Ever since the categories of art brut and outsider art were first established decades ago, the work of women artists in a wide range of media — Aloïse Corbaz, Jeanne Tripier, Madge Gill, Anna Zemánková, Judith Scott, and more recent discoveries, such as Henriette Zéphir and Kazumi Kamae, among them — have played a central role in the public’s understanding of these related phenomena.
In the United States, in addition to Scott’s strange, yarn-wrapped, mixed-media sculptures, the work of such female outsiders as Lee Godie, Janet Sobel, and Sister Gertrude Morgan has become prized by collectors; in recent decades, in the Deep South, the Atlanta-based Souls Grown Deep Foundation has called attention to the creations of other self-taught women artists, especially those of African descent.
Mary T. Smith (1905-1995), a sharecropper’s daughter who began making paintings in the 1970s, is one whose achievements the foundation has highlighted. Several of her works have been acquired from this organization in recent years by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and other American institutions. Still, even though Smith’s works occasionally pop up at art fairs and in group exhibitions, larger, focused showings of her art have been less frequently presented.
Now, with the just-opened exhibition Mary T. Smith: I WE OUR at Shrine, a downtown-Manhattan gallery known for its outsider-art presentations, viewers have a rare opportunity to examine a large quantity of Smith’s paintings up close and in depth. (The show is on view through July 28.)
“Her name is Mary Tillman Smith, and she is someone,” the pioneering American researcher and collector William S. Arnett wrote about the artist in Souls Grown Deep: African-American Vernacular Art, an encyclopedic study of a wide range of self-taught artists from the American South that was published in two volumes in 2000 and 2001.
Thanks to Arnett’s research about Smith’s life and art, which he undertook starting in the 1980s, it is known that she was born and brought up in Copiah County, in southwestern Mississippi, an agricultural region that originally belonged to the Choctaw, a Native-American people, and whose economy was later developed with slave labor.
Mary, who was hearing-impaired from an early age, was the third of 13 children; she and her siblings helped their sharecropper father grow, pick, and pack vegetables. Given her hearing disability, she had a hard time in school but still managed to reach the fifth grade; as a child, she often spent time alone, drawing.
Smith later worked as a domestic servant for white families and was married twice, but it was with her third partner that she had her only child. Although Mary and that son’s father never married, he built her a house in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in which she brought up their child — and it was there that she discovered a sense of personal freedom, creating a home and transforming the yard around it into an open-air space for making and presenting her art.
Smith found cast-off lengths of corrugated metal at a trash dump and took them home, where she used an axe to split them into smaller units to make a fence to mark off her property. She also used corrugated-metal scraps to make sheds, tables, and benches, and painted many of their surfaces, along with stand-alone metal sheets of varying sizes, creating an art environment to express her vision of a world blessed by God’s benevolence and grace.
Deeply religious, like many of her peers in the poor, rural community in which she had grown up, Smith used her art to communicate her understanding of Christian theology and teachings. Like the roadside billboards that were inescapably visible from her property, the graphic character of her painted messages was simple and emphatic.
Slapping plain house paint with broad brushes onto metal or wood scraps, Smith portrayed Jesus Christ or the Holy Trinity in what modernist critical observers might call “reductivist” compositions. In them, little more than a few circles and lines could represent the Last Supper, for instance, or an old board outfitted with a chrome circle and a piece of metal bearing the word “HE” could become a minimalist portrait of Jesus.
Among the mostly untitled works on view at Shrine are several in which three figures appear, outlined, typically, with broad, brushy strokes, their facial details little more than dots and dashes. Elsewhere, as in the show’s title painting, “I WE OUR,” or “Untitled (Black Figure with Red on White)” (both c. 1980s, house paint and enamel on wood), such paint flecks and sputters conjure up more distinct looks — a scowl here, a penetrating gaze there, or, in some images, facial expressions at once inquisitive and diffident.
Smith’s palette often includes black and red, set against white or brightly colored backgrounds, although sometimes rich blue-grays or dark greens take the place of her form-defining black. A natural Pop colorist, occasionally she ditched her signature dark outlines, instead using yellow or other bright hues to shape her central motifs and create energetic compositions.
In these images, her drawn lines vibrate against their backgrounds; the subjects of “Untitled (Three Yellow Figures on Red)” (c. 1990, house paint and enamel on wood) seem to float into the foreground, while those in “Untitled (Three Red Figures with Blue on White)” (c. 1980s, house paint and enamel on wood) bound forward like dynamic cartoon characters eager to bust out of their frame.
Some observers may find in Smith’s handling of paint technical affinities with the bold, brushy strokes of such classic abstractionists as Franz Kline or the young Al Held. Others may be tempted to compare her work with that of a more mainstream art-world darling like Jean-Michel Basquiat, but while Basquiat’s art addresses a range of social, political, economic, and historical themes, Smith’s is more squarely focused on her Christian beliefs. (She once remarked, “I can’t hear nothing. I don’t need nothing. I got it all here. My church. The Lord Jesus.”)
As far as researchers know, Smith left no diaries or other writings that might contain illuminating commentaries about her art or her motivations for producing it. As a result, her paintings seem to invite viewers to consider them from a formalist perspective and to tease out whatever meanings they might be able to discern from their compositions, colors, and ambiguous subjects alone.
Still, the portraits she made of family members and neighbors, and many of her text-and-image works, do appear to speak for themselves. Like the painted slogans she placed throughout the deeply personal Gesamtkunstwerk she made of her home and yard, the written words her paintings contain often refer to religious subjects. Writing in Souls Grown Deep, Arnett recalled the sayings he encountered on Smith’s painted signs, including “The Lord No Me,” “I Love the Name of the Lord,” “Thank the Lord All the Way,” and, in one example of unabashed self-affirmation, “Here I Am Don’t You See Me.”
Like his father, William, Paul Arnett made numerous field trips throughout the South. He met Smith several times, and his research findings also fed into the Souls Grown Deep volumes. Speaking by telephone from Atlanta, he recently observed, “Despite her ferocious painting style, Mary T. Smith was gentle and welcoming. Unfortunately, because she was deaf, and some people were unaware of her condition, they wrongly assumed that she was developmentally impaired. In fact, she was an alert, active, capable person.” Noting that Smith’s house was situated near a crossroads at a main entry point into Hazlehurst, he added, “In many of her pictures, which could be seen from the road, her painted figures had their arms raised up, as if to welcome visitors.”
Smith stopped making art a few years before her death in 1995, by which time she had no income. When she died, as William S. Arnett explained in Souls Grown Deep, her family succeeded in finding “a distant friend” who was willing to “pay for an honorable casket and burial,” but that the funeral home whose services had been contracted “pocketed the [friend’s] money and buried [Mary] unceremoniously in a cheap pine box.”
Like so many of her self-taught peers, Smith grew up and lived her life without any privileges in a poor region of the US marked by anti-intellectual attitudes and institutionalized racism. Despite considerable hardships, she managed to survive and to develop a powerful artistic voice.
The unmistakable affirmation of life, creativity, and personal expression Smith’s art conveys cannot be separated from the severity of the circumstances in which, remarkably, it was born — and which, today, Republicans are marching in lockstep with their white-nationalist leader to maintain, starting with the suppression of voting rights.
The assertive, individualistic, essentially democratic spirit of Smith’s paintings is as enticing as their bright colors and bold, totemic forms. For some viewers, the fact that such resonant, humanistic messages flow from the heart and life experience of a woman may come as no surprise.
Mary T. Smith: I WE OUR continues at Shrine (179 East Broadway, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through July 28.
In a socialist society that practiced racial and economic justice, a genius like Mary T. Smith would not have to live in abject poverty. This woman was remarkable, her work is transcendent, and her spirit and philosophy were truly beautiful. It just goes to show the truth of what Stephen Jay Gould asserted when he said
“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”
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