In Art Education Beyond the Classroom: Pondering the Outsider and Other Sites of Learning, editor Alice Wexler threads Roger Cardinal's (1972) construct of the outsider artist—one who creates art outside of the mainstream—with the critical disability theory of radical acceptance to present a convincing narrative of art as a facilitating agency for people with disabilities to communicate and construct their own identities. Through nine seemingly stand-alone chapters, Wexler develops an ecological anthology that explores outsiderism from the creative cognitive experience itself to individuals' expressive interactions with the mainstream world and even to how art and reality coexist and transform each other. While autism is the editors' disability of reference, it would be a mistake to read this compendium as a treatise of autists' particular experiences as outsider artists. Rather, Art Education Beyond the Classroom is a journey of wonder into the transformative power of art for all people, including those with—and without—disabilities.

Wexler preludes this volume of ethnographic portraits and firsthand reflections with Cardinal's analytic exploration of the relationship between an artist and her autism in the chapter “The Messages of Linda Persson.” Cardinal's intentionally artistic critique of Persson's work focuses on the mechanical and creative features of her artistry and nearly avoids direct reference to the artists' autism until the end, when he ascribes autism not as a disability but, rather, as a variation of the human cognitive experience.

This appraisal raises the idea that naive artists have a unique and endangered aesthetic that should be protected from interaction with mainstream cultural influences, an idea that contributor David Henley grapples with in his chapter, “Working with the Young Outsider Artist: Appropriation, Elaboration, and Building Self-Narrative.” Henley presents the case of R.J., a perseverant, selectively mute, African American boy who most effectively communicates with the mainstream world through artistic renderings of his urban, industrial environment. Henley studies how R.J.'s artistic abilities change as he interacts with art therapists and eventually with the commercial art world. Henley opposes the curative model of art therapy and, building on the celebrated case of Nadia, an autistic child whose considerable artistic talent disappeared as she engaged with the outside world, finds that R.J.'s own unique creativity has dimmed as a function of his therapy, leaving him with aesthetically pleasing but artistically unremarkable work.

If art education can materially alter innate creativity among people with cognitive disabilities, it might also liberate people—both creatively and physically—from disadvantage at the intersection of race, poverty, and disability. Shifting to the broader ecological level of schools and community, Tim Rollins's chapter, “How Do You Get to Prospect Avenue?” introduces the reader to the Kids of Survival (KOS) from the South Bronx and tells how art inspired their creativity, facilitated their access to education, and, for many, laid the groundwork for futures they had never imagined to be possible. KOS's agency in constructing its own reality is palpable throughout this account, as this group of long castaway special education students forms an artists' workshop, creates its own inside- and outside-of-school identity, and acts to preserve its community when independent school-related events threaten its existence.

The art education Rollins advocates for is a positive, facilitative approach that allows student voices to emerge and resonate. Wexler's own chapter, “Young and Disabled in Harlem: Making Art Like It Matters,” offers another take on this approach through a case study of four painters whose artistry facilitates their journeys toward self-determination. In perhaps the most powerful anecdote in the book, one of the painters, a young man named Abraham, became quadriplegic as a result of suffering neurological damage after falling from a height of three stories at the age of nine. Six years later, after painting on a regular basis, and progressively regaining the controlled use of his body, one day Abraham reached for the top of his canvas, stood up, and walked.

Wexler juxtaposes Abraham's story of art transforming disability with a story of disability transforming art. In the chapter “The Art of Living and Dying: Linda Montano,” Wexler and coauthor Linda Weintraub introduce us to Linda Montano, a performance artist who incorporates her neurological disorder of dystonia into her work. Montano's dystonia causes her to appear stooped, hunchbacked, and small, similar to the late Mother Teresa. Montano embraces her appearance and, having been a novitiate earlier in life, constructs a performance identity as Mother Teresa. When she is performing as Mother Teresa, Montano is often approached by people seeking spiritual counseling, which Montano readily provides. Somewhat disjointedly, in the same chapter the authors discuss Montano's Dad Art—her video recordings of her father's final years. There is also a poignant but equally abrupt overlay of autism—which Montano does not have—to discuss the artist's disputed accounts of her early, selectively mute childhood. These awkward transitions notwithstanding, Montano's life-as-art questions whether and where the boundary exists between authentic life and performance art.

Remaining in the communal ecological space, the next two cases, Phyllis Kornfield's chapter, “Truth, Goodness, and Beautiful Art: Set Free in the Penitentiary,” and Doug Blandy and Michael Franklin's chapter, “Following the Siren's Song: Scott Harrison and the Carousel of Happiness,” present models of therapeutic art education that refuse the dominant theme of victimhood in prisoners and war veterans, respectively. The chapter “Digital Ethnography: Artists Speak from Virtual Ability Island in Second Life” expands Wexler's conceit that disability and art transform one another to the more macrologic virtual reality space. With Mary Stokrocki and L. S. Krecker, Wexler documents how, using an avatar in the Second Life online world, a person can construct an identity that minimizes, or in some cases eliminates, the impact of her disability. On Virtual Ability Island, many Second Life users with disabilities engage their offline artistic skills in a safe, facilitating environment. These engagements have offline implications for these online artists, with many often enjoying social experiences offline as a result of their online activities.

Art Education Beyond the Classroom concludes at an abstract ecological level by questioning the very existence and implications of outsiderism. In the final chapter, “Outside the Outside: In the Realms of the Real,” Jan Jagodzinski picks up where Stokrocki, Kreckler, and Wexler left off. Inverting the outsider/insider paradigm, Jagodzinski theorizes that existing within this enigmatic space is unimaginable to the majority but therapeutic (and entrapping) to the individual for whom this experience is a reality. This experience of one's own personal fantasy, Jagodzinski proposes, is real art.

Outsider art