From the 1940s on, there emerged a large, identifiable group of self-taught artists who became notable and collectable outsider artists in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. They tended to live in rural parts of the United States and lacked formal education. Many were the sons and daughters of sharecroppers and former slaves. Most started their artistic careers late in life and often used inexpensive and ordinary material—whatever was available and handy—to create their artwork. Some of these artists experienced visions in which God or the angels told them to make art, while others carved, painted, or sewed to keep active or busy in retirement. Still others used their artwork to rail against the government or their neighbors.
ARTISTS IN THE EXHIBITION
Zebedee Armstrong (Georgia), “Prophet” William Blackmon (Wisconsin), Rex Butler (Missouri), Ned Cartledge (Georgia), Brenda Clements (Montana), L. W. Crawford (Alabama), Alva Gene Dexhimer (Missouri), Rev. Howard Finster (Georgia), Arthur Frenchy (Kansas), Cass Frisby (Kansas), Carlton Garrett (Georgia), Robert Gilkerson (California), Dilmus Hall (Georgia), Lonnie Holley (Alabama), Jesse Howard (Missouri), Andrew Johnson (Montana), Eddie Martin (Georgia), Columbus McGriff (Georgia), Mark Negus (Missouri), M. L. Owens (North Carolina), Rev. Benjamin F. Perkins (Alabama), Ernest Puro (Montana), Winona Reuter (Arkansas), Juanita Rogers (Alabama), Nellie Mae Rowe (Georgia), Mary T. Smith (Mississippi), Robert E. Smith (Missouri), Sarah Mary Taylor (Mississippi), Mr. Thacher (Kansas), Carol Tinnin (Missouri), Mose Tolliver (Alabama), John Woods (Kansas)
A SAMPLE OF ARTISTS' STORIES
Rev. Howard Finster (American, 1916 – 2001), The Holy Dove of God, 1983, nails and paint on wood, 11.75 in. x 14.25 in x 4 in., Willem and Diane Volkersz Collection, photo: Willem Volkersz.
Howard Finster was born in Valley Head, Alabama, in 1916 and lived on a farm with his parents and thirteen brothers and sisters. He attended school through the sixth grade, became a “born again” Christian at a Baptist revival at thirteen, and began to preach at sixteen. He gave occasional sermons at local churches; wrote religious articles, songs, and poetry for the town newspaper; hosted a radio program in the late 1930s; and became a full-time pastor in Alabama and Georgia beginning in 1940.
Finster claimed to have been told by God in 1961 to spread the Gospel through the design of “Paradise Garden,” a folk-art sculpture garden built on swampy land behind his home near Summerville, Georgia. He had a second vision in 1976 in which God told him to paint sacred art, and during the next twenty-five years his diverse subjects ranged from religion and history to politics and pop culture, often embellished with Bible verses. He gained widespread notice in the 1980s with his album cover designs for R.E.M. and Talking Heads. He passed away in Rome, Georgia, in 2001.
Brenda Clements (American), Memory Jug, date unknown, glass bottle with attached found objects, 19 in. x 15 in x 15 in., Willem and Diane Volkersz Collection, photo: Willem Volkersz.
Brenda Clements lives in Bozeman, Montana. As a self-taught artist, she has been fascinated with the American flag and has painted them and collected them for many years. Her memory jug is a departure from her typical artwork, although the tradition of memory jugs (vessels covered in mortar and encrusted with shards, shells, and various found objects) dates to Victorian times and may have originated from African mourning vessels.
Alva Gene Dexhimer (American, 1931 – 1984), Woman with Bird and Flashlight, 1982, paint on chipboard, 14.75 in. x 12 in., Willem and Diane Volkersz Collection, photo: Willem Volkersz.
Alva Gene Dexhimer was born in Clarksburg, Missouri, in 1931. As a young boy, he fell off a tractor and suffered a severe head injury. This accident caused major learning disabilities that led him to drop out of school after the eighth grade. The years he attended school were spent drawing, and he continued to draw throughout his lifetime; unfortunately, he never learned to read or write.
In his teens, Dexheimer worked for his father, who was a carpenter and handyman, and he lived with his parents until they died. In 1972, his sister and brother-in-law offered him a place to live, and it was at this time that he began to make a wide range of objects from scrap wood, as well as paintings on cardboard, shoe soles, and other scrap materials found at a nearby shoe factory. He died in Syracuse, Missouri, in 1984.
Arthur Frenchy (American, 1884 – 1975), Chair with Plastic Bird, c. early 1960s, painted chicken bones and collage, 14.5 in. x 13.25 in. 8 in., Willem and Diane Volkersz Collection, photo: Willem Volkersz.
Arthur Frenchy was born in Fall City, Nebraska, in 1884, the son of former slaves who had migrated to the Midwest and settled in Nebraska. Although little is known of his life, he created a broad range of folk-art objects that are both enigmatic and powerful: canes or conjuring sticks, decorated with animal skulls, paint, and costume jewelry; a set of smoking pipes decorated with found objects, paint, and costume jewelry; and a group of small chairs made of chicken bones, and decorated with collage, paint, rug scraps, and jewelry. He died in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1975.
Rev. Benjamin F. Perkins (American, 1904 – 1993) All American Jumbo Airmail, c. 1980s, painted metal mailbox, 11.5 in x 7 in. x 21 in., Willem and Diane Volkersz Collection, photo: Willem Volkersz.
Benjamin F. Perkins was born in Vernon, Alabama, in 1904. He served in the United States Marine Corps from 1921 to 1925, and he claimed that during his service he went on several secret missions to South America and other places. He was ordained a minister in the Assembly of God Church in 1929, rising to the rank of bishop. He married in 1936 and had two daughters, and served a number of different churches in rural Alabama during his career.
In 1979, he took a few art classes at Albert Brewer Community College in Fayette, Alabama, where, according to Perkins, the teachers let you choose your own style. He began to paint on canvas and wood, as well as on gourds and even mailboxes. His subjects focused on three themes: stories from the Bible, often with Biblical messages and verses incorporated into the work; patriotic scenes, such as the American flag; and objects found in King Tut’s tomb. Perkins passed away in Bankston, Alabama, in 1993.
Robert E. Smith (American, 1927 – 2010), A Rural Family, 1990, acrylic, pen and ink on illustration board; 15 in. x 20 in., Willem and Diane Volkersz Collection, photo: Willem Volkersz, audio: Robert E. Smith.
Robert E. Smith was born in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1927. He spent his early years in Missouri and Texas. He joined the United States Army in 1948 but was given a medical discharge after six months. In 1950, he had a “nervous breakdown” and was committed to Farmington State Hospital, near St. Louis, until 1968. After his release, he worked in the mental health field, earned his GED, and worked as a “hawker” (a person who sells refreshments or merchandise) at baseball stadiums in St. Louis, Kansas City, and Houston.
Smith began to paint in 1964 while he was still at Farmington State Hospital. He painted on poster board and paper with acrylics, crayons, and watercolors, and his cartoon-like paintings and drawings had a strong narrative content. His subjects included political events, family gatherings, historical events, and stories about his life. He often wrote or recorded his stories on a tape recorder before he painted them, and many of his paintings and drawings include written text. He passed away in Springfield, Missouri, in 2010.