Editor's note: The following essay was published in the Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum of Art catalog for the exhibition Walking in the Spirit: American Visionary Artists, on view February 20, 2014 - March 29, 2014. The essay was published March 3, 2014 in Resource Library with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or wish to purchase a copy of the catalog, please contact Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Walking in the Spirit: American Visionary Artists
by Steven Pattie '74
At the forefront of the most engaging and challenging contemporary art is the work made by untrained artists, fueled by religious fervor, passion, and unwavering visions. Many of these self-taught artists did not begin to create art until approaching retirement age. Each artist's lifetime of experience has been his or her own hardscrabble academy. Astonishingly, these artistic creations have taken these innovative artists from the margins of society to the epicenter of the contemporary art world.
A spiritual zeal inspires the artists in this exhibition. Noteworthy examples include the Reverend Howard Finster, who spread the word of God through his art; Mose Tolliver, who suffered from depression after a freak accident left him crippled, and taught himself to paint often relating to Christ's suffering on the cross; Jesse Aaron, whose carved wooden animals are the result of fervent prayer and a profound belief that God directs him to "liberate" the animal from the wood; Felipe Benito Archuletta, who wanted to carve the saints, but believing he was unworthy, turned instead to carving delightful animals from God's creation; John "J.B." Murry, a visionary artist from Georgia, who created strange daubs of paint that form mystical characters mixed with a scribbled handwriting, a mystical spirit language known only to Murry; Tim Lewis, a Kentucky artist who began carving hardwoods and eventually became a stone carver, often selecting his subjects from the stories of the Bible; and William Hemmerling, who finds his subjects from everyday life, in this exhibition depicting the church sacrament of baptism.
Historically, the art of such creators has been broadly defined as self-taught, folk, primitive, or naïve. In recent decades, other terms have been introduced such as outsider, art brut, vernacular, and visionary. These defining terms are at best a partial fit. Unlike the traditional folk art of indigenous peoples and local communities, outsider art is generally peculiar to one person's specific vision. With some exceptions, these works are only remotely related to the surrounding community's creative traditions, whether living within a major metropolitan environment like Atlanta or New York or in remote areas like California's desert or the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. These artists, fueled by their visions, create unique works coupled with a personal iconography and style all their own.
Lowery Sims, curator at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, was among the first scholars to recognize the artistic innovations of self-taught artists. In her essay "Artists, Folk and Trained: An African American Perspective" in Passionate Visions of the American South (1993) she notes how the art establishment has had to "revisit the whole primitivist paradigm." [p.31] Authors and New York art dealers Frank Maresca and Roger Ricco take it one step further in their book American Vernacular (2002). They suggest that the boundaries "between 'high' and 'low' or elitist and popular art" should be altogether erased. [p.7] In their interpretation of outsider art, they observe a simple and spurious opposition between what they call vernacular and mainstream art. Maresca and Ricco refer to this as the "grass ceiling" of folk art, which forever "limits its appreciation, understanding, and evaluation." [p.8] Ideally, we should be able to talk about Jean-Michel Basquiat and Howard Finster, Henry Moore and William Edmondson, or Pablo Picasso and anonymous African art, without hesitation or qualification in the same breath. The bottom line is that the vast continuum of art should be envisioned horizontally rather than vertically. "Insiderness" and "outsiderness" are often matters of circumstance and cultural construction and are generally not very helpful.
Speaking plainly and compellingly from personal visions, these passionate artists strongly resonate among their peers in the contemporary art world. Created outside the established salons and traditional mainstreams of art, these expressive outpourings -- "unmuddied by artistic training or received knowledge" as Colin Rhodes describes it in Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives (2000) -- are at the same time influencing what is happening in the art world-at-large. [p.8] Challenging the establishment's canonical rules of creativity, outsider art is non-derivative and goes straight to the fundamentals of art: rhythm, design, balance, and proportion something the best of artists feel instinctively. As Alice Rae Yelen argues in her essay "Self-Taught Artists: Who They Are" in Passionate Visions of the American South (1993), these artists are "...unencumbered by preconceived ideas or outwardly imposed models of what art should be (and) are free to create without external expectations or guidance." [p.17]
The unfiltered artwork of these visionary artists is accessible, straightforward, and speaks to the heart about a passion and authenticity that is desirable, recoverable, and in many ways a hopeful word in our modern day.
Artists such as the Rev. Howard Finster, the Rev. B. F. Perkins, the Rev. R. A. Miller, Myrtice West, J.B. Murry, Zebedee "Z.B." Armstrong, Felix Virgous, Missionary Mary Proctor, and Elder Anderson Johnson are good examples of artists preoccupied with spiritual matters, who produce narrative works rooted in a claim of direct communication with God. Many recreate imagery taken from Biblical stories. Others lace their art with didactic messages about the authority of God and centrality of the Bible, the importance of morality, and eschatological visions. Still others offer personal advice thrown in for good measure. Many prefer to depict the Devil as a cautionary figure against sin and debauchery -- such as R. A. Miller, J. L. Hunter, Leroy Almon, Carl McKenzie, and J.F. Cooper.
A self-described "Man of Visions," Howard Finster would regularly talk to his many "fans" (as he called them) about his visitations from angels, God, and once an eight-foot Elvis, who appeared to him in his garden. Finster tells of repairing a bicycle when he noticed in a daub of bicycle enamel paint on his fingertip that formed a human face -- a clear sign, he concluded, that he should paint "sacred art." Finster's discussions of revelations and dreams were fairly commonplace, and he would regularly speak about having visions of things several years before they happened. On the front of one of Finster's paintings he records how one should be prepared "to see strange things" and should "open your mind for visions" in order to "tune into other worlds...." A visionary world surrounded Finster, although he admitted at times "it sometimes all seems like a bad dream."
Myrtice West, born and reared in Cherokee County, Alabama, recalls how she landed in the pulpit of a local church preaching to the congregation after hearing the shocking news of her daughter's murder. On the pulpit was a Bible, and it happened to be open to the Book of Revelation. Weeks later she felt strongly that God was trying to tell her something and so she went about studying the Revelation of John more deeply. Fueled by dreams and visions, she stretched canvas across the frame of a discarded screen from a window. This became the first of fourteen large paintings illustrating the Book of Revelation, which took her seven years to complete. West depended on visions and dreams to fuel her work. She produced hundreds of paintings illustrating her visions based on the prophetic books of the Bible, as well as narrative scenes from the Old and New Testaments.
Frequently woven into the fabric of these artists' work is the presence of patriotic and national symbols. The most frequent images include the American flag, the Statue of Liberty, Uncle Sam, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. The presence of these traditional expressions of patriotism indicate how engrained these emblems are in our daily lives. Artists like Howard Finster, Anderson Johnson, and R.A. Miller regularly feature portraits of famous Americans. Cherishing American's freedom of religious choice, B.F. Perkins is especially known for his incorporation of patriotic and religious imagery, particularly the American flag and the Statue of Liberty.
A surprising number of these artists are compelled to create wondrous and unusual environments that are sincere and powerful declarations of other worldly spheres. Artists creating these universes include Howard Finster, Leonard Knight, Ruby Williams, R. A. Miller, W. C. Rice, and B.F. Perkins. In Gardens of Revelation (1995), author John Beardsley notes that these environments are "a form of rhetorical speech." [p. 8] They are designed not for habitation, but rather serve as unique gardens that are above all "artistic and symbolic places." [p.12] Through paintings, sculptures, and mixed media creations, these sacred spaces express the artists' most deeply held convictions. These gardens are a fertile seedbed of moral and theological opinions. The grand scale of these art works provide these marginalized artists an enormous soapbox upon which to tell their stories and proclaim special messages.
Such works are constructed from fragments of everyday materials revived and repurposed as art. These environments carry an organic sense of having grown over time, piece by piece, until the aggregate of surrounding things unfolds into an extraordinary and powerful space. Furthermore, these creations are not often visually beautiful -- at least not in any traditional sense. They range from the optimistic and whimsical -- like works by Howard Finster or Anderson Johnson to the harsh and haunting, such as W.C. Rice's Cross Garden in Alabama, a small portion of which is recreated for this exhibition. Whether standing before Rice's foreboding three acre garden appointed with hundreds of primitive signs and crosses that urge viewers to repent or wandering amidst the whimsy and declarations of Finster's Paradise Garden in Georgia, one has the sense of having entered another world, as Beardsley notes, "governed by its own rules... its own particular illogic, and world of demiurges." [p.12]
For all these artists' acclaim, they have stayed true to their visions, using their talents to serve God. Neither constrained by the academy or the expectations of their neighbors and families, their work has created a stir in the art world and in people's hearts. They have reached deep into the soil of their souls and mined those depths in order to produce an art of the most authentic variety. They register social protests, post wildly autobiographical commentary, celebrate the world of nature in their midst, and are just as often preoccupied with preaching about God, wherein his promises point to a better life in this world and the next.
About the author
Steven Pattie is a visual artist, writer, and art collector, as well as consultant to for-profit and nonprofit organizations. He may be reached at <spattie [at] stevenpattie.com>.
Images from the exhibition
(above: Rev. Howard Finster [Georgia, 1916-2001], Angels Trumpeting, 1985, 1985, and 1991, Enamel paint on plywood cutout (1991 angel with marker). Lent by Steven Pattie)
(above: Mose Tolliver [Alabama, 1920-2006], Crucifix of Black Jesus, House paint on plywood panel. Lent by Dane Goodman)
(above: Myrtice West [Alabama, 1923-2010], Untitled, Oil on canvas. Lent by Steven Pattie)
(above: Jesse Aaron [Florida, 1887-1979], Horse Head,
1976, Split oak log with resin eyes. Lent by Just Folk, Summerland,
Resource Library editor's note
The above essay was published in the Westmont Ridely-Tree Museum of Art catalog for the exhibition Walking in the Spirit: American Visionary Artists, on view February 20, 2014 - March 29, 2014. The essay was published March 3, 2014 in Resource Library with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on February 28, 2014. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Scott Craig, Manager of Media Relations at Westmont College, for his help concerning publishing the essay.
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