Five Self-Taught Artists and Inventors Who Changed the World

You don't need a college degree to become successful. Learn about these five self-taught artists, writers, and inventors.

The Milwaukee Museum of Art has one of the largest outsider art collections in the world.  Artists in the collection include Bill Traylor, a former slave who drew in the streets of Birmingham after emancipation, Martin Ramirez, a patient who created drawings and collages from various California mental hospitals, and Minnie Evans, a maid who drew because she believed she must “draw or die.”  Their work has been shown at Smithsonian Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of Art, among others. 

Think you need more training, time or money to land on that great idea? Not necessary. Check out these five self-taught artists and inventors who changed the world:

Lonnie Holley’s Acre of Art
Alabama folk artist Lonnie Holley, the seventh of 27 children, says a woman took him to Ohio when he was a baby where she sold him for a pint of whiskey.  After years in the foster system, Holley’s grandmother took him in. She taught him how to search dumpsters and landfills for items to sell at flea markets—she taught him how to make trash worth something.

His first piece of artwork was two sandstone grave markers for his sister’s two children who were killed in a house fire.  He eventually landed his own one-acre piece of land adjacent to the Birmingham airport.  His tract of land became an influential sculpture of found objects mixed with sandstone, a byproduct from the local steel industry. 

Holley’s yard, now in Harpersville, AL, is a destination for outside artists, folk historians and museum curators alike.  He is documenting the collective memory of not only African Americans; he is documenting the worlds of everyone who used the objects in his sculptures.  His work is now part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. 

thesia
Thesia’s Tractor
Bachubhai Savajibhai Thesia, a farmer in Kalavad, India, created a tractor that is operated by joysticks.  The tractor has a simple diesel engine and moves on an axle taken from a used vehicle.  The joystick’s movements mimic the movement of a rope tied to cart oxen.  When you pull the rope to the right or the left, the oxen turns, and when you pull the rope hard, the oxen stops. The joysticks work the same way. 

Thesia’s tractor takes sharper turns than any other tractor available on the market, according to the Honeybee Network.  The tractor operates on a ten horsepower stationary engine and consumes around five liters of diesel in eight hours of work.

The people in Thesia’s community call him “Khopadee” meaning “a brainy.”

Tyehimba Jess
Poet Tyehimba Jess played jazz and blues as a disc jockey at the University of Chicago radio station WHPK 88.5 FM for a decade while he worked various jobs including janitor at the University of Chicago.
During these years, he became obsessed with the Louisiana-born folk musician Leadbelly.  He read books, conducted independent research and flew to Shreveport, LA to see Leadbelly’s grave on his own dime.
He later graduated from The University of Chicago and received formal training as a writer from New York University, but it was his obsession that led to the poems that chronicle Leadbelly’s life in his book leadbelly (2005), which was chosen for the National Poetry Series, and voted one of the top three poetry books of the year by Black Issues Book Review. 

Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count”
American composer and pianist Billy Strayhorn worked odd jobs for his first piano. He wanted to be a classical composer, but it was difficult for a black man to break into the almost universally white classical music scene of the 1930s. 

Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, whom he met in Pittsburgh at age 19, pushed him toward the field of jazz where he worked for the next 25 years as Duke Ellington’s composer. Ellington said:  “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.” 

Strayhorn died at age 51 after writing “Blood Count,” his interpretation of listening to the drip of the machines by the hospital bed.  The tune is elegant on its surface, quiet even, but the grit and speed of mortality is built into its layers.  Strayhorn documented the tension found in a creative mind at work in a failing body. See a performance of “Blood Count” in the video below.

Sean Collins
Sean Collins was the first person to accurately forecast swells on a regular basis in the 1970s and 1980s.  A self-taught meteorologist, he pioneered the first ongoing surf forecast available to the surfing public via Surfline and 976-SURF in 1985. 

His forecasts were so accurate that the U.S. Coast Guard, Navy SEALs and the National Weather Service paid attention to his predictions. 

“Surfers who had always reacted to good waves by dropping everything — calling in sick to work, canceling meetings, stiffing dates — could use Surfline.com to plan their days and vacations,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

He also developed the first live “Surfcam” in 1996, the seed model of the worldwide camera network available on Surfline.com today.  In 1999, Surfer magazine named Collins one of the 25 most influential surfers of the 20th Century.