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Inside the outsider art of African Americans

Darryl Pinckney is the author of "Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature" and "High Cotton."

What the father-and-son team of John and Alan Lomax -- white guys -- did for American music in the 1930s when the two went around the backwoods of the South recording black musicians and authentic blues, another father-and-son team of white guys, William and Paul Arnett, has done for contemporary American art, identifying and collecting since the 1970s vernacular art made by black artists in the South. Vernacular art is sometimes called folk or outsider art, because it is the work of people who have no formal training and, until 20 years or so ago, was not usually a part of gallery or museum culture. It was art made and exhibited in backyards, alleys, sheds and in modest homes, sometimes the houses themselves being objects of decoration. Its styles suggest that Zora Neale Hurston was not entirely wrong when she claimed that “the will to adorn” was an important feature of the visual culture of many black people in the U.S.

On her folklore-collecting expeditions of the 1930s, Hurston sent back to friends in New York descriptions of the art and artists -- sharecroppers, the formerly enslaved -- that she’d come across, but she hadn’t the time or the means to follow up on her discoveries. They came and went, these creative souls, presumably known to their neighbors and sometimes to whites from the other side of town, as in the case of the elderly artist of tense two-dimensional figures, Bill Traylor, who became friends with and was encouraged by the young white artist Charles Shannon in Alabama in the late 1930s. The social milieu, the racially segregated South, in which vernacular artists lived and worked was much studied and photographed in the politically radical ‘30s, but visual art itself seldom came into the frame, so to speak.

Maybe this had something to do with the focus on the oral and the aural as black culture’s real achievement, along with the assumption that poor artists should express themselves through socialist realism. Maybe it also had to do with the Works Progress Administration notion that folk art was educational, not commercial; the idea that folk art’s themes could be religious, but not progressive; and the difficulty that formally trained black artists had in getting recognition in the first place.

Nevertheless, vernacular art endured, and its practitioners proliferated and found new purposes in the postwar civil rights atmosphere. Black people asserted to the nation at large the worth of their true history, what they had been through, what they stood for. Blacks expressed themselves in visual media even in slavery, but the majority of such artifacts, from decorated jugs to quilts, were not preserved. The political movements of the 1950s and 1960s strengthened a sense of heritage and history. As black people became more conscious of their traditions from the New World and Africa, the authority of mainstream critical values was being eroded and people were finding more intelligence, aesthetic choice and deliberation in what had often been dismissed or patronized as naive, primitive, intuitive.

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The first major exhibition of vernacular art was “Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980,” held at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1982. Since then the art of Purvis Young, Jesse Aaron and Archie Byron, for example, has become more widely known. Thornton Dial Sr. had major exhibitions at two New York museums in 1993. The Kunstmuseum in Bern, Switzerland, and the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, gave an exhibition of Traylor’s work, “Deep Blues,” in 1999. But then Traylor (1854-1949), like the sculptor William Edmondson (1870-1951) and the painter Horace Pippin (1888-1946), had long been recognized in art circles, if under the category “self-taught,” as in Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson’s “A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present” (1993). What the Arnetts stress in “Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art” is that the genre continues to thrive and find new exponents, even among those who were born after the era of struggle against legal segregation in the South.

After an odyssey of discovery spanning three decades, William and Paul Arnett have produced two enormous volumes (with nearly 1,800 full-color reproductions) about this indigenous art, with a promise of more. In his introduction, Paul Arnett allows that “Souls Grown Deep” is “the first comprehensive overview of the recent history” of vernacular art. The catalog is a history, though it is not organized chronologically. “We have chosen as our guide and narrator the materials of the work: stone, concrete, earth, wood, paint and paper, then iron and steel, found-object assemblage, and other forms of bricolage epitomized by the African American ‘yard show.’ ”

These volumes developed from an exhibition of the same title of 26 artists in Atlanta in 1996. Although dealers have been setting up their tents at large venues in New York for a while, Atlanta has long been the hub for dealing in outsider art because, as several of the more than 100 biographical and cultural essays in these volumes on the work of some 70 artists point out, vernacular art is mostly a Southern thing.

Up until the 1950s, the majority of black people in the U.S. lived in the Southern states, the land of those who knew how to “make a way out of no way,” writes historian Vincent Harding in an essay included here, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. And so there is much emphasis here on strategies of expression, on either the use or the transcendence of codes, particularly among women, and on traditions since the 1970s. Amiri Baraka, who offers a rambunctious essay, set the terms of the study of vernacular culture as social history in his unsurpassed 1963 book on black music, “Blues People.”

Indeed, the essay included here on painter Mose Tolliver, whose work is abundantly represented in the Arnett collection, uses a musical vocabulary -- percussiveness, chromatic harmony and syncopation -- to describe the blues elements of his paintings. But for all the theoretical flight and challenge of some of the essays, the real interest of these volumes is in the full-color photographs and the biographies of the artists.

The art reproduced in “Souls Grown Deep” is drawn mostly from the Arnett collection, work done primarily in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. We get Ralph Griffin’s root and wood sculptures; James “Son” Thomas’ eerie portrait heads done in unfired clay, often finished off with artificial hair, glasses and human teeth; Jimmy Lee Sudduth’s renderings of dogwood trees in mud and paint on wood; and Alyne Harris’ gentle landscapes in acrylic. There are moving stories, like that of Nellie Mae Rowe, who could fashion pieces from chewing gum, costume jewelry, ribbon and ceramic tile. She recalled the sound of the rats gnawing to get to the flour paste that mounted her drawings to the walls of the cabin where she grew up. When she heard them, she jammed hatpins into the walls and left the rats speared until morning.

She came to the artist’s life late, as did Gertrude Morgan, who transformed her house into a showcase for Scripture. Bessie Harvey saw herself as a mere vessel. Her sculpture, inspired by what she saw in nature, had magic only because it came from God, she said. Religion is a frequent subject in this work, but these artists can also take their inspiration from popular culture, as Royal Robertson’s flying saucers in ballpoint and marker show.

It may be hard not to think someone like the reclusive Juanita Rogers, who communed with the spirits in her Alabama mud pieces, sculpture done in clay, bones and Spanish moss, a little mad. But the essay that accompanies illustrations of John B. Murray’s work in paint and marker on paper or Formica encourages us to compare his allegorical world and isolation to that of the obsessed people, cut off from the mainstream, who produced the work exhibited in, say, the Musee de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland.

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Art rescued some of the people who tell their stories in “Souls Grown Deep.” For instance, Lonnie Holley, who makes extraordinary assemblages, was sold for whiskey as an infant. His mother had had 27 children by the time he found her. In the meantime, he experienced much brutality in foster homes, juvenile detention and as a migrant laborer. “The freedom came when Mr. Arnett came,” he said. Holley realized in his late 20s he could turn his life around through art, though his determination cost him his marriage. Elsewhere in these volumes, we find the stories and art of elderly couples, people who worked, retired and then pursued life their way, their creative endeavors becoming a kind of testimony of their own lives and times as well as a form of remembering and reclaiming the past.

Sometimes vernacular art is a family passion. Thornton Dial Sr., born in 1928, cannot read or write and makes intricate sculpture and assemblages of wood or steel. Thornton Dial Jr., born in 1953, (Thornton Dial III is also an artist) shares some of his father’s themes, but he can be more overt. His brother, Richard, makes chair sculptures. Thornton Dial Sr.'s brother, Arthur, makes collages, executed in some cases in burlap, industrial sealing compound, enamel, cardboard, Bondo and plastic window blinds on wood. A cousin who died young, Ronald Lockett, was said to have found his “voice” in tin, with its properties of rust and oxidation, as he began to despair of the world at large.

Yard shows, a kind of site-specific art that evolved from the necessity of blacks’ having to make do with castoffs, matter here. Art historian Robert Farris Thompson likens the tires, plastic figures and objects in trees, features common to many yard constructions, to the charms, or nkisi, of the Kongo people in central Africa. One person’s junk is another’s symbolic reading of the cosmos. “Souls Grown Deep” features several yard shows, among them Tallahassee resident Mary Proctor’s automobile, decorated with buttons, watches, jewelry, anything she could find, and Charlie Lucas’ animals fashioned from welded metal strips in his yard in Pink Lily, Ala. Joe Minter’s Birmingham, Ala., yard is a memorial to African American historical figures. Joe Light’s Memphis house and yard are given over to religious exhortation.

To work with the castoff materials of society may be a tradition among blacks, just as the decorated interior may have come from the days when the poor in the South insulated their homes with newspapers and other materials at hand. But other traditions are more immediate and personal. Some of the artists represented in the Arnett collection use skills learned from parents and grandparents. Other skills have been picked up in kitchens or penitentiaries and from occupations such as welder, concrete mixer or carpenter. But for all the shared cultures and experiences, it is remarkable how individual the stories and works are. Each artist stands out, somehow. And as various are the interpretations of vernacular art, its sources and meanings, “Souls Grown Deep” serves to remind the anxious, hyped glut of the current cultural scene that art has no real reward outside of itself.

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