Article by Margaret Day Allen
You could say that John Foster – artist, graphic designer, writer and member emeritus of the Folk Art Society of America’s Advisory Board – has very good luck, a very good eye, or both. He recently discovered what is being called “The Holy Grail” of folk art collecting – a long-lost limestone sculpture, Martha and Mary, by Tennessee artist William Edmondson. In 2008, he also played an important role in the discovery of the artwork of Edward Deeds, initially only known as The Electric Pencil.
Foster, who lives in St. Louis, Mo., grew up in North Carolina and earned a master of fine arts in painting. He worked as a professional artist for about 10 years. At that time, he said he found it necessary to change careers to support his family. He transitioned to being a graphic designer and art director. He said both these occupations helped develop his sense of what was good and important in art.
By the 1980s, about the time he began collecting art, he had become disillusioned with the fine arts world and began seeking something “more authentic and honest,” in his words. He was one of many who began collecting folk art during that time.
The first artist who attracted his attention was Howard Finster, who was receiving a lot of media attention. “I was enamored by his work. It was a vision of image and mark-making that I felt was inspired.”
Foster began reading about the field. One of the first books that influenced him was the catalogue for Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980, an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1982. He also was influenced by Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Art from 1940 to the Present, by Alice Rae Yelen, a catalogue for an exhibition of the same name at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1993. He subscribed to The Folk Art Messenger and traveled to many folk art exhibits throughout the country to learn more.
In 1994, Foster began attending the Outsider Art Fair in New York City, where he was introduced to many of the art brut artists that he would later collect. “I knew that I had found a place that I was comfortable with that inspired me,” he said.
In 1995, he and a few others founded ENVISION Folk Art of Missouri. He edited this group’s journal for 10 years. During this period, he often visited folk artists and interviewed them. Foster was naturally drawn into collecting folk art, and his late wife, Teenuh, was his partner in collecting.
Without her encouragement, he said he probably wouldn’t have purchased the mysterious drawings that he spotted on eBay during his lunch hour one day in December of 2008. As he scrolled through eBay listings, he spotted three drawings that caught his attention. They were unusual portraits on ledger paper from the State Lunatic Asylum in Nevada, Mo. He bid on the items and sent a message to the seller asking if he had more. By that time, the seller had pulled the listing, but he contacted Foster to explain that he had a lot more drawings by the artist. Because of the unexpected interest in the items, he had decided not to sell them on eBay, figuring they were worth a lot more than he thought.
Foster learned that the seller was located 280 miles away and wanted a very high price for this collection. He wanted to sell them as a group, and his price was firm. Foster said he would take them all if the buyer would hold them until he could get there to examine them in person. Foster contacted his employer, saying he would have to take the rest of the day off, got into his car and started driving.
Five hours later, about 6 p.m., he arrived at the seller’s apartment. Foster examined the portfolio of drawings, dividing them into piles of good, better and best. Fortunately, most of them were in the top two piles. None of the work was signed. He didn’t know if the artist worked at the asylum or was a patient there. He didn’t know if the artist was a man or woman, or when, exactly, the drawings were made. The seller explained that he had bought the portfolio from a man who had rescued them from the trash as a 14-year-old boy in Springfield, Mo., in 1970.
Foster asked if he could leave to get a bite to eat and think it over. He called his wife to inform her of the opportunity and to ask what she thought since purchasing the drawings would require them to dip into their retirement savings account. She replied, “If you can’t trust your eye by now, John, when will you?” Bolstered by her encouragement, he agreed to buy the 100 drawings, giving the man a down payment, and paying the rest of the money a week later.
“The reality was, I knew in my heart this portfolio of drawings was important. But, I had a full-time job, kids in school, and we were not wealthy.” After a few months of owning the drawings, he decided he shouldn’t have so much of his savings tied up in a portfolio of drawings by an unknown artist. So he contacted art dealer Harris Diamant, who had also been bidding on the drawings, and sold them to him. “Not being an art dealer, I simply was not prepared to do the work necessary to research the origins of the drawings and take them to the next level. I believed Diamant could do that. And he did.”
Diamant ran ads in Missouri newspapers until he found relatives of the artist, who was then revealed as Edward Deeds (1908-1987), who had been committed to the mental hospital as a young man and had spent most of his life there. His nieces recognized his work and provided photos of the artist, whom they had visited at the asylum. He learned that Deeds had given the drawings to his mother, but they were accidentally discarded when she moved out of her house. The drawings are now in museums and private collections throughout the world. There is a book about the drawings and their discovery, and a documentary film is planned.
The discovery of the Edward Deeds drawings could have been the highlight of a lifetime of collecting, but then, in 2019, Foster made another unlikely discovery. He and a friend happened to be driving down a shady street in St. Louis, when his friend pointed out a grimy, moss-covered statue on the front steps of a house. A few weeks later, Foster returned and knocked on the door. After a closer inspection of the 10-inch-high sculpture, he believed it was likely by William Edmondson.
He explained to the people who lived there, Sally Bliss and her husband, Jim Connett, that he thought the piece was an important folk art sculpture. Bliss’s late first husband, Anthony A. Bliss, had inherited the sculpture from his art-collector parents. His father, Cornelius Bliss, was the brother of Lillie P. Bliss, one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art. Sally Bliss knew the piece had been carved by an important African American sculptor, but at the moment had forgotten his name. “In New York, we kept the piece outside, on the terrace,” she said, “so when I moved to St. Louis, we did the same. We placed it outside on the bench in front of the house.”
Jim Connett said it was kismet that they had placed the piece in front of their house where it had sat undisturbed for 23 years. “Had we placed it in back, in our garden, none of this would have happened.”
Foster told them that the piece probably should be in a museum, and offered to help them find a place for it. The couple said they would have to think about it, so he left his name and phone number. When he hadn’t heard from them in a week, he drove back and left a note in their mailbox. They soon called, saying they had researched the piece and would like for it to be at a museum in New York, since Sally Bliss had lived and worked in that city for 50 years. Foster contacted his friend Valérie Rousseau, senior curator at the American Folk Art Museum. She traveled to St. Louis and confirmed that the piece was indeed by William Edmondson.
Its whereabouts had been unknown since 1938, when it was exhibited in a Jeu de Paume museum exhibit in Paris called “Three Centuries of Art.” Rousseau said she could tell it was the same sculpture shown in the exhibit catalogue because of a notch in the sculpture. The catalog listed it as belonging to Mrs. Cornelius Bliss. However, when the same photo was published in Edmund L. Fuller’s 1973 book, Visions in Stone: The Sculpture of William Edmondson, the caption listed it as “owner unknown.” Since this book became a reference for later scholars, it was assumed the sculpture had been lost.
“My heart jumped when I saw images of the work,” Rousseau said. “I knew instantly what it was. After I received snapshots of the sculpture and learned the ownership history shared by Sally Bliss, it left little doubt that it was one of the missing Edmondson works that ‘vanished’ many decades ago.”
She added: “A survey of Edmondson’s body of works, from various photographic sources (e.g. Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Edward Weston, Consuelo Kanaga) and publications, quickly allowed us to connect the dots. Such a rediscovery does not happen frequently. This acquisition was particularly exciting for a variety of reasons: it represents the rediscovery of a major sculpture hiding in plain sight; it led to research that revealed its fascinating provenance. In addition, the high quality of the object and the strength of the conservation process revealed an unaltered sculpture that has created renewed attention for Edmondson. Martha and Mary will join another Edmondson in AFAM’s collection, Lady with Muff, as well as Angel — a promised gift from Audrey B. Heckler.”
The artist and designer known as KAWS (Brian Donnelly), who is a member of the American Folk Art Museum Board, purchased the sculpture, making it a promised gift to the museum. The price was not disclosed. During Edmondson’s lifetime, his work never sold for much money, and many pieces wound up in people’s yards. However, the market has changed in recent years. One of his sculptures, “Boxer,” sold for $785,000 at Christie’s in 2016, setting a record for any work of outsider art.
Edmondson carved an estimated 300 pieces during a 15-year period, including tombstones, as well as figures from the Bible and prominent people in his African-American community. In the Bible, Martha and Mary were sisters who lived in Bethany and were friends of Jesus. In the Biblical story, when Jesus and his disciples visited them, Mary sat and listened to Jesus’s teachings while Martha hurried around preparing a meal. When Martha asked Jesus to tell Mary to get up and help, he responded by saying that Mary had chosen the better role. The story is usually interpreted as meaning that we need to pay more attention to spiritual things, and less attention to the distractions of everyday life. In the recently found sculpture, Martha and Mary are sitting together, apparently relaxed with their eyes half closed. Perhaps Edmondson was trying to show them receiving the spiritual truths of Jesus’s teaching. Edmondson is known to have carved several versions of this story.
When Foster first discovered the William Edmondson sculpture, was he tempted to buy it himself, possibly for a price far lower than its true value? “Not really,” he said. “I’m a collector, but I immediately knew I didn’t have enough money to buy something like that. I never even made an offer.” He said he felt, “Let’s just do the right thing, and let this piece find a proper home where it could be seen and enjoyed by a large audience.”
The newly discovered Martha and Mary, another Edmondson sculpture, and several works by Deeds will be a part of the American Folk Art Museum’s new exhibit Multitudes. This exhibit, celebrating the museum’s 60th anniversary, will run from January 21, 2022, through September 5, 2022, and will include four centuries of folk and self-taught art.
When the museum holds the exhibition, Foster said he plans to be there, savoring the recognition given to Deeds and Edmondson, as well as many other self-taught artists. “It’s all about doing the right thing,” said Foster.
MARGARET DAY ALLEN is the author of the book When the Spirit Speaks: Self-Taught Art of the South and a member of the Folk Art Society of America Advisory Board. She often writes about self-taught art.
As seen in the Folk Art Messenger: