Contemporary Art

13 Black Folk Artists from the American South

Adam Oestreich 19 February 2024 min Read

The thirteen self-taught artists below, from Bill Traylor to Nellie Mae Rowe, Thornton Dial to Mary T. Smith among others, created some of the most powerful and beautiful works of art in the past hundred years. While either direct descendants of slaves, affected by Jim Crow or witnessing the Civil Rights Movement firsthand, these artists told stories that needed to be told, and despite being told that they may not fit in the art world, made it work anyway.

 

For almost one hundred years the United States has recognized African Americans in February to coincide with the birth of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. In that time, countless prominent Black Americans have celebrated the struggle and the strength and courage of Black people living in the United States who continue to persevere despite the racial tensions and divide that continue to affect the day-to-day lives of millions of people.

There is no better place and group of people in the art world to recognize than that of Black folk artists in the American South. Today and every day these Black folk artists deserve to be celebrated and recognized as not only great Black folk artists in the American South, but some of the best artists this country has ever seen.

1. Bill Traylor

 

black folk artists: Bill Traylor, Untitled (Radio), ca. 1940-1942, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., USA.

Bill Traylor, Untitled (Radio), ca. 1940-1942, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., USA.

Bill Traylor (1853-1949) is one of the greatest American artists of the 20th century. Completely self-taught, Traylor was born into slavery in 1854 in Benton, Alabama, and spent most of his life working as a sharecropper when, in the late 1930s, he wound up unhoused and living on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, drawing scenes of a bustling town on the backs of found pieces of cardboard.

His originality, storytelling, and emotion in each of the nearly 1,500 works he created in a ten-year time span will make the hair on your arm stand up. While there was a brief chance in the last years of his life that NYC’s Museum of Modern Art would acquire his works, ultimately, the museum’s then-director, Alfred Barr, known for his love of “primitive” artwork, passed. For decades, Traylor’s work sat in private collections, while today, his work regularly sells for tens of thousands of dollars, one previously owned by Steven Spielberg fetched half a million dollars.

There are not too many artists who were able to record life quite like Bill Traylor. He saw the emancipation of slaves, Jim Crow laws and Reconstruction, World Wars, the Great Migration, and a segregated Alabama that left him living on the streets of Montgomery into his 80s. Animals, men, women, fights, construction, drinking — Traylor painted a lot, he had seen a lot, and his works, which can be seen in countless museums across the country, leave behind a vibrant, complicated, and changing time seen through the eyes of many, but recorded brilliantly by one man.

AdVertisment

2. Clementine Hunter

black folk artists: Clementine Hunter, Masked Face, 1962, oil on panel, New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA, USA.

Clementine Hunter, Masked Face, 1962, oil on panel, New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA, USA.

Clementine Hunter (1886/1887-1988) was a self-taught folk artist from the Cane River region of Louisiana who lived and worked on Melrose Plantation. Clementine (pronounced Clem-en-teen), described as a memory painter who documented Black Southern life, had no formal art training after years of working at Melrose Plantation, a colony for artists and writers, picked up a paintbrush and started painting on anything she could get her hands on – windows, cast iron pans, jugs, wood, cardboard – anything.

After years of painting, and with the help of guests of Melrose Plantation, Hunter started selling her work. A sign would hang outside her home that said, “25 cents to loo,” and her paintings were often displayed ​​in the local drugstore where they were sold for a dollar. Her works are primarily very narrative, depicting important life events in her beautifully colorful pallete like funerals, baptisms, and weddings, with some scenes of plantation life like picking cotton or pecans. Hunter’s work can be found in the American Folk Art Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and a handful of U.S. museums, and has been described as “the most celebrated of all Southern contemporary painters.”

READ MORE: Five Black Female Artists Everyone Should Know

3. Nellie Mae Rowe

black folk artists: Nellie Mae Rowe, Peace and Happiness, 1979, crayon and marker on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., USA.

Nellie Mae Rowe, Peace and Happiness, 1979, crayon and marker on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., USA.

Nellie Mae Rowe (1900 – 1982) may be best known today for her colorful works on paper, but it was the home installations and sculptural environments that first garnered her attention and thrust her into the national spotlight, along with her collages, altered photographs, and hand-sewn dolls. Born to once-enslaved parents, Nellie Mae Rowe worked as a laborer as a child, was married as a teen, and was left widowed twice.

Despite a young life of hard work and pain, her works are extremely joyful, colorful, and full of life. Her home was transformed into a magical wonderland of art called “Playhouse.” It was a place that celebrated her friends, neighbors, and loved ones, full of artworks created with found objects, some even including chewing gum that she kneaded into creature shapes and chilled in the freezer that a visitor once recalled, “Everyone from architects to the local deliveryman who stop and stare, because it was an astounding creation.” 

black folk artists: Nellie Mae Rowe with Little Nellie // Photo by J. Wieland (1978), Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Nellie Mae Rowe with Little Nellie // Photo by J. Wieland (1978), Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

One of the first self-taught Black women celebrated for her artwork, she saw considerable nationwide attention and some financial success at the end of her life. In 1989, the Guerilla Girls recognized Nellie Mae Rowe along the ranks of Frida Kahlo, Edmonia Lewis, and Georgia O’Keeffe, and her work is in major museums across the country, with the High Museum of Art in Atlanta housing over one hundred of her sculptures, drawings, and paintings.

4. James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas

black folk artists: James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas, Skull, 1988, unfired clay, human teeth, rocks, aluminum foil. Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas, Skull, 1988, unfired clay, human teeth, rocks, aluminum foil. Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

James “Son Ford” Thomas (1926 – 1993) was an American gravedigger, blues musician, and self-taught sculptor. Thomas taught himself everything. He learned to play guitar and write music by listening to the blues on the radio while working in the field. While working as a gravedigger, he taught himself how to make skull-unfired clay sculptures, digging the clay himself out of the Yazoo River and using human teeth.

The skulls and unfired clay reflected his life as a gravedigger and his personal philosophy, “we all end up in the clay,” and the ugliness of each piece and the explicit nature of death in his work remind the viewer of mortality and make the audience reflect more deeply about life. On weekends, Thomas could be found playing music at numerous blues festivals in Mississippi or private events.

If you asked when James Thomas was going on, no one would know who you are talking about. But if you asked about ‘Son Ford’, a nickname he received as a kid because he would make Ford tractors out of clay in school, everyone in the South would know who you are talking about.

5. Thornton Dial

black folk artists: Thornton Dial, The End of November: The Birds That Didn’t Learn How to Fly, 2007, quilt, wire, fabric, and enamel on wood. Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Thornton Dial, The End of November: The Birds That Didn’t Learn How to Fly, 2007, quilt, wire, fabric, and enamel on wood. Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Thornton Dial (1928 – 2016) has one of the most impressive and stunning oeuvre’s of any artist you’ll meet, and fortunately, he lived to see his work enter the collections of some of the most prominent museums in the United States and be a part of the mainstream art world in unprecedented ways, defying what it meant to be a Black folk artist. 

What he does can be discussed as art, just art, no surplus notions of outsiderness required….And not just that, but some of the most assured, delightful and powerful art around.

Richard Lacayo, Art and Architecture Critic

Time Magazine

Dial’s work is a reflection of his life, tackling issues of racial oppression and injustices he experienced his entire life, living through Jim Crow segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. Part of the inspiration for his monumental large-scale work, which includes complex assemblages of found materials, came on a drive to Bessemer, Alabama, where his family relocated when he was twelve, and he noticed the large-scale works of metal and art in people’s front yards.  

Working as a metalworker at a plant that made railroad cars until 1981, when the doors closed, it was a few years later, as Dial continued to make work, that he was introduced to Atlanta collector and art historian William Arnett, and the rest was history. Since his work has been presented in the Whitney Biennial, in the personal collection of Jane Fonda, and in 2014, ten of his bold and captivating works of art were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

READ MORE: Black Contemporary Artists Everyone Should Know

6. Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers

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There is no quilt like a Gee’s Bend quilt. Considered some of “the most miraculous works of modern art America has ever produced,” these quilts stand alone in their style, color, and unique patchwork coming from a small but tight-knit community of African-American women in the South. The quilts shown here were donated to The Met Museum in 2015 by William Arnett, an American art collector of art in the South and the founder of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, an organization dedicated to the preservation and documentation of African American art from the Deep South.

Familiar names in the Gee’s Bend Quilting community, like Lucy T. Pettway, Annie Bendolph, Loretta Pettway, and Willie “Ma Willie” Abrams picked up these techniques and traditions from a long line of quilters who have lived in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, since the 19th century. True folk artists, the Gee’s Bend quilters often would quilt together, building an even stronger sense of community for a group of women who had already been through so much, together.

For over one hundred years, Gee’s Bend women have made quilts to keep themselves and their children warm in unheated homes that lacked running water, telephones, and even electricity. Things have improved, and through that time, these quilters developed a distinctive style, thrilling improvisation patterns, and geometric simplicity.

7. Mary T. Smith

black folk artists: Mary T. Smith, Jeuus No T [“Jesus Know”], 1987, paint on wood. Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Mary T. Smith, Jeuus No T [“Jesus Know”], 1987, paint on wood. Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Mary. T Smith (1904–1995) is another artist heavily promoted by collector William Arnett, who championed Southern self-taught artists like Nellie Mae Rowe and Thornton Dial, among many others. Born in Mississippi in 1905, Smith would use house paint on wood or tin to create colorful and expressive works of figures, some biblical, sometimes with abstracted text with lots of dots and dashes.

Taking up painting in her seventies, after turning her home and property into a “highly public form of spiritual autobiography,” or as some might put a beautifully decorated art environment, collectors eventually took notice, and Smith eventually couldn’t keep up with the demand.

Her work, once likened to that of Jean Michel-Basquiat, can be seen in many private collections and galleries across the United States and Europe. In 2022, her work was exhibited at the National Gallery of Art’s “Called To Create: Black Artists of the American South” exhibit and can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection.

8. William Edmondson

black folk artists: William Edmondson, Crucifixion, ca. 1932-1937, limestone, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., USA.

William Edmondson, Crucifixion, ca. 1932-1937, limestone, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., USA.

William Edmondson (1874–1951), born on the Compton Plantation in Davidson County, Tennessee, and was the first African-American folk art sculptor to be given a one-person show exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (1937).

He never really considered himself much of an artist when he began carving leftover limestone with chisels fashioned with railroad spikes. He was a laborer and began carving gravestones and biblical figures after a vision he had in 1932 in which he said, “Jesus has planted the seed of carving in me”.

Like many self-taught folk artists, it wasn’t until he was sixty years old that his work started getting noticed, although he never made any large sums of money for his work, which ranged in height from one to three feet. 

black folk artists: William Edmondson, Martha and Mary, ca. 1931–1937, both before and after conservation by Linda Nieuwenhuizen // Photo by Linda Nieuwenhuizen, courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, NYC, USA via artnet.com.

William Edmondson, Martha and Mary, ca. 1931–1937, both before and after conservation by Linda Nieuwenhuizen // Photo by Linda Nieuwenhuizen, courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, NYC, USA via artnet.com.

In 2019, art collector John Foster drove by a home in St. Louis and noticed a limestone sculpture on the front porch of a home. He drove back again a few days later with a hunch that this could be a piece by William Edmondson. After discussions with the owner, completely unaware of the “holy grail” they had sitting on the porch of their home, the piece was confirmed to be created by Edmondson, titled “Martha and Mary” sometime in the early 1930s.

The piece would later be bought by contemporary artist KAWS and donated to the American Folk Art Museum, in which he serves on the board.

9. Sister Gertrude Morgan

black folk artists: Sister Gertrude Morgan, Come in My Room, Come On in the Prayer Room, ca. 1970, tempera, acrylic, ballpoint pen, and pencil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., USA.

Sister Gertrude Morgan, Come in My Room, Come On in the Prayer Room, ca. 1970, tempera, acrylic, ballpoint pen, and pencil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., USA.

Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900 – 1980) was a self-taught African-American artist, musician, poet and preacher. Born in Alabama, she relocated to New Orleans in 1939 to begin missionary work, ultimately opening up a shelter for runaway children and teenagers in need of food and home. Her preaching consisted of singing and dancing, and in 1956 started only wearing white. Around that time and for the next ten years, Morgan is said to have been instructed by God to start drawing pictures of the new world to come.

Her works are interpretations of the Book of Revelation and illustrate her life dedicated to religion and her visions. With human characters created using very simplistic forms and no depth or perspective, Morgan used acrylics, tempera, ballpoint pen, watercolors, crayon, colored and lead pencils, and felt tip markers on anything she could get her hands on, including but not limited to paper, toilet paper rolls, album covers, scrap wood, and lamp shades. This, among other things like signing her works with names like “Black Angel,” “Lamb Bride,” or “Everlasting Gospel Revelation Preacher,” among other things, led her to be described anywhere from a naive or visionary artist to a folk or outsider. 

READ MORE: Black Feminist Photographers Fighting for Social Inclusion

10. Elijah Pierce

black folk artists: Elijah Pierce, Your Life Is a Book and Every Day Is a Page, 1973, carved and painted wood with glitter, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., USA.

Elijah Pierce, Your Life Is a Book and Every Day Is a Page, 1973, carved and painted wood with glitter, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., USA.

Elijah Pierce (1892–1984) was a self-taught wood carver who began carving at a young age using a pocket knife. He didn’t want to work on his father’s farm in Mississippi, instead wandering around in the woods carving names into tree trunks and carving little animals.

After leaving his home, traveling by freight train, and winding up in Columbus, Ohio, Pierce opened up a barbershop and lived a quiet life with his wife. In the late 1920s, as a gift for his wife, he carved a little elephant out of wood and changed the course of his life. She loved his gift so much that Pierce carved an entire zoo and kept carving every spare minute he had that he wasn’t cutting hair. 

black folk artists: Photo by Kojo Kamau, courtesy of the Archives of the Columbus Museum of Art, OH, USA via Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., USA

Photo by Kojo Kamau, courtesy of the Archives of the Columbus Museum of Art, OH, USA via Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., USA

Over time, Elijah Pierce’s subject matter turned to religious scenes from the bible, as he believed God had given him the talent to carve, and it was his mission to spread the word. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Pierce’s work started gaining the art world’s attention, in 1982, the National Heritage Fellowship awarded him the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the United States’ highest honor in folk arts. Today, his work can be found in the permanent collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the American Folk Art Museum, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, among others.

11. Bessie Harvey

black folk artists: Bessie Harvey, The Poison Of The Lying Tongues, 1987, found wood, cowrie shells, plastic beads, nails, and paint. Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Bessie Harvey, The Poison Of The Lying Tongues, 1987, found wood, cowrie shells, plastic beads, nails, and paint. Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Bessie Harvey (1929 – 1994) was an American artist best known for her sculptures constructed out of found objects, primarily pieces of wood. Bessie Harvey lived in intense poverty. Towards the end of the Great Depression, she started making art as a way to deal with life’s struggles and survive. What started out as small twigs that appeared doll-like evolved over time into rather complex works of art that included a plethora of materials, including found objects and paint, to create a wide range of characters that Bessie believed God gave her the power to see.

Finally being noticed in the 1980s and 1990s, with her work being more primitive than most self-taught artists, it was often regarded as mythical or related to some dark arts or spooky religions. Her vision and determination never waivered, as it was the pain and struggle that helped get her to where she was, and this was the motivation and perseverance that kept her going.

12. Sam Doyle

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Sam Doyle (1906–1985) was an African-American artist from Saint Helena Island, South Carolina. His colorful paintings on sheet metal and wood recorded the history and people of his community. Unlike many folk artists on this list, Doyle’s teachers, when he was young noticed his artistic ability and encouraged him to pursue his artistic practice.

Unfortunately, it would be another three decades after dropping out of school in the ninth grade and working odds and ends jobs before Doyle would start painting again. Using found materials and discarded materials, notably metal roofing and housepaint, he created a unique art style showcasing the strengths and weaknesses of his fellow residents, as well as African American legends and heroes like Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King Jr.

In the late 1960s, Sam Doyle retired from his day job and started painting daily. In 1982, his work was included in the “Black Folk Art in America” exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

13. Mose Tolliver

black folk artists: Moe Tolliver, Self-Portrait Of Me With Crutches, 1983, housepaint and marker on poster board with painted frame. Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Moe Tolliver, Self-Portrait Of Me With Crutches, 1983, housepaint and marker on poster board with painted frame. Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Mose Tolliver (1918/1920 – 2006) dropped out of school after the third grade due to a lack of interest, Mose Tolliver who was born around 1920 and worked a series of odd jobs most of his life in and around Montgomery, Alabama.

He started painting in the 1960s after a half-ton of marble fell off a forklift and crushed his legs, to fight boredom and alleviate the pain from his injury. Tolliver claims he was painting before the injury and refused to take lessons after, luckily, because he wanted to create and work in his own style. Painting in his bedroom, sometimes with the plywood or masonite on his bed, sometimes on his legs, Tolliver would paint up to ten vibrant works a day, anything from watermelon to animals, religious works, and women. Some of his pieces are not necessarily safe for work, with wildly creative titles like “Jick Jack Suzy Satisfying her own Self.”

black folk artists: SHRINE Gallery recreates Mose Tolliver’s bedroom at the 2018 Outsider Art Fair // Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Adam Reich

SHRINE Gallery recreates Mose Tolliver’s bedroom at the 2018 Outsider Art Fair // Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Adam Reich

Tolliver’s bedroom and work were beautifully recreated by New York based SHRINE Gallery at the 2018 Outsider Art Fair, and Tolliver’s pieces can be found in over a dozen major museums across the United States, likely hung up with his signature hand-crafted hanging device, a metal soda can ring.

Bibliography

1.

MY SOUL HAS GROWN DEEP: Black Art from the American South, Cheryl Finley, Randall R. Griffey, Amelia Peck, Darryl Pinckney, Metropolitan Museum of Art (2018).

4.

Nonconformers: A New History of Self-taught Artists, Lisa Slominski, Yale University Press (2022).

5.

OUTSIDER & VERNACULAR ART: The Victor F. Keen Collection, Victor Keen, Frank Maresca, Edward Gómez, Lyle Rexer, Hirmer Publishes (2019).

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