After only four years as a painter, Georgian artist Mattie Lou O’Kelley sold a piece called “Spring Vegetable Scene” to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. It was 1975, and O’Kelley was 64. Before becoming a professional artist, she had been a farmer, seamstress, cook, waitress, and millworker. With a ninth grade education and no formal art training, by any definition of the term O’Kelley is a self-taught artist.
O’Kelley is primarily a memory painter, meaning that she draws on past experiences to create her work. Her colorful, nostalgic paintings depict a rural life of farming, animals, and Southern society. “Spring Vegetable Scene” is significant in the history of the High because it is the first work of self-taught art purchased by the museum, and it was the inaugural piece in the folk art collection. When it was put on display at the High, the painting earned O’Kelley the admiration of an art collector named T. Marshall Hahn, a man who would play an influential part in her life. After seeing O’Kelley’s work, he commissioned her to paint many pieces, and the two became close friends. For the next twenty years Hahn expanded his art collection—which he had started in the 1960s—with pieces from self-taught greats such as Thornton Dial, the Reverend Howard Finster, and William L. Hawkins.
In 1996 and 1997, Hahn gifted the High 140 paintings, works on paper, and sculptures by more than 40 artists, all of whom were self-taught. The collection is particularly strong in the work of African American artists. His gift is the first major collection of self-taught art primarily from the South to be given to a general interest American museum.
In Let It Shine, a catalogue published in 2001 in conjunction with the first public exhibition of the Hahn Collection, Hahn said of self-taught artists from the South: “There are so many people in this part of the country who were relatively cut off from the rest of the country for so long. These people didn’t have a lot of others around telling them they couldn’t paint. They were just trying to tell a story that was burning to get out.”
Folk art at the High is more than just the Hahn Collection, but the museum’s chief curator, David Brenneman, says Hahn’s gift is what really got it started. “This is art that is unfiltered. It just comes out of someone’s mind and imagination, it hasn’t been processed by social conventions.”
What distinguishes self-taught art from other forms of fine art is that it is not in dialogue with art from the past, according to Susan Crawley, former folk art curator at the High. In art courses, aspiring painters and sculptors study the greats, they study form and color, and they polish their drawing skills. Farmers don’t. Neither do preachers, former slaves, laborers, or millworkers. “Even if it is simply a matter of not repeating what somebody else has done, that consideration of the past is simply not part of their process,” Crawley says.
Virtually all self-taught artists, at least early in their careers, create art solely for themselves. “There was no former professor looking over their shoulder and telling them bright colors are unsophisticated,” Crawley says. These are burdens (for better or worse) modern contemporary artists learn from training, and in some cases it restrains them. Self-taught artists are direct in their expression and, because the work is not theory-driven, it is more accessible to the general public.
It is also accessible to children.
The High has more than 14,000 works of art in its permanent collection, but the museum is also known for the magnificent buildings by architects Richard Meier and Renzo Piano that house the collections. On most days, you see orderly groups of school children walking through the museum’s collections, learning about nineteenth- and twentieth-century American and decorative art. But when they enter the folk art collection, the tone of the tour changes. The kids laugh, ooh, ahh, and point. Children seem to love folk art. This, however, is a point of contention among people who appreciate fine art. Some in the art world value folk art only because it appeals to children. But folk art has just as much to offer adults at all levels of artistic sophistication.
“Children seem to get it faster than adults because children have not been trained to equate accurate drawing with good art,” Crawley says. “Drawing is a skill taught and honed in art school and, a lot of these artists, their drawing skills are not highly developed but that does not mean that the work is any less powerful or expressive than someone who draws extremely accurately.”
Some self-taught art is beautiful and colorful, like the drawings of Nellie Mae Rowe. Some is haunting, like William L. Hawkins’ “All About Eve.” But few pieces leave the viewer feeling nothing.
“All About Eve” is a mixed media depiction of Eve in the Garden of Eden. A three-dimensional woman, jutting from the piece, has a snake coiled around her body. A tree is painted in the background. The piece combines many elements, including plaster, real women’s clothing, and a stuffed snake. This creative use of materials is common in self-taught art. “For most of them it at least starts because they don’t have resources and they use what is available,” Crawley says. “It adds a whole level of interest to their creations.”
Artists like Lonnie Holley take adaptive reuse a step further. Holley’s piece “Finally Getting Wings for the Forty-First Floor” is made of found metal, cloth, and plastic. It is on display in the High’s folk art wing, though it is not part of the Hahn Collection. “Some of them have turned adaptive reuse into a really philosophical part of their artmaking,” Crawley says. “Anything that is reused, at least philosophically, still carries echoes of its previous life and previous uses from the people who used it before.”
The High’s purchase of Mattie Lou O’Kelley’s “Spring Garden Scene” was one of the first milestones in her long and successful career. When she died in 1997 at the age of 89, she had consistently produced museum-quality work for more than twenty years and had become a household name in the art community. During her career, she was honored with a Governor’s Award in the Arts in Georgia and saw one of her paintings, a picture of a cat, reproduced on the cover of the June 1980 issue of Life magazine. Hahn was one of O’Kelley’s greatest supporters, and because of his gift, the High is home to the largest single collection of her work and today holds one of the most prestigious collections of folk art of any museum in the country.