November 24, 2016

by Mitch Ziems

On April 13, 1973, Henry Darger died in the St. Augustine’s Catholic Mission home in Chicago, Illinois.

Nobody was there to mourn his passing. Nobody was expected to be. Darger was a recluse, a poor and mentally anguished old man, recognisable to many only by the distinctive Army jacket he wore while working as a cleaner at the local hospital for most of his life.

When it came time to clear his possessions from the second-floor room on 851 W. Webster Avenue he had rented for 43 years, a surprising discovery was found. Darger had left behind an incredible array of artwork, all created by his own hands. Hundreds of paintings and illustrations, some several metres in length, lay folded in stacks throughout the room. On the shelves beside them was a range of fantasy novels, and Darger’s autobiography.

Most astounding of all was a 15,145 page, 15-volume epic entitled In the Realms of the Unreal. Created over 60 years, the work – which, by page count, may be the longest novel ever written – brought to life a stunning world of legends and heroes as lush and entrancing as those found in any professionally published book. In the Realms of the Unreal was a spellbinding experience, one that gave readers the opportunity to know the author like nobody did while he was alive.

From his time in a mental institution to his futile attempt to adopt a son or daughter, the stories painted an astounding picture of a man whose quiet facade hid a childlike talent for creativity and imagination, infused with the wisdom and pain of adulthood.

Darger’s work is one of the most notable examples of outsider art, a label used to define the creations of artists who worked beyond the scope of culture and society. Traditionally, it is associated with the art of the mentally ill. If anything, it serves as a reminder that we can never truly know a person, and that no matter who or what they are, they deserve our utmost respect and appreciation.

For who knows when we will find ourselves in the same room as the next Henry Darger?

To discover more about Darger’s life and work, take the time to watch Jessica Yu’s documentary The Realms of the Unreal. It’s a truly life-changing experience.

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