This lecture is part of the Divine Disorder Conference held February 24-26, 2015.
“Extraordinary Legacy; the Folk Art Collection of the High Museum of Art” by Susan Crawley
Susan Crawley: Good morning. First I’d like to thank Jason and the National Park Service for giving me the opportunity to tell you about the superb collection of folk art that’s here at The High Museum.
I’m going to talk to you today about how the collection got started, how it grew during the 1980’s and 90’s and with a focus on Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden because of its importance in The High’s collection, and also because you’re going there Thursday to see firsthand what’s being done to preserve it. Then we’ll go back to The High and talk some more about how the collection has grown during the past fifteen years.
The leading art museum in the southeastern United States, The High Museum of Art was founded in 1905 as the Atlanta Art Association. It was first housed in the family home of Mrs. Joseph High, Haddie High as she’s known to her friends. 1955 saw the construction of the first purpose-built building for the museum, next-door to The High house. In 1962, however, 122 museum patrons died in a crash at Orly Airfield in France, in Paris. They were at the end of a museum-sponsored tour of Europe. In their memory, the Atlanta Arts Alliance was founded with purpose of raising funds to build an art-centered memorial for the Orly crash victims.
In 1968 the Memorial Art Center opened housing The High Museum, the Atlanta Symphony, the Alliance Theatre, and the Atlanta College of Art. In 1983 The High moved out of the Memorial Arts building when the Richard Meyer building opened, which tripled the museum’s space. That building won many design awards, including a 1991 citation from the American Institute of Architects as one of the ten best works of American architecture in the 1980’s. In November 2005, the most recent expansion of The High Museum built 3 new buildings, which more than doubled the size of the museum to 312 thousand square feet.
The High’s facilities have grown to accommodate the museum’s growing exhibition programs and permanent collection. With over 14 thousand works in the permanent collection, The High Museum of Art has an extensive anthology of 19th and 20th century American art, a superb collection of decorative arts, including one of the most important collections of 19th century American art in the country, actually that’s the world. We also have significant holdings of European paintings, and growing collections of African American art, African art, modern and contemporary art, and photography. And as the leading museum in the southeast, The High is dedicated to supporting and collecting works by southern artists, and for almost two decades was the only major museum in North America to have a curatorial department devoted to folk and self-taught art.
Last fall, the folk art curator’s position at The High was endowed, and in the audience with us today, we have The High Museum’s 4th folk art curator, the inaugural Mary and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art, Katie Jentleson. Raise your hand Katherine. Katie starts her job in September.
The High’s first acquisition was by Mattie Lou O’Kelley, who was a memory painter who lived in Maysville, a small town in northeast Georgia. She began painting in her early forties, and in the early 1970’s she brought some paintings to The High Museum to show them to the director. Then-director Gudmund Vigtel didn’t think that they fit in to The High’s collection, but he found them attractive enough to let her sell them in the gift shop. In 1975, Robert Bishop, who was then director of the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, which is now the American Folk Art Museum, came to Atlanta and saw O’Kelley’s paintings in the gift shop and raved about them to Gudmund Vigtel, and convinced Vig of their quality and importance. So, as a result, Vig bought this one in 1976, making it the first self-taught art acquisition at The High Museum.
Things moved slowly after this initial foray into self-taught art, but in the early 1980’s, the museum made several important and, as it turned out, prescient purchases. Among them were thirty drawings by Alabama artist Bill Traylor. They were offered to The High in 1982. Then-curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Peter Morrin saw them in Montgomery and was bowled over by them. When he showed them to Gudmund Vigtel, Vig was also pretty amazed, so they worked together to raise funds to buy this packet of thirty works.
Thanks to Peter Morrin’s foresight, The High has the best public of Traylor drawings in the world, and is able to keep a few on display most of the time.
Also in 1982 came another great early acquisition, which was this William Edmondson “Nurse”. Sadly, it’s the only example The High has by this great artist.
In 1994, the year The High created the folk art department that also saw the culmination of a project that had consumed the area’s self-taught art enthusiasts. In the early 1960’s, the Reverend Howard Finster, a Baptist minister and visionary, had bought a swampy piece of land and drained it by hand. On the 2-acre site he constructed an environment that glorified God and recognized the accomplishments of humans. This environment, which consisted of wood-framed buildings, concrete structures and a plethora of concrete sculpture and paintings on board eventually became known as Paradise Garden. Finster became the best known of all American folk artists, having made TV appearances, designed a rock album, and hosted at least one rock video at The Garden.
In the early 1990’s a number of regional collectors became aware that someone was selling objects out of The Garden without Finster’s knowledge. Concerned that the contents of The Garden, everything that gave it it’s character would irretrievably dispersed, they approached The High Museum in 1993 about acquiring a group of Finster’s most important pieces for the museum. After a successful fundraising drive, in 1994 The High contracted directly with Howard Finster to acquire over sixty works from Paradise Garden, thus ensuring the preservation together of a significant group of objects from this renowned environment. Conservation of the objects from Paradise Garden was carried out by the late Tony Rajer.
The following few slides show some of these artworks in their original sites at Paradise Garden and in their installations at The High Museum. This is Finster’s sculpture of a mother and child, which is a portrait of dealer Jeff Camp’s wife and daughter. The TV in her abdomen show’s Finster’s own self-portrait behind the screen. As you can see from the image on the right, of the initial installation of the Paradise Garden materials here at The High, the black and white mural which was intended to highlight the original sculpture and give it context turned out to be rather visually distracting, so when we re-installed the Paradise Garden materials in our new location just before the expansion opened in 2004, we looked for another solution, and this is what we came up with.
Here you see the sign from the back entrance to The Gardens, which reads, “Trying to get people back to God before the end of Earth’s planet,” which pretty well sums up Finster’s mission in building The Garden. It’s now installed over a color, or less abstract mural that doesn’t depict the sign’s original site, but does instead convey something of the lush surroundings of The Garden in its heyday.
This image of The Garden’s raised art gallery, which Finster devoted to the work of artists who had visited The Gardens, shows the cutout painting Howard on a Mule in its original location. On the right you see it as it’s installed today, with other paintings from The Garden near another color mural that depicts one of the most crowded, riotous sections of The Garden. While it’s quite impossible to reproduce the experience of being in Paradise Garden, in the re-installation we try to give the museum visitors some hint of the sensory overload that characterized it, but as you can see here, the art gallery did look bare without Howard and the Mule.
A few misinformed have accused The High of causing The Garden to be dismantled, but the dismantling was already underway when the museum became in involved. The Paradise Project is the only reason any significant number of pieces from The Garden remained in the public domain, rather than being dispersed piecemeal into private collections. This is a corner of the embedded concrete work that separates the sidewalk from The Garden. Virtually everything original that was movable, like sign in the left hand image, has been stolen or removed from The Garden and sold.
Of course, the real vital thing that’s been removed from Paradise Garden is its creator, who died in 2001. Here, Finster is seen in an early photo, perched on his concrete sculpture of a huge shoe. It suggests the energy and whimsy that went out of The Garden along with him. Some of the larger structures, such as this shoe and the bicycle tower remain at Paradise Garden today. Some people familiar garden have always said that built on a swamp as it is, it would inevitably return to the earth, but you’ll see Thursday how much the Paradise Foundation has accomplished in reclaiming the land from the swamp, uncovering artifacts, and preserving structures.
So, back to The High Museum. The High’s folk art collection has been shaped through a series of important gifts that started with the paradise Project. During the fundraising period for the Paradise Project, two high museum board members donated money to enable the museum to purchase part of the 68 works in the collection of Andy Nasisse, who was an art professor at the University of Georgia, and who had traveled around the state collecting art for years. Nasisse presented the balance of the collection to The High as a gift. When one of those two board members, T. Marshall Hann gave his extensive personal collection of self-taught art to the museum in 1996, The High’s folk art collection became one of the top five in the United States. Under the arrangement, the museum selected 150 works to keep, and the rest were sold at auction to provide funds to buy other important works of self-taught art. Here you see two of the masterworks from the Hann collection by William Hawkins and Thornton Dial, and they were, in fact, part of Marshall’s original collection.
Atlanta Nellie Mae Rowe created an environment in her house and yard that she called Nellie’s playhouse, but today she’s best known for the brightly-colored drawings she created in praise of God. In 2003 and 4, her art dealer and friend Judith Alexander gave The High 130 works by Rowe to establish the Nellie Mae Rowe collection. Many of these are among the finest drawings she ever made. The collection includes not only elaborate finished drawings, but a large number of sketches that show how some of her formal ideas developed. Added to the twenty drawings The High already had, that gave the museum, by far, the largest collection anywhere of works by this renowned artist. Under the terms of the museum’s agreement with Alexander, a group of around twelve at a time of the Rowe drawings are displayed in a permanent Nellie Mae Rowe room within the folk art galleries.
In 2006, art historian Susan Larson Martin and husband Laurie Martin gave The High an extraordinary gift of 70 works in various media by Italian-born California artist Louis Monza. In early 2007, the museum celebrated that gift with an exhibition of 50 works, drawings, terra-cottas, and linoleum block prints.
The High Museum’s collection of folk and self-taught art is housed in several galleries on the Skyway Level of the Stent Wing. That’s the Richard Meyer building of the museum. Here you see some installation shots of the folk art permanent collection. The Nellie Mae Rowe room is on the left. Looking through it, with Louisiana Bendolph’s G’s Bend quilt visible through the window. The Rowe room, of course, being filled drawings, is rotated several times a year. Below that, you see the corner of an installation of paintings and an assemblage by William Hawkins. These are two installation shots of the light-filled Atrium Gallery that features works that are less light sensitive. At the top you see Finsters hanging outside the entrance to the Paradise Garden room. Finster’s “Gospel Bike” hangs over two sidewalk slabs from The Garden.
In the lower-right is a wonderful vignette with a horse sculpted by trained artist Deborah Butterfield. Behind it is a work by Lonnie Holley on the left, and Ronald Locket on the right. Holley and Locket had visited a collector here in Atlanta named Lenore Gold, and saw these works, along with a Holocaust memorial piece by Christian Boltanski, and were very much affected by both of those pieces, so both of them went home and did works that were inspired by the things they had seen in Lennie Gold’s collection. Then, the one that you see by Lonnie Holley … Is actually a memorial piece to Lenore Gold, who died in an automobile accident. It’s called, Finally Getting Wings for the 41st Floor. Her apartment was on the 40th floor across the street in Colony Square. Unfortunately, that piece does not belong to The High, but it’s on long-term loan from the Arnett family.
With definitive public collections of works by Howard Finster and Nellie Mae Rowe, Bill Traylor and Louis Monza, and very deep holdings in many other artists such as Mattie Lou O’Kelley and Sam Doyle, of Frogmore, South Carolina, Ulysses Davis of Savannah, Georgia, and Thornton Dial of Bessemer, Alabama, and William Hawkins, who was born in Kentucky and lived in Columbus, Ohio, and significant holdings in many other artists in terms of both quantity and quality, The High Museum has developed one of the finest collections extant of the art of the south. That also includes superb highlights from other regions of the US, including Felipe Archuleta and Charlie Willeto of New Mexico; James Castle of Idaho; and Martin Ramirez of Mexico, by way of California.
With that, I hope I’ve given you an idea of how The High Museum’s superb collection of self-taught art came to be. That concludes my talk. Thank you for your attention.
Susan Mitchell Crawley is an independent scholar and curator specializing in the fields of folk, self-taught, and outsider art. Her current project is a traveling retrospective of the work of the self-taught Ohio painter William L. Hawkins for the Figge Museum of Art.
For almost ten years, Crawley was Curator of Folk Art at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, where she organized the touring exhibition, “Bill Traylor Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts,” and contributed an essay to its accompanying catalogue, which she also edited. Her previous project was a traveling retrospective exhibition of the sculpture of the Georgia wood carver Ulysses Davis and its catalogue. Among her other projects were the exhibition Louis Monza: From Politics to Paradise (2007), and Southern Vernacular: Nineteenth Century Folk Art, an ongoing installation of vernacular furniture, pottery, and textiles from the High’s permanent collection. She created three new installations of the High’s Folk Art Collection galleries. Crawley curated a 2005 exhibition of the early work of the self-taught artist Jimmy Lee Sudduth for the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, which published her associated monograph, The Life and Art of Jimmy Lee Sudduth. Her essay examining contextual criticism of the Alabama artist Bill Traylor, “Words and Music: Seeing Bill Traylor in Context,” appears in Sacred and Profane: Voice and Vision in Southern Self-Taught Art (2007). She contributed the catalogue and artists’ biographies to Let it Shine: Self-Taught Art from the T. Marshall Hahn Collection (2000) published by the High Museum of Art.
Crawley received the M.A. in Art History from Georgia State University. She attended Agnes Scott College and received her B.A., with Distinction, in Art with Emphasis in Museum Studies from Rhodes College.