Folk Art on Display During Folk Art Society’s Annual Conference

Folk Art on Display During Folk Art Society’s Annual Conference

Article by  Jennifer Hardin 

The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Fla., will be presenting a number of works from its burgeoning collection of contemporary self-taught art during the Folk Art Society of America’s annual conference, October 29-November 1, 2009. Highlights from the Museum of Fine Arts’ Folk Art Collection will be featured at the museum from October through December 2009.

The Museum of Fine Arts is primarily known for its collection of more traditional western painting and sculpture from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries. However, historical works of American folk art, including paintings from the Chrysler-Garbisch Collection and a selection of Pennsylvania German decorative arts, are in the museum’s permanent collection.

In 1996, the Birmingham Museum of Art held the exhibition Pictured in My Mind: Contemporary American Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Dr. Kurt Gitter and Alice Rae Yellen while Dr. John E. Schloder was director there. In 2001, Schloder came to the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, as director. His view of art has continued to include contemporary folk art.

In 2000, the museum mounted its first exhibition of European folk art, The Fantastical World of Croatian Naive Art. In the Spring of 2007, the museum organized Compelling Visions: Florida Collects Folk Art, the first exhibition of contemporary American self-taught art featured at the museum. This exhibition drew primarily from seven extraordinary private collections in the Tampa Bay area, and members of the Folk Art Society will visit some of these during the conference, notably the collections of Tom and Donna Brumfield, Ted and Jean Weiller and George Lowe.

This departure from its usual programming allowed the museum’s curatorial department to create one of its most lively and popular exhibitions, which was reviewed and featured in both the Folk Art Messenger and Raw Vision magazine. More than 17,000 visitors viewed this exhibition during its three-month run.

As a result of Compelling Visions, a number of paintings, sculptures and works on paper from the exhibition were donated to the museum’s collection. Several of these will be on view during the FASA conference, including works by Bill Traylor, Clementine Hunter, Mose Tolliver, Nellie Mae Rowe, James Harold Jennings, Carleton Garrett, Ned Cartledge, Roger Rice and Mary Proctor. In addition, the museum will display more recent acquisitions, including paintings by Florida artists Ruby Williams, Jack Beverland and Purvis Young.

Ruby Williams’ art was inspired by two worlds, the rural South and the urban Northeast. Her painting I Will Climb This Mountain is a result of her experience ministering to youth in an urban environment, but much of her work stems from her experiences living near Plant City, Fla., where she grows the fruits and vegetables that she sells at her stand off Highway 60, in the agricultural soul of the state. In 2005, a similar work was included in an exhibition at the Anacostia Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C. The painting’s message was inspired by the artist’s work with disadvantaged youth while living in Paterson, N. J. Her work, in turn, inspires us to achieve our best and to overcome life’s difficulties.

Other new additions to the collection that will be part of the Highlights exhibition are works by Dilmus Hall, Lonnie Holley and Brian Dowdall. Hall’s lively drawings created in graphite, ink and crayon depict passages from the Bible, especially from the life of Christ. While communicating his message, Hall guides us with captions that accompany the images and remind the viewer of the narrative. While resembling illustrations or even cartoons, Hall’s art may be connected to the tradition of medieval art, which he could have viewed in Europe while serving in the U. S. Army Medical Corps in W. W. I. Medieval sculptures and images communicated instructive passages of the Old and New Testaments to audiences with little or no knowledge of the written word, and Hall, from rural Georgia, uses drawings for the same purpose.

Lonnie Holley’s wire sculpture displays his aptitude for taking the castoffs of consumer culture and creating art. A critic for Art in America once compared Holley’s works to Alexander Calder’s famous wire sculptures. However, Holley’s pieces, often constructed from old coat hangers and other wire, relate to his own experiences and the people he knows, especially family members. Holley’s works have a social context and convey a social message.

Dowdall’s painting was created on the lid of a cardboard pizza box and, like Holley’s sculpture, incorporates recycled materials. Unlike many of the artists in the collection, Dowdall grew up in the American West. Animals, such as the grinning cat in the museum’s painting, inhabit many of his compositions. Dowdall describes himself as Òa born-again paganÓ and says that these works express his belief in animals’ spiritual qualities and his admiration for their natural, unmanipulated essences.

While Florida is the adopted state of Dowdall, it is the native state of painter Purvis Young. Young began making art and reading about historical artists and contemporary American mural painters while he was in prison. But his continued study at the public library and his experiences and observations of the gritty urban environment of Overtown — once one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Miami — fueled his imagination and provided the basis for his art. His paintings of the inner city, combined with symbolic figures and motifs, such as horses and angels, led to his being described as the “Poet/Angel” of Overtown.

A recently acquired, large-scale painting in the museum’s collection depicts Young’s interpretations of angels or elders that hover over the rest of the composition. Found objects, like the carpet remnants and scraps of wood that function as framing devices for various elements in this painting, proclaim that his appropriation is not just practical but symbolic. One section of the painting is jam-packed with trucks, which we can imagine are carrying goods on I-395, the Interstate artery that divides Overtown. The juxtaposition of people and buildings, like his compositional devices, communicates the discordant energy of the urban environment. Young’s work, like that of many visionary painters, combines his observations of reality with his own iconography.

Upon reviewing writings on the art and artists and looking again at their artworks, especially those in the museum’s collection, I am reminded of the compelling power of self-taught art — the rawness of emotion, the directness of its message and its spiritual component. The art displays pure creative expression relatively unaffected by current trends in the art world and the academy. While much inspiration comes from their own experiences, environments and everyday lives, these artists communicate universal messages.

The Book Pictured in my Mind is available for sale to FASA members HERE

JENNIFER HARDIN is the former chief curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Fla.

As seen in the Folk Art Messenger:

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