exhibit. (André Chung/For The Washington Post)

Bobby Adams

It has been a week since Bobby Adams’s artistic debut in “The Big Hope Show,” and he can’t quite get his arms around the response.

“I heard some lady say three ‘wows’ the other day,” says 69-year-old Adams, standing next to a glass case filled with hundreds of miniature poodle figurines he has collected. Since the opening Adams has watched visitors linger to examine his photos — of a young Johnny Depp, the actor Divine, random people on the street — his handmade Christmas cards and the trippy scrapbooks he compiled in the ’70s for friends to view while on LSD. There have been tears (not his own), embraces, praise. “A grown man came up to me and hugs me,” says Adams. “He grabbed my hand and just hung on to it and thanked me so much. I’m thinking, ‘What is going on here?’ ”

Adams was in his 20s and a caretaker of a historic Baltimore County home when director John Waters showed up to film “Pink Flamingos,” kicking off a decades-long friendship that would allow Adams to quietly document a quirky and supremely photogenic cast of characters.

“I have an eye for faces,” says Adams, who captured them wherever he went. Though one iconic shot — of two impish boys saluting the camera with their middle fingers — ended up on a postcard, most went into boxes or Christmas cards Adams started making “because sometimes I couldn’t afford presents for friends.”

He didn’t intentionally make art until he was 50. An Edward Kienholz exhibit launched a quest to create 50 works to honor his beloved toy poodle, Odie. Some — including one covered in Odie fur — are on display.

He has decided to donate his scrapbooks to AVAM’s permanent collection. “It’s part of my legacy,” he says, then adds: “That’s something that I didn’t expect.”

Nancy Josephson is a vodou priestess in Wilmington, Del., whose spirituality is channeled into art. (André Chung/For The Washington Post)

Nancy Josephson

Nancy Josephson started in fiber, then moved on to art cars (her “Gallery-A-Go-Go Bus” sits at AVAM’s entrance) and mixed-media sculptures. Drawn to Haiti, she went down alone and began to study the vodou religion. That deepened and focused her work.

“A lot of artists talk about how they are conduits to the spiritual universe, and I used to think that — I still do kind of think that — but it’s developed into much more of a conversation with the work,” Josephson says. Ultimately the spirits win, “but I get to have a say in it.”

Her initiation as a vodou priestess in 2012 “opened the floodgates in a really dramatic way,” says Josephson, whose works have been exhibited nationally and in Europe and Africa, as well as at AVAM. “I think the more I opened up to the spiritual connection, the more it became available, and I think everybody has that as a possibility. You open yourself up and there is more and more to be available.” ■

Christina Breda Antoniades is a writer in Baltimore. To comment on this story, e-mail or visit

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