Editor’s Note: This is part of the 2021/22 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators, and the second of three posts by the authorthe third of which will be an email-only exhibition sent to all Hyperallergic subscribers.

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Born in 1929, the Black autodidact sculptor Bessie Harvey created mixed-media assemblages from materials located in the woods surrounding her home in Alcoa, Tennessee. Harvey, who died in 1994, was guided largely through life by the teachings of the Bible. Her keen wit and unorthodox perspectives on her faith granted her access to sidestep dogma and dare to stand in undeviating opposition to the congregation as she contemplated racism and religion. The collective wisdom that she acquired through the diasporic Black American experience of womanhood, and of living within systems of racial segregation and associated economic retribution, informed her survival in an unconcerned white supremacist climate and also allowed her to recall her value and humanity, which she poured into her art. Faye Harvey Dean, one of Bessie Harvey’s daughters, discussed her mother’s life, art, and legacy with Hyperallergic.

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Frederica Simmons: So much of the scholarship on your mother focuses on fragmented quotations from her, or other people’s perceptions of her. This makes it impossible to see or understand the whole person. What was your mother like?

Faye Harvey Dean: Well, you know, nobody really understood the whole person, not even us. She was someone beyond us. I mean, she was generous. She was caring, giving. And she was very spiritual. Beyond her time. And very talented. She was a gift to us.

FS: Do you recall when your mother first began creating her artwork?

FHD: Sometime in 1974, after her mother, my grandmother, passed away, she started just doing little things to calm her nerves, just doodling around and not even realizing that she was doing art until sometime later.

Bessie Harvey, 1987 (photo by William Arnett, courtesy the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, used with permission)

FS: Did you or any of your siblings play any role in her art making? Or was it very individual, just for her?

FHD: Well, she did the art making, and she would always explain to us what she saw in a piece of wood or in a piece of tin or iron or whatever it might have been that she saw. And we all just kind of said, “Yeah, okay. Sure, Mom.” But she saw what she saw, and when she brought it to life, it was exactly what she explained to us that she saw. It was amazing.

FS: Your mother’s fierce intellect guided her to read the Scriptures with an intensive critical lens, which informed much of her creative work. How was this received by your community, your church’s congregation, at the time?

FHD: Well, actually, our community was the last to embrace her, simply because so many people did not understand her level of talent. She was known in areas around the world before this area — Blount County, near Alcoa, [south of] Knoxville, Tennessee — actually embraced her. It was after her death when everybody just kind of caught on, and it started to go, go, and go viral around here.

FS: Your mother was perpetually disturbed by the likelihood that, despite the role Black people play in the construction of America, the stress of attempting to survive in an unconcerned white supremacist climate obscure their vision of their value. How did she seek to prevent you and your siblings from experiencing this in your upbringing?

FHD: Honestly, we never saw things for what they were until we became adults and saw them out of our adult eyes. Simply because she was just that personality. She made everything wonderful for us as children. She was a storyteller in her own right. And she had such an imagination that she would take us places where we’ve never been before, and desire to go without ever going, if that makes sense.

Bessie Harvey in her home, 1993 (photo by Ted Degener, courtesy Ted Degener)

FS: Leslie King-Hammond wrote that your mother feels the behavior of each Black individual is felt by the international community of all Black people. The dolls manifest spiritual strength, while reflecting her sentiment that they are, also, a fallen race — subjected to enslavement and racism they lost their rank as God’s preeminent people. How do you think your mother would have believed that we could work toward changing this?

FHD: Well, my mother was pro-Black, but she loved everyone. She did have a desire and a yearning to reach out and teach the youth more about their heritage, simply because of slavery and the things that she believed in. Even as far as “Jesus,” in the way we’ve always seen him. There are things that she shared with her children that she didn’t share with the world, some things, and she did pieces that represented some of the torture and the brutalization of our people. 

She did a piece that’s so powerful. It’s called “A Thin Line or The Hanging Tree” (1984). I don’t know if you’re familiar with the piece, but on one side there was a slave woman who was nursing her master’s baby. And on the other side of the line, she was watching her son get hanged by her master for recklessly looking at his daughter. She had strong pieces like that. I do research on a lot of African culture. A lot of her work is so there — and she had never been there and knew nothing about it. Everything came from within, and for her to have known and displayed some of the things she did is kind of mind blowing, now that I think about it. But she loved Black people. Again, she loved everyone, but she loved Black people first. She did try to instill anything into anyone who would sit long enough to listen, and then display it in her artwork as a way of getting the attention of a lot of people. So yes, it was crucial to her that Black people found out the truth about themselves. Because everything we know, everything we’ve ever learned and been taught, for generations, was what we were taught by another race, not our own. So that that was her main focus.

Bessie Harvey, “A Thin Line or The Hanging Tree” (1984), mixed media assemblage (photo courtesy the Estate of Bessie Harvey)

Mom was who she was and stood tall in it. She had more people, actually white people [who were] all around her all the time, flying her here, and flying her there. They were the ones who really wanted her art, they’re the ones who really got her started. When she was noticed, she was discovered at her job at our local hospital. She would write poems and do small pieces and take them to work. She would be in the terminally ill patients’ rooms, either reciting poems off the top of her head or sharing a piece of work with them, anything to brighten their spirits. This particular day, one of the patients’ daughters came in, who was in the art world, and she saw one of the pieces that my mom had. She said, “Do you realize this is art, people will pay for this?” And that’s how it all started. 

She knew what was going on, she saw what was going on, but she stood tall in who she was. She was not intimidated. Of course, I felt that she was being taken advantage of by different minds in the art world, but she’s said to me one day, and I quote, “Faye, no one can take advantage of me. Those who think they’re taking advantage of me are taking advantage of themselves. I make my art from trees, God makes the trees. So who can take advantage of that?” […] She did her own thing the way she did it … she had a way of keeping things from us in her strength. And we all have that strength about us. I see it when I deal with my own children. I am 69 years old and my children think I can run a marathon, but they don’t know what I’m really going through. So I can tell you what I saw in her and that might not necessarily be where she was. 

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Frederica Simmons

Frederica Simmons is a Black American curator, scholar, and museum worker uplifting frequently overlooked narratives in pursuit of racial, gender, and sexual equity in art history.