Small art galleries abound in Manhattan, and one of them—the AXA Gallery—is only a few blocks from America House. During the summer it featured an exhibit called “Testimony: Vernacular Art of the African American South.” I stopped by to see it several times, drawn by the work of largely self-taught African American artists, whose lives in many cases were marked by poverty and tragedy. Next to each of the works—paintings or constructions of wire, wood and various found objects—was a plaque with details of the artist’s life. This background information was meant to help the viewer understand how misfortune may have triggered a creative impulse that might otherwise have remained undeveloped.
One striking example of this released impulse was the work of a middle-aged Florida woman who signed herself Missionary Mary L. Proctor. A fire had killed three members of her family. Grief led her to embark on a 30-day fast, which in turn evoked a desire to express herself in art forms that focused on themes of salvation.
One theme concerns forgiveness. In her largest piece, “Blue Willow Plate,” the painted construction is actually a battered, full-sized door, with shards of a broken blue willowware plate glued to it. The painted background shows an almost life-sized black woman, the artist’s grandmother, holding the hand of a small girl, who is the artist herself. The story of the plate, written down one side, begins, “I remember when I broke my grandmother’s favorite blue willow plate.” Expecting to be punished, the girl instead hears her grandmother say: “I forgive you child, cause just yesterday God forgave me, and he said, ‘To get forgiven, one must forgive.”’
Religious themes appear in the works of others in the show too, and again their personal stories shed light on how misfortune, coupled with belief in God, can lead to impressive artistic achievements. Joe Light, an artist in his 60’s from Dyersburg, Tenn., had served two prison terms as a young man. We are told that during the second one, having “converted to a form of Judaism, he after his release painted messages on sidewalks and highway bridges.” Later he began using found objects to create yard sculptures, “despite the hostility of some of his neighbors who disapproved of that form of yard decoration.” His largest piece shows a mystical-looking bird high above a landscape through which a river is flowing, all against a black background.
Another artist, a devout Baptist, was a house painter. On a church-sponsored trip to New York City in 1968, he was impressed by the sight of sidewalk artists outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, some of them displaying copies of the works of old masters inside. After seeing the originals for himself, at home he began to adapt the religious subjects to his own style, including a version of Jesus in the temple in a quasi-Renaissance mode.
The artists in this show were lucky. They eventually discovered their gifts—albeit generally late in life—and went on to create works of merit. But the gifts of others have lain undiscovered—often because of poverty and class barriers. Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure both touch on this sad and unjust reality. Gray, for instance, meditates on the graves of obscure villagers in a country churchyard, among whom may lie “some mute inglorious Milton”—mute because his “humble birth” denied him access to education and condemned him to remain “to Fortune and to Fame unknown.” Hardy’s novel, similarly, tells the story of an intellectually gifted young stone mason whose social and economic class deny him the university experience that would have allowed his talents to emerge. He thus remains “obscure.”
The artists in the AXA exhibit might have undergone the same fate, but unforeseen circumstances—though painful—led them into paths of artistic self discovery. Missionary Mary L. Proctor, Joe Light and the house painter are among the fortunate ones: they and others in the exhibit uncovered their gifts. Many do not.